A key part of my work helping graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with their professional development involves equity, diversity and inclusion, or EDI, principles (defined here). I receive questions from students about how these ideals can be implemented into practical actions in research, teaching and service. How can trainees strengthen those skills to prepare for a future in any career? Employers in academe, government and industry seek excellent emotional intelligence and EDI skills. Academic job applications and grant proposals often request diversity statements. Job interviews may include questions around EDI and unconscious bias awareness.
What can you do to prepare for those type of questions and be a more equity-minded scholar now? EDI is not a stand-alone skill. It embodies every human activity during scholarly training. An earlier "Carpe Careers" article by Deborah S. Willis highlighted excellent resources and strategies for equity-minded scholars. Here, I will illustrate some hands-on, everyday thoughts and actions that you can consider as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow during your research training.
Some of you may ask how an equity lens is pertinent to research? If you are curious about how the perspective or background of the researcher might affect the work, a great article that I have also discussed with my students is “How Diversity Works in Science.”
The challenges of today that are left to solve in this world are complex ones. Impactful innovation happens when THEAMS (technology, humanities, engineering, arts, mathematics, science) research effectively addresses a societal need. Societal need depends on the perspective of that society, which is affected by culture, language, heritage and history. Diverse perspectives on your research team ensure the questions you are asking are pertinent to the global community.
Research Subjects and Methodology
I will illustrate research methodology with an example. If you are a researcher trying to find a genetic cause of a pediatric illness, your first intuition as a scientist may be to: 1) read about the population and collect data such as incidence, pattern of inheritance and age of onset, 2) obtain blood samples of this particular population with some affected children, their family and some controls, and then 3) perform genetic analyses.
An equity-minded scholar may also consider: 1) Does the disease present differently in males versus females? 2) If so, would any cultural differences affect phenotype? For example, are females and males given different roles that might affect disease progression? 3) Would the population’s culture allow for you to collect blood samples of affected and nonaffected individuals and for you to perform the genetic tests on these samples? 4) Do historical or current barriers for racialized groups limit recruitment of diverse research subjects?
Another common example of considering sex differences in life science research would be experimenting on cell cultures. HeLa cells are derived from the cervical cancer cells of a 31-year old African American mother of five, who died of cancer in 1951. If comparing data from noncervical or male cells, a researcher should acknowledge those differences in the discussion. Resources on integrating sex and gender into research can be found at the National Institutes of Health and Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Mentorship and Teaching
As a teaching assistant, instructor or mentor, how can you practice EDI and allyship? Here are some ideas that my student teaching leaders have implemented.
No. 1: Before your first class, send out an announcement and ask if anyone has any accommodation requests, such as preferring to sit closer to the front due to visual or hearing needs or close captioning for a video class.
No. 2: Know your institution’s policies and protocols in navigating requests for accommodation.
No. 3: If you are teaching a virtual class, guarantee confidentiality and privacy so that learners feel safe to disclose their needs and thoughts with optional video, the ability to call in or asking questions later via a follow-up one-on-one conversation with them.
No. 4: At the beginning of the course, acknowledge the land we are grateful to work and live on. I found it to be more meaningful if we have a moment of silence and think about what that means to each of the students at a more personal level. I ask questions like: What does it mean to you and your family that Indigenous peoples have lived on this land for thousands of years? How did your family arrive here and what does that mean to you? Sometimes I ask if anyone would like to share their thoughts. Sometimes, we just reflect for a minute.
No. 5: The Western culture defines a student as “engaged” if they are leaning in, asking questions, making eye contact, participating in discussions. If you are mentoring or teaching a student from a different culture or with a more introverted style, those engagement elements may not be the optimal ways to assess class participation. Try to incorporate more peer discussions in smaller, breakout groups. Allow for questions to be asked after the class during smaller group office hours. Ask students, “Do you have any questions?” and wait. More tips can be found here.
No. 6: If you are writing a recommendation letter for a student, keep in mind these tips to avoid gender bias.
As a scholar and future career professional, engagements with the community within or outside the university are other meaningful experiences that can help you strengthen EDI awareness and skills. Here are some ideas from our EDI discussions with students and faculty members that may be helpful to you.
No. 1: Find ways to participate in systemic changes. An example would be working on EDI committees to provide diverse perspectives on faculty searches. Specifically, if that system requires that selection committee members be chosen with skills-based representation, then a wider range of perspectives can be included. Perhaps a skills-based search committee would compose of members who are each an expert in research-specific, EDI, teaching, mentorship/supervision, publications/grants, administration, innovation, maybe even a graduate for an outside perspective.
No. 2: Participate in outreach activities so that your discipline can reach out to marginalized and/or underrepresented groups. Do you find that your department is lacking in diverse representation? Why is that? Perhaps seek a faculty adviser or form an outreach group to go into elementary schools, junior high or high schools -- or bring these students onto campus for a day.
No. 3: When organizing speakers for your event, try to find diverse perspectives through such platforms as 500 Women Scientists, SACNAS and Canadian Black Scientist Network or your university’s program for Indigenous peoples.
No. 4: Read about the perspectives and challenges of Black, Indigenous, Muslim, Asian American, Latino, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ2S+ persons, student parents and homeless students in the United States and Canada and discuss with your group how that might affect your department or research community policies, cross-cultural mentorship, events or practices.
No. 5: Since all of our activities are online now, perhaps consider opening up a classroom session or two for a marginalized high school community for an experience they could never have had.
No. 7: Learn how to be an ally by attending workshops with case studies or actual events. Bring those workshop to your department.
These are just some ideas are to consider, and you may not be able to implement them all. But having an awareness is a big first step. And remember that if you unknowingly do or say something that upsets someone, it is OK to apologize and learn from your growth insight.
Academic job applications and grant applications request diversity statements. Most industry and government work places have an EDI framework. Strengthening your EDI skills now as a scholar, a thought leader, and a mentor will build a foundation for your own professional growth toward your career and for your personal growth toward humanity. With your heightened awareness and mentorship for the next generation, we look forward to your leadership.