Published: Aug. 2, 2021

Briana Aboulache and Karolin Luger win Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam fellowship, which looks to build a more inclusive scientific environment

Briana Aboulache, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, and her advisor, Biochemistry Professor Karolin Luger, have won a significant fellowship that aims to advance diversity and inclusion in science.

Aboulache and Luger are among 50 student-advisor duos to win a 2021 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam fellowships, the institute recently announced. The awards are bestowed to graduate students conducting outstanding research and their advisers, and are targeted toward those who are committed to building a more inclusive scientific ecosystem. 

Briana Aboulache

Briana Aboulache

For up to three years, each adviser-student pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000. This year’s fellows’ research includes studying how malaria parasite broods destroy red blood cells and trying to identify the source of pollution behind harmful algal blooms in a river used by the Seneca Nation and other communities.

“I was struck by the scientific maturity of these students,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education. 

“They’re all doing great science, and they can talk about it in a way that people understand.” What’s more, he adds, their advisers are serious and thoughtful about their role as mentors and their plans to create healthy academic cultures at their universities.

Aboulache is pursuing a PhD in biochemistry and is in her third year in Luger’s lab. She studies how the chromatin remodeling protein SMARCAD1 interacts with nucleosomes during DNA repair, transcription and replication.

Luger said she has always believed that training the next generation of scientists is her most important and primary task. 

We should expect to see talented students and scientists from underrepresented groups on college campuses and across all of science.​"

“One really good way to increase the diversity of scientists at all levels, be that academia, industry or outreach, is a tailored mentoring approach,” she said, adding: “I am so grateful to HHMI for recognizing this need and for providing me with the tools to become a better and more inclusive mentor.” 

She said she looks forward to meeting other colleagues and their students to make the scientific endeavor better reflect the general population.

Aboulache said she was “extremely honored” to receive the Gilliam Award. “I am excited to be surrounded by great scientists, leaders and activists aimed at producing cutting-edge research while also increasing diversity in the sciences.”

Aboulache praised Luger as an exemplary role model. “She is an excellent, highly motivated leader who produces remarkable science and also cares deeply about her students and lab members.” 

“As I continue to develop and mature as a scientist, I look forward to mentoring students in the lab and the classroom, and hope to one day go into teaching. I plan on instilling the valuable and effective leadership strategies that have helped me develop as a scientist to empower others to succeed,” Aboulache said. 

Noting her own work to foster an inclusive environment in science, Aboulache said she hopes to continue creating a work environment “where people take the time to understand each other’s point of view, build trust, and align in a shared mission to perform revolutionary science that is accessible to everyone.” 

Karolin Luger

Karolin Luger

She added: “My goal is to excite future generations about science and empower diverse groups to make meaningful impacts on the world.”

Mentorship is a Gilliam hallmark, says the HHMI, that’s sparking a “cultural shift” on campuses. Since its inception in 2004, HHMI’s Gilliam Program has worked to ensure that students from populations historically excluded and underrepresented in science are prepared to become scientific leaders. 

To retain as many of these students as possible in PhD programs, it’s crucial to provide high-quality mentoring, as well as financial support, an inclusive lab environment and a supportive community, Asai says.

In total, the Gilliam Program has now selected 351 fellows, and, from 2015 to 2021, the program has focused heavily on developing academic mentors. To date, the program, in collaboration with the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER), has trained 199 mentors on how to create an environment that helps students of all backgrounds feel like they belong—in the lab and in science. 

Gilliam advisers participate in a year of mentor development activities that emphasize cultural awareness, including monthly online training and two in-person workshops at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Together, the activities teach advisers how to listen and engage across cultures.

By training mentors and supporting the growing Gilliam community, the program aims to make the academic environment inclusive so that students see themselves in science. Eventually, Asai hopes, this will increase the diversity of scientists at the faculty level. 

“Diversity in science should be the norm,” he says. “We should expect to see talented students and scientists from underrepresented groups on college campuses and across all of science.”

Members of the Gilliam community also support each other outside of the annual meeting. Fellows regularly celebrate one another’s successes and provide updates on their career journeys on social media. 

And since 2017, the program has maintained a listserv where alumni and fellows can ask for career advice and post job opportunities. Even though some have never met in person, members of the community often answer questions and share their experiences. 

HHMI created the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study in honor of the late James H. Gilliam, Jr. A charter trustee of HHMI, Gilliam was a respected business and civic leader who spent his life nurturing excellence and diversity in science and education.