September 16, 2021

Elaine Alarid brings expertise, mentorship to young researchers

Elaine Alarid portrait
Elaine Alarid, PhD, professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Elaine Alarid, PhD, knows the importance of having a good mentor. From her earliest days as a budding scientist to her current position as a professor of oncology at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), Alarid says she’s always had someone in her corner, which has made all the difference.

“Part of my success has always been because I’ve had exceptional mentors,” she shares. “They really are what make people successful, no matter who you are.”

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that each year, dozens of graduate students come to her seeking advice or just a friendly ear. Sometimes they have questions about science, but often, they want to confide about other challenges they’re facing.

This responsibility is not exactly in her job description, but it runs in her blood.

When Alarid was a child, both of her parents emphasized the importance of education. Her father encouraged her to apply to the University of California, Berkeley, but he also was clear that getting a degree was about much more than the degree itself.

“My dad also has been forceful in saying that your education is not worth anything unless you use it appropriately,” Alarid recalls. “Both of my parents stressed that you’re supposed to use your education to have a broader impact.”

These sentiments stuck with Alarid as she completed her undergraduate and graduate education at Berkeley, and during her postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco and UC, San Diego. But it wasn’t until she joined the SMPH faculty that she found her way to really give back.

Influential experiences

Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Alarid was used to living in a racially diverse area.

“It was a majority Hispanic culture, but we also had a lot of influence from Native Americans and Anglo people,” she says.

During graduate school in California, she continued to be surrounded by other students and faculty of color, but coming to UW-Madison during the mid-1990s was a bit of an eye-opener.

“That was a big change,” she shares. “In particular, there were very few minority graduate students. And that’s when I realized there was something [we] could do to try and bring more diversity to the campus.”

One instrumental move was to remove the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score from the evaluation of potential graduate students in admissions to the Cancer Biology Graduate Program, which she co-chairs with Dan Loeb, PhD, professor of oncology. Landing a high GRE score has traditionally been a benchmark for admittance into a graduate program, but critics say the test is not a good predictor of student success and often shuts out students of color.

Rather than looking at GRE scores, Alarid began evaluating what she saw as the unique strengths of each candidate and determining how each one could be an asset to the program.

“That was all it took to make a difference,” she notes.

Recently, many other UW-Madison graduate programs have removed the GRE requirement for applicants. Alarid says the immediate impact of that move was striking.

“We got the most diverse graduate school class that we’ve seen in a long time,” she says. “And it wasn’t just recent graduates who applied. It was people who had been working in labs, who had all this experience, who didn’t go to graduate school because they thought they couldn’t get in.”

However, Alarid would be the first to tell you that getting diverse graduate students in the door is only half the battle. Keeping them—and mentoring them throughout the process—is where the work really begins.

Inspiring recognition

In 1992, Alarid was among a handful of post-doctoral trainees in the country to win a prestigious fellowship from the Ford Foundation, which aims to increase diversity in academia. While the fellowship provides many lifelong benefits, the annual conference of Ford Fellows is the highlight for Alarid.

“Every year, you listen to these hugely accomplished minority faculty members,” she says. “We’d talk about blockades that prevent more minority people from becoming faculty members, and discuss ways we can start improving [the system]. This taught me that leading by example is huge.”

Inspired, she began to get involved with state and national organizations aimed at supporting researchers from under-represented groups. She also began serving on the scientific advisory board for the Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars Program at UW-Madison, one of several communities on campus aimed at supporting graduate students of color.

Further, she started engaging in more one-on-one mentoring than she had done before.
Soon, Alarid’s students began opening up to her about school and non-school issues alike. Over the last year, she’s heard a lot about the challenges of remote learning, and she has helped students navigate feelings of social isolation during the pandemic.

“I spend a lot of time talking with students one-on-one about how they’re feeling, and if there’s anything that can be done to help them,” Alarid comments. “I bring those suggestions to whomever I think needs to hear them so we can make changes that make these students feel like they’re heard.”

Her goal is to not only get these students through graduate school, but to inspire them to go further. At a time when many people and groups are calling for colleges and universities to increase racial diversity among their faculty, Alarid says expanding the pipeline of potential candidates is incredibly important.

“My focus is getting people interested in doing PhDs, getting them through post-doc, and getting them all the way to a faculty position,” she notes.

Productive career

Parallel with this work, Alarid maintains a prolific research operation within the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research and the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Her work studying the molecular mechanisms governing estrogen receptor activity has implications for women with metastatic breast cancer and others with hormone-driven cancers.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her lab’s ability to fully conduct research, it has created an opportunity to devote energy and resources to issues of diversity and inclusion.

“We’ve had time to consider how to implement changes that we think are necessary,” she says. “I also believe that last summer’s emphasis on racial justice was a driving force to make changes and push the boundaries. We can do it. People are receptive to it, and they want us to be bold. That has been encouraging.”

Alarid plans to push for big changes at the organizational level—more cluster hires and aggressive recruiting of top minority candidates—but she’s laser-focused on keeping her current students on track to graduate.

She notes that, one day, those students will have survived the challenges of graduate school and become the next generation of faculty members with the potential to be somebody else’s mentor. This concept keeps Alarid motivated.

“Each of us has to find something in our work that nourishes our souls,” she reflects. “To be able to help students who have gifts and talents that often are not recognized and could be hugely important, that’s what nourishes me.”