2020 will be remembered as the year that a novel viral pandemic and the protests galvanized by the death of George Floyd disrupted modern society. These events, while seemingly unrelated, confirmed the ongoing impacts of racism and inequality in societal opportunities and healthcare across the world.
The biomedical research industry has its own stories of wrongdoing, appropriation and racism, as may be seen by examining the story of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical tumor biopsy was the source of the immortal HeLa cell line. HeLa cells form a cornerstone of modern medical research, and yet the cells were taken without the knowledge or consent of Mrs. Lacks. Many modern drugs, treatments and protocols developed using HeLa cells did not provide for any compensation to her family.
In 2010 The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was ‘formed to provide assistance to individuals & families involved in historic research without their knowledge or consent. And in 2020 the foundation announced it had received several donations (from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Dr Francis Collins, among others). These donations are the beginning of the acknowledgement of the fundamental (and previously unrecognized and uncompensated) role HeLa cells have played in modern biomedical research and pharmaceutical production.
Here at Nanostring® we are taking a multi-faceted approach to actively embody our company values both internally and with customers. We know all biotechnology companies rely on a diverse workforce to invent, develop, manufacture and release their products, and Nanostring is no exception to this. To actively embody our company values we created the Nanostring People of Color and Allies (nPOCA) Employee Resource Group (ERG), a place where underrepresented and minority employees can speak about their experiences and make recommendations for company outreach. One recommendation from the nPOCA ERG was the creation of the Nanostring Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) nCounter® Grant.
In the interview below, Saima Habib co-chair of the nPOCA (NanoString People of Color and Allies) ERG and Director of Field Application Scientists for North America and APAC discusses the goals of the nPOCA ERG and the Nanostring RCMI nCounter® Grant.
What is NanoString nPOCA ERG?
NSTG: Tell us about the Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at Nanostring.
SH: Our ERGs at NanoString were created to represent the diversity at NanoString so employees from different backgrounds could connect and learn from each other. Our leadership team facilitated the creation of ERGs based on employee feedback and engagement. Having ERGs at NanoString instills a sense of belonging and helps to maintain a culture of empowerment, thereby prioritizing the employee experience.
NSTG: What is the mission and vision of nPOCA?
SH: Our mission is to connect NanoString employees of color and their allies to our global network both internally and to the community at large. This allows us to foster a sense of belonging, to learn from each other, to share ideas, resources, and opportunities. Our vision is to continue to be a business and community leader in equality and to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace.
NSTG: What concrete steps has the nPOCA ERG taken to accomplish these goals?
SH: Currently we have 75 members in our ERG which is open to all our employees globally. We meet monthly and create a safe space to share stories, thoughts, and opinions. In addition, we use Microsoft Teams to engage members so they can easily learn, acknowledge, and share information at their convenience.
Externally we have participated in several college outreach and recruiting events allowing nPOCA to engage with our community. We also have participated in an internal financial seminar and are in the process of coordinating a volunteer day for our employees. We have created awareness within our ERG about volunteer opportunities and businesses that could use our support and have also shared resources to encourage more diverse hiring practices as well.
nPOCA has hosted multiple educational workshops within our organization to promote learning and understanding of different backgrounds. We have also engaged the NanoString employee base in professional learning opportunities they may not have had access to otherwise.
The nPOCA RCMI grant program was our contribution to the research community to reach minority institutions that may not otherwise have access to using our technology.
NSTG: How will the grant support program help?
SH: The nPOCA RCMI grant program has given the opportunity for researchers at 18 minority institutions across the USA to leverage NanoString’s nCounter gene expression panels to help achieve their research goals. In addition, we are offering our services to process samples here in Seattle to provide data for insights into their respective areas of research.
Role of nCounter Technology in the grant support program
NSTG: Can you tell me more about NanoString’s nCounter® technology?
SH: Our nCounter platform is a simple and cost-effective solution for the multiplex analysis of up to 800 RNA targets in a variety of different scientific applications. I would say flexibility and focus are the key benefits here as we provide our customers the opportunity to either utilize premade commercially available panels or we can create custom solutions to help them achieve their research goals.
Our nCounter technology allows access to results without the need for amplification, cDNA conversion, or library prep with 15 minutes of hands-on time and can have results and publication figures ready quickly and easily. This allows many scientific questions in multiple application areas to be answered quickly and easily.
NSTG: What are Future Plans to Engage with Researchers in Minority Institutions?
SH: Our future plans involve enabling our grant winners to meet their research goals and for them to have the opportunity to partner with us to share their science broadly. We also are making a concerted effort to help educate scientists online with NanoString University (also known as Nano U). Nano U was created during the pandemic in our efforts to train our customers remotely. It has grown into a valuable opportunity for researchers from all backgrounds globally to gain expertise with our nCounter and GeoMx technology.
Next year, we are planning to explore the possibility of a future grant support program with our cutting-edge spatial biology technology (GeoMx). This would allow nPOCA to expand our grant support program offering to minority researchers in hopes to make GeoMx available to them as well.
Working with the RCMI has been a great opportunity and experience for NanoString to provide broader access of our technology to individuals that may not have had the opportunity to utilize it. It has also enabled us to connect with minority researchers and build awareness around our technology. We hope to continue to work with our grant winners and see where their research takes them and expand this program in the future.
To know more about grants, visit our grant support program page.
For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.