Ph.D. student Mark Crowder (left) presented his mentor, Joey V. Barnett, Ph.D., with the Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award last month in Dallas. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

Ph.D. student Mark Crowder (left) presented his mentor, Joey V. Barnett, Ph.D., with the Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award last month in Dallas. (Photo by Tim Sharp)

As he recruited minority science students at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Joey V. Barnett, Ph.D., was inspired by a mentor who chaired the school’s Department of Pharmacology.

Lee Limbird always said science was so much fun it had to be shared — and she thought the more opinions at the table the better, Barnett said.

“It just made perfect sense,” said Barnett, who later applied that philosophy to the American Heart Association’s diversity goals. Last month he received the organization’s Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award for his volunteer work helping minority and underserved populations.

Barnett is a professor of pharmacology, medicine, pediatrics and microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt and vice chair of the Department of Pharmacology. He is also director of the Office of Medical Student Research and assistant dean of Physician-Researcher Training at the school.

Minority communities suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular disease. Attracting more African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority students to science and medicine benefits those communities and the field overall, Barnett said.

While historically black colleges and universities graduate the largest number of African-American students in the medical field, the number of students in biological sciences at these schools is declining. Furthermore, Barnett said, underrepresented minorities — African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans — are more likely to switch out of science majors or not pursue post-graduate work in science.

Barnett’s experience with the AHA goes back to boyhood, when his mother took him and his siblings along as she collected AHA donations door to door. Professionally, his connection took off in the 1980s, when Barnett’s boss urged him to be his liaison with the AHA. Barnett also received an AHA grant for his first research lab. He later served in numerous other roles including president of the nonprofit’s Nashville board and president of the Greater Southeast Affiliate.

Since the launch of the science plan to engage minority research students, the AHA has had an impact on thousands of future scientists and physicians. As a leader in the launch of a peer diversity program, Barnett has helped African-American students participate in a year of mentored research, experience international scientific conferences and explore medical and scientific career paths.

He’s also been a leader in the AHA’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Pilot Project, partnering with colleges and universities in his region so that multicultural scholars can conduct laboratory cardiovascular research.

One of Barnett’s proudest moments was when his affiliate board overwhelmingly agreed to fund programming to identify diverse men and women to pair with AHA mentors.

“We have to be very intentional about mentoring students,” Barnett said.

Many bright, capable minority students are interested in science and medicine, but sometimes, especially in the case of a first-generation college student, “a little encouragement” toward pursuing a career in the field may be needed, Barnett said.

“I think a lot of folks have maybe never pictured themselves being a scientist,” he said.

“We provide them an opportunity to see themselves doing it.”