In Conversation: Marcia Fournier, PhD, Founder and President of Dimensions Sciences

By Sarah Ellinwood
April 4, 2023

The United States offers a plethora of opportunities to grow and establish yourself as a scientist, but the roads to get there aren’t equal for everybody. Marginalized groups face a particular set of challenges, especially if someone is from another country. Language can be a barrier. Finding funding can be a challenge. Student visas have strict requirements. It’s hard to find friends or mentors to help you. The list goes on.

Thankfully, though, there are leaders out there who are working to change that, many of who understand the challenges first-hand as they themselves are immigrants.

BioBuzz had to chance to chat with Dr. Marcia Fournier, who currently leads a non-profit organization called Dimensions Sciences.

The organization offers support to budding scientists from underrepresented communities through scholarships and mentoring programs. Together, Marcia and her team are working tirelessly to promote diversity in the sciences and further equity, international collaboration, and innovative research efforts.

Now going into its fourth year, Dimensions Sciences boasts the following accomplishments, according to their most recent Impact Report:

  • 69 beneficiaries of scholarships, awards, and mentoring across 5 countries
  • 150 blogs published, totaling over 18,000 views
  • 105 videos produced
  • Over 2,400 hours of volunteering

Recently, Marcia was one of two recipients of Women In Bio’s competitive Inclusion Grant and will be formally recognized at the 5th Annual HERstory Gala on April 27.

Since the HERstory Gala is right around the corner, we wanted to learn more about the organization and the impact it’s having.

Tell us more about Dimensions Sciences – what was your inspiration for starting it, and what does it offer to the community?

I came to this country to do my doctoral research at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. It was a three month scholarship that changed my life – 26 years later, I’ve been through various life science sectors, from academia to industry to government and nonprofit pursuing my scientific career.

Throughout my career I would think back to how much support I got from my mentors and supervisors at all stages. My doctoral and postdoctoral mentors were particularly amazing, especially as an immigrant woman in science. Having those role models was the catalyst for my whole career, and I wanted to see how I could give back.

I noticed that there are so many fantastic scientists out there, especially those from underrepresented communities, who are on the fence about leaving graduate school because they didn’t have the support to continue. In many cases they didn’t have a stipend or salary – it happens way more often than you’d imagine. We saw this urgent need both in the U.S. and abroad, and from that Dimensions Sciences was founded on November 21, 2019.

We offer a handful of different awards and opportunities – one of our most popular is the Dimensions Sciences Bridges program, which provides scholarships and mentoring for scientists from underrepresented backgrounds who are performing life or health sciences research and are currently working without monetary compensation in Brazil, the US, or internationally. We do a call once a year in the summer for applications. Our first cohort was in 2020 and was comprised of seven scholars working on COVID-19 research. Since then, all of them have been hired in either academia or industry sectors.

The program starts in the fall and runs for 12 weeks – in addition to monetary support, scientists come together to attend workshops, career development, and networking opportunities. For example, one of the things we do is provide a forum for scholars to present their research in a safe environment outside of their institutions and get feedback from their peers.

The experience so far has been amazing, and we are now going out for our fourth cohort in 2023.

What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had so far in leading Dimensions Sciences?

Since we’ve been running for several years now, we’re really starting to see the impact we have on the scholars who come through our programs.

For example, one of our scholars was doing his doctoral research at UC Davis, but his degree was through Rio de Janeiro University. When he finished his research and went back to Brazil to finish up and defend his thesis, he found out his scholarship was no longer there. He was the first one in his family to pursue an advanced degree and almost at the finish line. And this was all during the peak of COVID, mind you.

Dimensions Sciences helped fund him to get to the finish line – he not only defended and published, but he’s now a consultant to the UN on infectious diseases. Seeing these scholars be successful – that’s what really drives us to do what we do every day.

What have been your biggest challenges thus far?

Having worked in a for-profit industry, one of the biggest challenges has been finding money. I was a former founder and CEO of a biotech company, Bioarray Genetics – I was able to raise funds for the company through angel investors and venture capital (VC). All of that in mind, I was not prepared for how hard it would be to raise money for a non-profit. There isn’t an equivalent for angel investors or VCs for nonprofits – you depend on applying for grants and asking for donations, and every single grant or donation we get, no matter how small, helps.

Besides finding funding to do what we do, we’re also a 100% volunteer organization and have full time jobs. It can be challenging at times to self-motivate and keep the team engaged

That said, volunteering has also been a huge learning experience for me. After three years I feel like I’m getting into a good rhythm, but that came after a lot of challenges. I’m able to apply what I’m learning to how I manage my teams in my day job as well, which has been really helpful.

Last year you received one of Women In Bio’s Inclusion Grant. Tell us more about the award and how it will help in Dimensions Sciences’ mission.

The Women In Bio Inclusion Grant was established as part of WIB’s commitment to advance inclusion efforts in the organization’s chapter cities, including the BioHealth Capital Region. The grant award totals $1,000, which is a big help considering that it costs around $2,000 to support one of our scholars. It was an honor to receive this support, and I plan to use the money to help fund our Bridges scholarship program.

I was awarded the grant in 2022 and will be recognized at the upcoming WIB HERstory Gala on April 27. I’m very much looking forward to an evening of celebrating with my friends from around the DMV!

We want to help! How can people get involved to volunteer for Dimensions Sciences?

Just reach out to us through our website! You don’t have to live in the BioHealth Capital Region to get involved – we have volunteers from all over the country as well as internationally. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people who are also passionate about helping minorities in STEM succeed.

There are several different committees people can volunteer on, including:

  • Content writing
  • Social media
  • Website and newsletter contributions
  • Grant writing
  • Donor relations
  • Peer-review application selection committee

If you want to make an impact but don’t have time to volunteer we also accept donations of all sizes. No matter if you’re able to contribute $5 or $50, every little bit helps in helping us provide resources for these scholars.