2020, a year of reflection

There’s no time like January to look back and reflect on the past year, and 2020 certainly was a year like no other. The pandemic has changed our lives in innumerable ways and, on top of that, we have been experiencing the most significant national focus on race and racism that many of us have seen in our lifetimes.

Racism and lack of representation of underrepresented groups has been, and continues to be, a significant problem in academia that deserves our immediate attention and action to ameliorate. However, for many of us in academia, this wasn’t necessarily a front of mind priority until this past year, after the national outrage sparked by the killing of George Floyd caused us to do some serious introspection. Our lab took time to reflect on our own practices that help maintain white supremacy in academia and think about tangible ways that we can dismantle those practices in our lab, in our department, and in the ways we engage with the broader scientific community. As part of these efforts, we have added sections to our lab manual outlining the lab’s general philosophy regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, as we have written about previously.

As we were reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a lab, there was a common consensus that we wanted to have an outside expert come in to work with us to help us foster a welcoming lab environment and particularly to facilitate discussions around how to be an effective mentor (especially when mentoring someone from a different background). In order to do this, we brought in Claire Horner-Devine, PhD, of Counterspace Consulting. Claire has worked with us to help us identify our lab and personal goals pertaining to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have also worked with Claire to develop some tangible skills like how to give effective feedback and how to create mentorship networks for ourselves and our mentees. Our work with Claire is still on-going, but has enabled us to have dedicated time over the past few months to be continually checking in on our progress towards our goals. As we look back on our work with Claire and what this year has taught us more generally, here are some of our lab members’ reflections:

  • One of the big things that I have learned about, or become aware of, this year is how many things we can be doing, as scientists, to make our field more welcoming and actually accessible. I think there are a lot of large scale actions that are relatively easy to take and to think about, but the finer details in how interactions are handled are often just as important. Thinking critically about how interactions have to be carried out on an individual basis is something that's difficult to do but very important in order to actually achieve broader goals of making science inclusive.
  • Mentorship is a network, not a single person. Every individual, including faculty, students, staff, have areas of growth that cannot be sourced from any one person or resource. It is important for students to recognize that a single mentor cannot be their mentor in every aspect, where multiple mentors are needed and many times these mentors can be peers.
  • Working with Claire has been quite a useful exercise in empathy. I particularly valued hearing the varied needs of my lab mates, because it helped me understand the breadth of concerns that must be addressed and managed regularly by my PI. This encouraged me to reflect on and evaluate my own expectations towards her. Since this reflection, I feel I have been able to plan our 1:1 meetings in a more careful and refined way, which has enabled us to really make the most out of our time.
  • This year, through meeting with Claire, I personally learned that it is important to honor the validity in my needs better, instead of waiting for a supervisor/person in position in power to determine whether they are valid.
  • Working with Claire has taught me to normalize what I need and how to communicate that in order to be able to complete my best work in the lab, as well as how to encourage others to do the same. I have also been prompted to put a lot of thought into my own privilege and how I can leverage that to help those in underrepresented groups; more importantly, also just being aware of the inherent privilege that I, and many others, have and how this manifests itself in disclusion to certain groups of people in science.
  • This year I’ve learned a lot about how racism infiltrates so many aspects of our educational system from pre-K all the way up through tenure track professorships and about how barriers faced by BIPOC scientists result in the disparities that we see in who gets to participate in science. Some of these barriers are very structural and can potentially be changed by policy, but the more insidious barriers are those that stem from interpersonal interactions that make BIPOC feel unwelcome in academic spaces. Looking at #BlackintheIvory on Twitter is a great place to start learning about this.
  • Something I learned in 2020 as we had conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion as a department and as a lab is that the real, transformative solutions that are needed to face the systemic issues that exist in academia are likely things that are very hard, or even impossible to imagine. I really enjoyed a conversation we had as a lab where we reflected on the truth that real change will be disruptive to the status quo that we have all come to thrive on. An important way that we can be an ally to justice is to mentally prepare ourselves for these solutions so that when they arrive we can welcome them instead of feeling discomfort or fear.

What practices have your labs or departments implemented to promote the inclusion of diverse scientists? Share with us on Twitter @LOB_SU