Several efforts at Broad are trying to make STEM careers more accessible to people in underrepresented communities, but many barriers remain.
 

By

Namrata Sengupta

On his graduation day from a 12-week coding bootcamp, Mikey Neely discovered a bug in his app, just as he was presenting it to a group of more than 30 people. Anthony Losada was in the audience that day in 2019, looking for people to recruit for a software engineering role at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Losada, a software product manager with Broad’s Information Technology Services (BITS), asked Neely during his presentation how he could fix the bug. Losada recalls Neely diving in right away to troubleshoot the problem as the audience looked on. 

“Many other candidates also had glitches or bugs in their apps. But Mikey’s willingness to immediately switch from presentation mode into engineer mode was what struck me the most,” said Losada. “His approach was honest, seamless and fantastic. The most important thing for us, when hiring, isn’t necessarily about what you know, but how you approach things. Right then he went to the top of my shortlist.”   

Neely graduated from the bootcamp, called Resilient Coders, and was hired a month later by BITS. Neely has been an associate software engineer at the Broad since 2019 — his first full-time paid job in tech.

Mikey Neely, associate software engineer

Mikey Neely joined the Broad as a software engineer in 2019, his first full-time paid job in tech. Credit: M. Scott Brauer

Neely started working part-time at age 14 to support his family before transitioning to several years of full-time work at Whole Foods. During this time, Neely never forgot his childhood love of computers and gaming, and his previous experience building computers for a Boston youth organization. He wasn’t familiar with coding, but when he came across Resilient Coders — a Boston-based organization that teaches coding to young people from traditionally underserved communities — he thought "coding would be something that, if I put my mind to it, probably wouldn't be as scary as it seems." 

Resilient Coders changed Neely’s life. Before the program, Neely, who had not finished high school and never went to college, had assumed that the traditional STEM career path was not a possibility. 

Neely was able to launch a career in tech without a college degree, which is a requirement for many jobs. This kind of requirement is also an example of a systemic barrier that many people face when pursuing STEM careers. Such barriers have contributed to significant underrepresentation of certain populations, including members of Black and Latinx communities, in STEM careers in the United States. 

Organizations like Resilient Coders have stepped in to address these barriers and make science and technology jobs more accessible to underserved communities, by providing training, mentoring and networking opportunities. Many academic and tech employers, including the Broad Institute, are also trying to tackle these barriers in a variety of ways — from broader recruiting practices and partnerships with organizations like Resilient Coders to training and mentorship programs of their own. 

For years, the Broad has been expanding recruiting efforts to be more inclusive, and increasing access and exposure to research for middle school, high school and college students. The institute is also working with organizations like Resilient Coders to broaden its pool of candidates for jobs and internships. And the Broad is collaborating with historically Black and Hispanic serving institutions to raise awareness of the institute, look for promising job candidates, and help candidates with job applications and careers advice. 

These efforts are already showing some impact. In July 2019, Black and Latinx individuals comprised, respectively, 3.6 percent and 4.5 percent of all employees at the Broad. By August 2020, Black and Latinx representation had increased to 4.2 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively, corresponding to a roughly 27 percent increase in overall representation in one year. 

These efforts are just the beginning, as the institute continues to build a diverse, inclusive and equitable culture and community. The Broad recently described its current efforts in a report, Assessing Our Workplace—Part II: Black and Latinx People at Broad, as part of the institute’s commitment to being an anti-racist organization. 

In late 2020, Broad formed the Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Allyship, which is focused on creating an inclusive community at Broad, broadening Broad research to include underserved communities, and to boost the diversity of the next generations of scientists.

We spoke with individuals at Broad to learn more about some of the programs and initiatives that are aimed at building more pathways for Black and Latinx people into STEM careers. We explored what motivated these people at Broad to start these programs, the problems they are trying to solve, and the challenges that still remain to be addressed. 

 

Seeing oneself as a scientist

Since the Broad was founded in 2004, the Broad’s Office of Diversity, Education and Outreach (DEO) has been running educational and mentoring programs aimed at increasing the number of students, especially those from underrepresented populations, entering and succeeding in STEM careers.

Bruce Birren, Giselle Velez-Ruiz and Rachel Gesserman, Office of Diversity, Education, and Outreach

Bruce Birren (left), Giselle Velez-Ruiz (center), and Rachel Gesserman (right) are members of the Broad's Office of Diversity, Education, and Outreach. Credit: M. Scott Brauer

One of those students is Alton Gayton, who is now pursuing a PhD in virology at Harvard University. In 2019, he took part in DEO’s Broad Summer Research Program (BSRP), an intensive nine-week summer research opportunity designed for U.S. undergraduate students from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences. Over 80 percent of the program’s alumni have gone on to pursue biomedical research or graduate programs at top-tier institutions. Three participants have since been named Rhodes Scholars, and 12 have been named Gates Millennium Scholars. Alumni have gone on to pursue medicine, work in industry and academia.

Alton Gayton. Courtesy of Harvard University.

"My experience with BSRP was life-changing,” said Gayton. “I was challenged academically by two great mentors at Broad who trained my way of thinking for graduate school by supporting me to develop my own research question in a field that was new to me. Spending that summer with other people from underrepresented communities fostered a sense of belonging that I have been able to take with me into new environments. For me, BSRP cemented the belief that research is my thing, and that I do belong.”  

The Broad Summer Scholars Program is a similar program but is designed for high school students from the Greater Boston area to spend six weeks at the Broad. In both programs, students take on a research project, receive close mentorship from Broad scientists, and also attend scientific talks, career panels, and receive science communication training.

Bruce Birren. Credit: M. Scott Brauer

DEO designed the summer programs in 2004 based on published research on effective educational programs, said Bruce Birren, DEO’s founder and advisor, institute scientist and director of the Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases at Broad. He explained how the programs aim to help students build a sense of “science identity,” in which students start seeing themselves as scientists and also feel seen as scientists. This is further fueled by “self-efficacy,” where students learn to do the things a scientist does by practice and learning. Birren said the programs also show students that the “values” they hold are the same as those of other scientists. 

“These are three critical things — science identity, self-efficacy, and values — that drive people from historically excluded groups to persist in STEM,” Birren said.

Gisselle Vélez-Ruiz, DEO’s associate director, partners with Broad’s campus recruitment team to hire recent college graduates into the Broad Biomedical Post-Baccalaureate Scholars Program. This two-year program is designed to support students from underrepresented communities or those with a demonstrated interest in diversity and inclusion in STEM. It provides young researchers with academic and career guidance, advanced skills in scientific communication, and tools for graduate school applications. In addition, the program engages participants in discussions of topics such as scientific collaborations, ethics, support networks, stress management, diversity and inclusion, and the culture around science. 

Gisselle Vélez-Ruiz. Credit: M. Scott Brauer

Vélez-Ruiz says she and her colleagues are trying, through all these research training programs, to overcome a barrier that many students from historically underrepresented groups face — less access to opportunities. Achievements are seen as something critical for career success but they are possible only with access to opportunities, says Vélez-Ruiz — an obstacle she says she is all too familiar with.

“I know all the different things that I, as a Latina in STEM, experienced navigating STEM,” Vélez-Ruiz said. “That's something that influences my work within DEO. If I can help students navigate certain situations that I had to face or give them the skills to understand how to navigate these spaces that weren’t built with them in mind, that's really important for me and a big driver for all the work that we do and for all the populations that we work with.” 

Seeing other scientists

DEO has also built several K-12 STEM educational programs that run throughout the school year for students from underrepresented groups in Cambridge and across the Greater Boston area. These programs aim to show students that they belong in a place like Broad and in a field like biomedicine, by exposing them to various career paths and diverse STEM professionals at the Broad. Some of DEO’s programs are designed to engage middle-school children, who are nearing the age when they begin to make decisions that will influence their long-term careers.

“Going to school next to MIT doesn't necessarily mean our students will see themselves there,” said Noelani Gabriel, high school principal at the Community Charter School of Cambridge, a grade 6-12 charter public school that is working to close opportunity gaps for its students, who are mostly Black, Latinx and children of immigrant families. “However, interacting with people who work at MIT or Broad, who are doing things that they feel they could do, or having scientists from these places build partnerships with our teachers will certainly make our students feel like they can access that,” said Gabriel.

Participants in Broad's Bio-Coding Club

Cambridge middle school students work on a Scratch coding project as part of Broad's Bio-Coding Club in 2019. Credit: Len Rubenstein

DEO works closely with the Cambridge Public School district to run several outreach initiatives. One such program called Broad Scientists in the Classroom brings Broad scientists into every eighth grade classroom in Cambridge to connect what students are learning about genetics and evolution to research at the Broad. Another program, Broadie for a Week, invites local high school students to spend four days at the institute to explore what it's like to generate and analyze data and interact with a range of different kinds of researchers — in short, what it’s like to be a scientist. 

Broad’s Bio-Coding Club, a biology-themed after-school coding club for Cambridge middle school students, was designed by DEO in partnership with a Cambridge science teacher. Broad scientists and computational biologists work with students on their own biology-themed coding projects using a programming language developed for children called Scratch. The projects, paired with hands-on activities, help introduce students to what scientists do in the field of biomedicine.

Rachel Gesserman. Credit: M. Scott Brauer

"By partnering with local schools and educators to design these types of programs, we can make sure they have the intended outcomes of helping students see themselves in STEM," said Rachel Gesserman, who oversees DEO's K-12 programming.

The DEO team is also working to foster a culture among scientists that recognizes volunteering and mentoring as an integral part of academic life and not as just extracurricular activities. 

“We want our scientists to understand the importance of being an effective mentor for the next generation of scientists,” said Gesserman. “That will benefit students, the Broad, and science in general.”

Starting off as a scientist

Broad’s Campus Recruitment Program (CRP) has shown how more proactive and strategic hiring practices that increase job seekers’ awareness and access to career resources can open up more pathways into STEM careers, particularly for people who face barriers such as lack of access to career guidance. This, in turn, can lead to greater diversity in job applicants and new hires at an organization, particularly for early-career positions. The CRP was founded in 2016 to streamline the process of hiring recent college graduates as research associates and other entry-level positions in software engineering and computational biology. 

In 2018, the institute revamped the program in a variety of ways to increase the number of applicants from underrepresented communities. Recruiters adopted more inclusive approaches while writing job descriptions and assessing candidates. They addressed barriers to STEM careers by making it easier for candidates to be considered for multiple openings at Broad, increasing the candidates' chances of being matched to positions that are ideal for them. And recruiters focused their campus recruiting engagement efforts on colleges and universities with a higher percentage of underrepresented populations — including many institutions the Broad had never hired from before. 

“We were no longer focusing our efforts based on where we had hired from in the past and were intentionally looking for a more diverse slate of candidates to choose from,” said Tracy Cutone, Broad’s director of talent acquisition.

Broad's Campus Ambassadors

Members of Broad's Campus Ambassador Program meet with undergraduates across the U.S. to raise awareness of the Broad. Credit: Allison Dougherty

In less than three years, the CRP has attracted a more diverse group of early-career scientists to the Broad. Many of these new recruits typically work at Broad for two to three years and then move on to graduate school, medical school, or more senior positions in industry. 

Even with this success, the CRP team recognized that students still had limited awareness about Broad, particularly those outside of the Boston area. To further enhance recruitment efforts, the Broad started its Campus Ambassador Program in 2018. Prior to the pandemic, the program sent around 90 Broad researchers to more than 40 schools across the country to talk to undergraduate students about scientific careers at the Broad, and this relationship-building continued virtually in 2020 and 2021. 

“Broad can be a great place to launch one’s career and some students may not know that. Through our Campus Ambassador Program, we have been able to reach out to so many students who hadn’t heard about us before and grow the number of highly qualified new applicants,” said Katelynne Bazile, who led the campus recruiting effort, started the Campus Ambassador program, and is now program manager for strategic recruitment at Broad. She and other Broad recruiters currently focus their recruitment engagement efforts at institutions with diverse student populations, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. 

Katelynne Bazile. Credit: David Oluwadara

Recruiting a diverse group of young scientists means more than just proactive outreach. Bazile says many students don’t have access to the right kinds of career advice and resources they need to present themselves as strong candidates for STEM jobs. This lack of access to career guidance specific to science and technology is yet another barrier to STEM careers that many face.

To address this barrier, Bazile and her team engage applicants not just at a career fair booth, but also through workshops they host on resumes and job search strategies. They provide detailed feedback on resumes and advice on how to improve job applications for STEM positions, even for people applying to non-Broad positions. 

“If students see someone else is really engaged in their development, they’re more likely to push forward in their career path,” said Bazile. 

Bazile and colleagues still face challenges though, including convincing people from other parts of the country to move to the Boston area. “When I visit these campuses in the South, and then ask students to come up to Boston, Massachusetts — which is known historically as a very racist city — it is a huge culture shift for them. Some of them have never left their own state,” said Bazile. “The Broad aspires to be an amazing and safe space for everyone, and we can make the space as inclusive as possible, but the moment that they leave the building, it's a very unique challenge for them. That is something that has been extremely difficult for us to address. As a Black woman, I understand that. We recognize these challenges and ensure that we support job applicants as they navigate these barriers. We try to connect applicants with fellow incoming Broadies and current Broadies to help their onboarding process run smoother and to have a sense of community when they move to Boston.” 

Building bridges

Overcoming systemic barriers to STEM careers can be challenging to do as a single organization. That’s why Broad is working with other groups, including Resilient Coders, to accelerate progress.

David Delmar Senties founded Boston-based Resilient Coders in 2014 to bridge the gap between what he calls the “two Bostons” — the burgeoning STEM industry in Boston that’s hungry for new talent, and the young people from the city’s low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, many of whom don’t have access to higher education.

“This means we have tech career opportunities that are accessible to a small percentage of the Black and Latinx population in this city, which locks out the rest from Boston’s high-growth economy. That is both morally and economically unsustainable,” said Delmar.

David Delmar Senties. Credit: Andy Laub

Resilient Coders aims to get young people from underrepresented communities ready for good-paying jobs that will survive the fast-growing tech economy. Broad encourages hiring managers to consider candidates from this program and other talent pools for software engineering jobs.

The program is open to people with no college degree or coding experience, pays attendees a stipend, and selects only a small fraction of its applicants. In 2019, the program placed 85 percent of the roughly 60 graduates in software engineering jobs, and even during the pandemic, 14 of the 18 members of the spring 2020 cohort got jobs. Delmar recently set up a similar program in Philadelphia and is planning to start one in Pittsburgh as well.

Jhonny Peña. Credit: Jenissa Aybar

Broad collaborates with another job-training organization called Year Up, which trains people irrespective of their educational background, income, or zip code in a variety of tracks. The Broad has recruited five interns from the program to work in IT since 2019, and has hired three of them directly as full-time employees. Out of a team of 12 working on the IT service desk, seven are Year Up alumni, including Jhonny Peña. “Through Year Up, I have gained mentors who have helped me with my professional development. The program also taught me that I don’t need to wait to be asked to pull up a chair to the table — I now pull up my own chair to the table and include myself in important meetings about our team,” said Peña, a senior desktop support specialist who joined the Broad in 2018. He adds that programs like Year Up are critical for helping to shrink huge opportunity divides. “Ever since I graduated from Year Up in 2018, my life changed in a way I thought was only possible in movies.” (Hear more from Peña about his journey.)

“When we partnered with Year Up, we decided we wanted to set up a career path, and not just fill one-off positions. Our goal was to build a pathway from internship to potential full time roles,” said Nicky Munnelly, who as a recruiter with Broad has been encouraging hiring managers across Broad to work with groups like Year Up. Munnelly is now manager of onboarding and employee experience at Broad. 

Munnelly and her HR colleagues are now exploring ways to hire for a greater variety of roles through organizations like Resilient Coders and Year Up. And they acknowledge that the Broad’s work in tackling systemic barriers to STEM careers is only just beginning. They continue to work with hiring managers to find ways to remove barriers and make sure that biases are not creeping in.

At the Broad, Mikey Neely’s work last year as an associate software engineer shifted to support the increased needs of Broad workers as they were transitioning to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic. Now he has turned back to software development. After more than a year at the Broad, Neely says he now feels settled. “I feel like it's all coming together now. I definitely was kind of lost for a little while, but it's good to be back on the right track. I want to learn and be knowledgeable in software engineering as much as I can,” said Neely, who continues to look for more training and learning opportunities at Broad. “I’m just trying to be like a sponge right now, taking in as much information as I can.”

If you are a high school student in the Greater Boston area or an undergraduate student in the United States, take a look at summer research internship opportunities at the Broad.

For senior year undergraduate students looking for research associate or computational biologist positions, learn about full-time job opportunities at the Broad. Learn more about Broad careers for recent college graduates here.

Learn more about working with Year Up (volunteer opportunities; hiring graduates) and Resilient Coders (volunteer opportunities; hiring graduates).