I am pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Ericka Boone as the new director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce (DBRW) in the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER), and I am thrilled she agreed to take on this role, given her background, interest, passions, and work ethic. I am very optimistic that DBRW is in great hands. Through her efforts and in close coordination with other components across NIH and beyond, I anticipate her appointment will lead to substantive advancements in the wellbeing of the NIH funded extramural research workforce.
Read on to learn more about Ericka.
Grad student. Post-doc. Early career investigator.
Drawing on these experiences, Ericka Boone is determined to bring that perspective to bear in her new role as director of DBRW, where she will play an instrumental role in shaping the future direction of research training for the biomedical workforce.
“My ultimate vision is for DBRW to be in places where we at NIH are normally not seen,” Boone, who has a PhD in neuroscience from The Pennsylvania State University and has been at NIH for 13 years, said. “Most NIH funding is distributed to 10 percent of extramural institutions. What about the other 90% of these extramural institutions? Their contributions to the biomedical research workforce are just as valuable to advancing scientific innovation and discovery in this country. Oftentimes, our presence is not felt in these places, and I want us to fill that gap.” Ten percent of organizations have been receiving approximately 70% of NIH research project funding, while the bottom half have received well under 5% from 1998-2020; see Open Mike blog.
Early exposure to science as a career, access to effective mentorship, reducing access and funding inequities, and reducing barriers to achieving successful career transitions are the pressing needs of the biomedical research workforce, said Boone, who conducted research at Emory University in Atlanta and at the University of Illinois in Chicago as an early stage investigator.
“I want to pound the table on their behalf of early career investigators when they are not in the room,” she said, quoting public speaker and Wall Street powerhouse Carla Harris. “When early career researchers are moving from one career stage to another, I want to ensure they don’t get to the edge of the cliff and fall off.”
“Having those mentors is so important – to know how to navigate the grants process, negotiate salaries, navigate difficult conversations and difficult situations, expand professional networks,” Boone said, noting it was especially so for people like her — individuals that are from underrepresented groups in science.
As it happens, mentors and fortuitous opportunities played a role in shaping Boone’s future, or as she put it, quoting Oprah: opportunity met preparation. Take the Talladega College biology professor who saw her potential and chose her to attend a summer research program at NIH in the 1990s on genetics – it opened the then sophomore’s eyes to the possibilities of science and the wonder of NIH. There was also the chance meeting at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting with an NIH program officer who was impressed by her research and experience and when she was interested in transitioning into a new career opportunity away from academic research, encouraged her to apply to NIH.
Boone leveraged her growing professional and mentoring relationships as she applied to several NIH positions, ultimately accepting a position in 2008 as a health scientist administrator within NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications. Here she developed targeted initiatives to educate a variety of audiences about the science of addiction. More recently, Boone served as the director of the Division of Loan Repayment within the DBRW. In this role, Boone directed the NIH Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs), which are designed to attract and retain health professionals in biomedical research careers. In this role, Dr. Boone provided leadership, coordination and oversight of the NIH LRPs and was instrumental in enhancing awareness of the programs, establishing and implementing new policy and programs that not only enhanced the administration of the programs, but also better addressed needs of the extramural community, and NIH research priorities and goals.
At DBRW, Boone said she plans to build on the solid foundation laid by her predecessor with programs like the Next Generation Researchers Initiative. “DBRW has developed a reputation for supporting early-stage investigators (ESIs), and it is important that we keep a continued focus on this group. Why? Because we know that if we are not shoring up the pathway for investigators early on in their career, it will be very difficult for them to transition into being an established investigator and in ultimate levels of leadership within their institutions. We also need to continue to address funding disparities. We say that diversification of the biomedical research workforce – in various forms – is important to us. We have to make sure we are actualizing that.”
Speaking of diversity, Boone is also involved with UNITE, NIH’s initiative to identify and address structural racism. She is co-chair of a committee that is charged with evaluating and changing NIH policies, cultures, and structures to promote workforce diversity. Boone is also working closely with Dr. Marie Bernard, the Chief Officer of Scientific Workforce Diversity at NIH, who leads NIH’s effort to diversify the national scientific workforce and expand recruitment and retention. “The goals of Dr. Bernard’s office and DBRW intersect, so policies developed by DBRW can be informed by our engagement with them and vice versa,” she said.
Boone is active on the conference circuit. She not only presents on the NIH LRPs and research training and career development opportunities, but also developed a series of presentations on other topics that influence career development and progression. One popular presentation is on imposter fears, which she says can limit people’s own abilities to show up better and be more bold in their personal and professional lives. She cites the example of Shaquille O’Neal, the noted basketball player notorious for missing his free throws. “He is like 10,000 feet tall and he cannot shoot a free throw to save his life,” she said. “Is he worried about that free throw? No, he is more focused on all his championship rings. He is more focused on continuous development of other skills and opportunities including his franchises – he’s got a bazillion of those too,” she tells her audience. “He did not let that 1-point free throw diminish or hold him back and we shouldn’t let those 1-point free throw line concerns hold us back either.”
Boone also uses social media to build awareness and engagement regarding NIH programs. She has an active Twitter account , interweaving her official tweets with her personal experiences – because she believes “we should approach science and building scientific careers from a more human perspective […]. Building a career path is not always linear and life is not like Instagram. You take 1,000 pictures and you post the one perfect one. The totality of life is all 1,000 of those pictures. That’s what builds our careers, our lives and makes us who we are.” With this new position, look for her tweets from @DBRWDirector.
Boone said she is personally appreciative to be in a position at this stage of her career where she uses her personal and professional experiences to improve opportunities for early career researchers as well as those that are earlier in their educational journeys.
“I have the opportunity to be in a seat where I am able to more globally contribute to the successful navigation of an individual’s research career. I have the opportunity to help them accomplish their research goals, to literally pursue their dreams,” Boone said. “I look forward to the great things that this division is going to do, and I am honored to be part of that.”