When Maiya Picott, BS, MS, Laboratory Instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences (MLS) was recruited from a predominantly white institution to consider a career in laboratory sciences, she had been considering another program and career path altogether. But a pitch to her from Melissa Jamerson, PhD, MLS(ASCP), Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of VCU’s MLS Department sealed the deal. “From the second I met Dr. Jamerson, she was super invested in my journey, and I could feel the genuineness of my interactions with her. I felt like there was nowhere else I would want to go to school because I was so welcomed and invited,” says Ms. Picott.
Ms. Picott, who had already acquired a bachelor's degree, obtained her master's degree in MLS at VCU, is currently pursuing her PhD there, and is also employed by the department.
VCU’s MLS program does an excellent job treating prospective students as individuals, and recognizing their unique journeys and backgrounds, and then providing them with the resources they need to grow and succeed, Ms. Picott says.
Another defining moment for Ms. Picott, an African American woman, occurred at VCU when she had an African American instructor—the first she’d had in her entire academic career. “When I saw this instructor who has a PhD and was doing research, it really hit home for me. I wanted to pursue my PhD and teach and be that role model that I was able to have. I didn’t realize how important it was for me until then because I had never had it.”
Dr. Jamerson points out that VCU has the advantage of recruiting from diverse academic pipelines, such as Virginia State, which is an historically Black college or university (HBCU) and the Monroe Park campus of VCU. Students of many different backgrounds and ethnicities find representation in faculty and other students.
Additionally, they participate in a program known as PRIME, “Prehealth and Related Interests Mentoring Experiences” which is largely run by students. “The students bring in people from different programs to talk to them and do an information dinner,” Dr. Jamerson explains. She adds that they take every opportunity to engage with students and get to know them personally and professionally.
Ms. Picott echoes the importance of this in her decision to both attend as a student, and eventually work for the MLS program. “[The faculty] understand that we’re all still learning and say, ‘I would like to learn more about who you are,’ and not just assume that they’re doing enough. That means a lot.”
“One of the things that helps with inclusion is that when we have open houses or tours, over half of the technologists and medical lab scientists are graduates of our programs, and we’ve had a diverse student population for many years. So, they get to see a lot of people who look like them who are successful in a career in the medical laboratory,” says Bill Korzun, PhD, Associate Professor in the MLS Department.
Additionally, VCU’s MLS program offers unique educational access in rural South West Virginia, based in Abingdon, where the coal and tobacco industries were the main employers for some time. “We’ve been able to get involved in funding projects that bring higher education to those areas, to retool them for careers doing something else,” Dr. Korzun shares.
Teresa Nadder, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CM, Chair of VCU’s MLS Department, explains how the program transmits lectures daily from the Richmond campus to Abingdon. “Rural Virginia is very different from urban Richmond, so you’re really getting a different type of student. This is where the mingling of the thoughts occur. We try to involve them as much as possible.”
In addition to continuing education training that all faculty must take on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the current Dean assigned an associate dean’s position specifically for DEI. “Recruiting faculty members that you know will fit in and communicate well with the students is very important. We’ve been very lucky,” Dr. Nadder says.
For other programs hoping to improve their DEI strategies, particularly around student recruitment, Ms. Picott offers, “It’s important to go into communities and introduce people to this field at an earlier age. Advocacy of this field, in general, is important, because it’s behind the scenes, especially to youth in underrepresented communities. We need to let them see this is an option for them where they’ll be included and welcomed.”