Jessie Verhein, one of the second-years involved, suggested a data-focused approach. We would co-opt the Neurosciences Journal Club, a required course for the first, second, and third year students in which we ordinarily give presentations on neuroscience articles, as a space to dive into the data on implicit bias in science. This approach had many advantages. As Jessie put it, “We’re being trained to evaluate data so hopefully we could convince people who aren’t targeted by this bias that it is their responsibility to help address it...people who aren’t suffering from this bias have to be there and participate.”
Our methods were inspired by Dr. Ben Barres, a beloved member of the Stanford neuroscience community and powerful advocate for justice in science. He famously interrupted his own academic talks at major institutions precisely at the moment of greatest scientific suspense to explain what he saw as the most critical problems and tractable solutions, backed by strong scientific evidence and a persuasive plea to create an equal playing field in academic science. Mirroring this approach, our group decided to present publications in Journal Club that investigated both the issues faced by women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and the efficacy of interventions designed to address those issues.
Not everyone was keen on the idea at first. Eshed Margalit, one of the nine students who participated in the project, described feeling “a mixture of excitement and uneasiness” saying that he “loved the idea of digging into the hard data on the topic, but was worried about ‘breaking the rules’ by participating in a coordinated theme for journal club.” When asked why he ultimately decided to partake in the project, he said he realized “that there will never be a perfect opportunity to make the change we wanted to make, that the issue was far too serious to be pushed aside because of loosely defined rules and perceived “regulations”, and that the statement we were making would be strongest with a large, committed group.
As a group, we reflected on some previous professional development sessions about diversity, which had varying degrees of success. Jessie reports that, “Even when the PD sessions are well-planned or organized, the person organizing doesn’t have a firm grasp on the data because it isn’t their primary area of study. They’ll have a couple takeaway sentences about the conclusion of a paper, but if you try to dig in to the specifics, they don’t know. It was very hard to know what was emotion- and anecdote-driven and what was a systemic problem.” We realized how important it would be for us to learn the methods used in social science so that we could present the papers we chose effectively. Our cohort had little experience reading primary social science publications. However, we realized that we could leverage our critical thinking skills developed in the hundreds of hours reading “traditional” neuroscience articles in this pursuit. When reporting evidence of gender discrimination, for example, we wanted to make sure we were crystal clear on the statistical analyses used to back up the claim. Failing to do so would make our project no different from previous professional development attempts, and could even have detrimental effects for our cause (ie., reinforcing the misconception of a lack of rigor in articles exploring gender bias).
This idea wasn’t so simple to execute. We spent many hours in meetings just deliberating which papers to present and how to convey their data effectively with a goal of ensuring a coherent narrative arc for the Winter quarter curriculum. It was difficult to incorporate everything that each individual presenter wanted to emphasize while still fitting all of the topics into just nine presentations, and we wanted to make principled, thoughtful choices. Helping each other along with the unfamiliar statistical methods, psychological theories, and mathematical models, we discussed each paper in detail and practiced our presentations over pizza. Feedback from the diverse group itself was both scientifically critical and uniquely supportive. With our anxieties countered by excitement and strong friendship, we signed up for our presentation dates on the shared excel doc from our journal club instructors, listing paper after paper about bias.
Initially, there was some pushback about using the Journal Club for this endeavor. Jessie told us, “A lot of the pushback was that this isn’t neuroscience and that this is not a relevant outlet for this. You could have your own journal club. I’m pretty sure that the only people who would show up to that are the ones who are feeling like they are most immediately suffering from this discrimination. First of all, this puts all the work on the people who are already not benefitting from it. Secondly, it doesn’t help address the propagation of this bias throughout academia.” Kei, a first year who attended the journal club, said that his initial reaction to the introduction of the series included “a little bit of trepidation because I’ve done many of these trainings which are very surface level. You’re aware of the situation but not told either the data behind it or what to do about it. I find that you very quickly go from being unaware, which is not good, straight into despair, which is also not good.”
Our hard work paid off, evidence by an overwhelmingly positive response from attendees of the journal club. Jessica Diaz, a third-year who attended the journal club, said that the Winter quarter presentations were “challenging but also a fun way to learn to think critically about the literature in a field about which I know little.” When asked what she learned from the presentations, Jessica said “I learned that ‘chilly climate’ is the name for that phenomenon of not-quite-warm-welcome and not-quite-fitting-in perceived by women and underrepresented minorities in some fields. I also learned that there might be tiny interventions that might result in a slight shift of the environment or slight shift of mindset to really help improve substantially the experiences of individuals or groups.”
The Journal Club series seems to have led to behavioral change as well, with many students reporting that they now pay more attention to who asks questions at seminars. This reflected a reported finding that the gender of the person asking the first question affects the genders of the following question askers. Eshed reflected on the experience as a presenter saying, “It’s probably too early to say, but I’d like to think that this experience has lowered my threshold to act in the future. I realized that my initial hesitation was unfounded: nobody got in trouble (whatever that would even mean), and the response was overwhelmingly positive from fellow students and course administration.” Kei also felt positively about the project’s effects, saying, “I have more specific tasks to focus on. I’ve tried to get my class to let women speak first in journal club, for example, with moderate success. I’ve tried to imagine walking down a street as a person of a different color.” The interventions that we discussed, including habit-breaking prejudice interventions and the use of virtual reality to reduce racism, seem to have really stuck with our audience.
With data and interventions in hand, the attendees and presenters of the journal club project feel empowered and hopeful about the future for women and minority groups in STEM. There are even discussions about continuing the trend of social science publications in future quarters of the Neurosciences Journal Club.