The Value of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging for the Scientific CommunityNews Video
We hear a lot about the importance of promoting diversity and creating inclusive cultures in the workplace, but why does it matter for science? Why should scientists bother to fight for these values in their own spheres of influence? As part of NYSCF’s annual conference spotlight on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), we convened a panel of leading DEIB advocates to discuss the benefits that building inclusive environments can bring to research, labs, and scientific progress writ large. Panelists engaged in a stimulating discussion that outlined actions that individuals and institutions can take to build a more inclusive and diverse STEM community, underscoring the critical roles of mentorship in promoting the retention and wellbeing of trainees from underrepresented communities, the responsibility of institutions in ensuring accountability for detoxifying environments, and the need for more training on mentoring skills. Read on for a summary of the key takeaways from the discussion, and watch the full panel below.
Panelists: Johnna M. Frierson, PhD (Duke University), Ashton Murray, PhD (The Rockefeller University), Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD (Friedman Brain Institute), and Christina Termini, PhD (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center). Moderator: Raeka Aiyar, PhD (The NYSCF Research Institute).
“The NYSCF conference is such an outstanding showcase of successes in science, but we need to ask ourselves: what goes into those successes? For so many of us from minoritized backgrounds, it takes a lot more to succeed and thrive, because we do not have a level playing field,” said Raeka Aiyar, PhD, NYSCF’s Vice President of Scientific and DEIB Outreach, to kick off the session. “That’s why Susan [Solomon, NYSCF Founding CEO] prioritized inequity as a mission-critical obstacle for NYSCF to remove, because progress will be slowed until all the best minds have equal opportunities to succeed.”
A Persistent Problem
Today’s scientific enterprise is dominated by a demographically narrow group: in the US, two-thirds of full-time employed scientists and engineers are White, and one-half are White men (1). Women make up 51% of the total population yet are underrepresented in science and engineering jobs (38.5%), are paid less, and experience attrition rates (19.5%) that are much higher than for men as they move up the career ladder (1,2). These imbalances have rippling effects, influencing who participates in science, who sets research agendas, who receives funding, and ultimately, who benefits from science.
“I believe that intelligence, creativity, and brilliance are equally dispersed amongst the population, and if we don’t have folks from every population at the table, then we’re missing out,” remarked Ashton Murray, PhD, Chief Diversity Officer & Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The Rockefeller University. “The problems that science seeks to answer are far too hard to leave any brilliance on the field.”
Different Motivations for Advocacy
“I started off my academic journey as a basic scientist, and that environment was extremely isolating for me as one of few people of color,” noted Johnna M. Frierson, PhD, Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for the Basic Sciences at Duke University. “Along the way of advancing through my studies, I realized that I wanted to be part of the solution and help combat some of the myths that people from various backgrounds do not belong. I knew that I wasn’t unique in the sense that I had the skill, enthusiasm and passion for science.”
“I’m Hispanic, I’m first generation, I’m from low income, I’m a woman. I have this intersectional identity where I really never knew anybody like me. I never knew a scientist growing up,” added Christina Termini, PhD, Assistant Professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. “During my PhD studies at the University of New Mexico – a Hispanic serving institution – I would see many of my classmates not make it through where they wanted to go, and it was not because they weren’t skilled, but because they did not have the mentorship or resources.”
“I grew up in an interracial, interreligious home, where conversations over the dinner table were opportunities to see that difference could be something that made us stronger and not tear us apart. And that led me to wanting to professionally study and engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion,” shared Dr. Murray.
“I grew up in New York, white male, Jewish. There are many of us, and it was not hard for me to find mentors just like me throughout my career. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that I realized that I did have privilege, and I did have opportunities that many people have not had. So I’ve worked very hard in the last decade to try to make a difference,” noted Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience and Dean for Academic and Scientific Affairs & Director of the Friedman Brain Institute.
Applying a DEI Lens to Mentorship
Mentorship can play a decisive role in the experiences of junior scientists and their ability to succeed, and is one of the most rewarding experiences highlighted by panelists.
“Mentorship is a wonderful way to advance equity. Within your own sphere of influence, regardless of the setting that you work in, that’s something that you directly have control over: how you choose to lead, and how you choose to set an example for trainees. We need to be more thoughtful and considerate about how we want to structure our mentor-mentee relationships,” stated Dr. Frierson.
Panelists shared concrete strategies for inclusive mentorship, including having conversations about how identity shapes experiences in STEM, having a network of mentors, and different types of mentorship for different purposes.
“Building out your mentoring network can be a really crucial way to create more inclusive mentorship,” remarked Dr. Termini. “Just because your advisor doesn’t look like you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a mentor that looks like you who’s in another sector. Maybe there is someone who helps you with other situations that are non-scientific.”
“Shadow mentoring (i.e. unrecognized mentoring relationships outside of traditional mentor roles) is another crucial form of mentorship,” continued Dr. Termini. “I have students come to me with very sensitive problems that maybe I would only understand because of situations that I’ve gone through, but I’m not going to necessarily put them on my CV as someone that I’ve mentored. Oftentimes students will not make it through if they don’t have that shadow mentor who’s helping to push them through in the background.”
“I help folks to build environments where they feel safe and comfortable having conversations that go beyond just the ‘how’s your science doing’ to the broader parts of our identity,” added Dr. Murray. “What the research shows is that when mentees are in environments where they feel like they can bring their whole selves, where they feel like their race or gender is not off limits, and they have a mentor who they can talk to about these factors, they are more likely to thrive and persist in STEM.”
Collective Action: Strategies that Institutions Can Take
Systematic advancement of DEIB in our community requires institutional action at the level of policies — panelists highlighted several examples that go beyond recruitment to creating inclusive environments and changing reward structures.
Dr. Aiyar presented NYSCF’s recent successes in amplifying DEIB elements in our grantmaking. These include rewarding DEIB advocacy with mandatory commitment statements, accounting for hardship with optional self-identification statements, and eliminating reference letters to reduce reviewer bias.
“We’ve used the mandatory DEIB statements to tier applicants and their progression through the review process, and we were pleased to find that the scientific merit scores correlated with the strength of the DEIB contributions,” explained Dr. Aiyar. “Our data clearly shows that the best scientists are those who value diversity.”
“At Mount Sinai, we’ve been dramatically successful in recruiting outstanding Black and Hispanic faculty in tenure track research positions over the last couple of years. But while bringing people to campus is one goal, it becomes a challenge to make sure that everybody brought to campus succeeds,” remarked Dr. Nestler. “We conducted a climate survey about life on campus. White men were happy, white women were a little less happy, but people of color were a lot more dissatisfied. They reported not feeling supported, feeling invisible, and being scrutinized by security… so we have taken a methodological approach to undo all those things and make sure that the atmosphere is welcoming and nurturing for everybody.”
“In terms of the tenure process, institutions need to think about how mentoring can be quantified in a way that provides equity to the mentors as well. We need to find and build better metrics to quantify mentoring such that these mentors that are oftentimes behind the scenes but doing the most important work are actually recognized,” noted Dr. Termini.
Since most advisors are never taught how to run a lab or be a mentor, institutions can also contribute by providing formal training for mentors and intervening when mentoring relationships do not respect healthy boundaries.
“We’re putting together an obligatory course on how to be a mentor that every faculty member who supervises a student or postdoc will be required to take. The goal is to consciously teach people the aspects of what it takes to be a good mentor in a way that’s sensitive to different people’s backgrounds,” said Dr. Nestler.
“I think courses will only work if mentors take them seriously. One thing that my institution is doing is not allowing mentors who have a documented record of being toxic to take students ever again,” remarked Dr. Termini, citing the University of Washington’s DEIB policies. “That shows there is at least some punishment for toxic relationships that unfortunately we’ve all heard of.”
“I’m a very big proponent of a curriculum called Entering Mentoring that was developed by the National Research Mentoring Network,” added Dr. Frierson. “It’s an evidence-based curriculum that comprises a lot of activities around case studies and discussion prompts that are specific to the scientific research environment and that you might come across as a mentor.”
Towards Systematic Change: Strategies for Course Correction
How do we amend systems that are deeply rooted in discrimination like racism and sexism? How do we educate leaders and people in positions of privilege to become allies? Keeping an open dialogue about DEIB issues, dismantling harmful narratives, and reconsidering about how currency in science (e.g. authorship, funding) is assigned are among the solutions that panelists outlined.
“My view of allyship training is less on fixing people and more on fixing systems. When I am giving training I focus on debating the dominant narratives that we’ve bought into about who belongs and who doesn’t, and on how we come to the ideas that then lead each of us to assess situations the way we do,” Dr. Murray explained.
“Meritocracy is one example of narrative that I go to often,” continued Dr. Murray. “The belief that hard work impacts outcome isn’t incompatible with the notion that there are accumulated advantages and disadvantages that also impact outcome. If we have a system that only thinks about the outcome, but does not take into account the distance traveled – e.g. the positive impact that a person can have on others through mentorship – then we come up with an incomplete conclusion about how meritorious that person is.”
“There are many things that are completely subjective which greatly influence the success of a scientist. For example, we know that the decision of who’s awarded funding or assigned authorship is not just based on production or objective metrics, but on a lot of other factors too, including human factors. And that can be disproportionately biased against certain groups,” added Dr. Frierson.
“I’ve been very pleased with my colleagues at Mount Sinai as part of an open dialogue about race and gender,” Dr. Nestler noted. “Some faculty think that we may be putting too much attention to diversity issues, and we welcome all opinions. I think it’s important for people not to be canceled for saying something like that. What I’ve seen is that the vast majority of leaders and people of privilege have come to be true believers in the value of diversity.”
How Can Individuals Make a Difference?
Even though individuals may feel powerless, there is a wide range of rewarding activities they can engage in to advance DEIB in their communities.
“I’d say be a mentor,” advised Dr. Nestler. “If you’re a graduate student, be a mentor to a younger graduate student, or a college undergraduate. Go into a local public school and help young people achieve their dreams.”
“Do some self-identity work,” added Dr. Murray. “Who are you, and how do you understand the world around you? How do you interact with people who are different from you? Doing that work sets you up in a position to be a better ally and to advocate for others in a way that it’s open and honest, and reflective of their needs and not your view of their needs.”
“Elevate voices that need to be heard. If you can’t give a talk, I challenge you to think of three individuals who are from historically excluded groups in STEM, and recommend them to give that talk. I think that’s a really impactful opportunity to put role models where they need to be seen,” said Dr. Termini.
“Challenge yourself to question some of the assumptions that you might hold. There are so many pieces written by fellow scientists and others about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Become aware of that literature, and think about how you can change your perspective,” remarked Dr. Frierson. “Lastly, get more comfortable with being uncomfortable in those spaces and growing in that way.”
“Start by joining initiatives that are already underway at your institution, like affinity groups or student groups,” Dr. Aiyar recommended. “It’s usually easy to spot the people who are involved in these things. Join in the conversation and see how you can contribute to moving the community forward.”
- Inequality in science and the case for a new agenda. Graves JL Jr, Kearney M, Barabino G, Malcom S. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022.
- Institutional Report Cards for Gender Equality: Lessons Learned from Benchmarking Efforts for Women in STEM. Whitney H. Beeler, Kristin A. Smith-Doody, Richard Ha, Raeka S. Aiyar, Elizabeth Schwarzbach, Susan L. Solomon, Reshma Jagsi. Cell Stem Cell. 2019.
- Seven Actionable Strategies for Advancing Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Kristin A. Smith, Paola Arlotta, Fiona M. Watt, The Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering Working Group, and Susan L. Solomon. Cell Stem Cell. 2014.
- The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)
- Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) — resources for organizations and institutions to improve research mentoring relationships
- Shadow mentoring: a cost-benefits analysis for reform. Davis-Reyes, B., Starbird, C., Fernandez, A.I., McCall, T., Hinton, A.O., and Termini, C.M. Trends in Cancer. 2022.
- Creating inclusive environments in cell biology by casual mentoring. De Lora, J.A., Hinton, A.J., and Termini, C.M. Trends in Cell Biology. 2022.
- Building diverse mentoring networks that transcend boundaries in cancer research. Termini, C.M., Hinton, A. O., Garza-Lopez, E., Koomoa, D., Davis, J., Martinez-Montemayor, M. Trends in Cancer. 2021.
- Allegories on race and racism — YouTube TEDXEmory by Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD
- Friedman Brain Institute: Mission Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.