Alumni mentors reflect on diversity, equity, inclusion, and the impact of the pandemic on their field and work
Biosciences alumni and former postdocs working in science policy, drug development, biotech, biopharma, and education & outreach share perspectives on identity, diversity, and inclusion in their everyday practice of science and how the pandemic has impacted their field and work.
“Our best scientific future will emerge when we allow individuals to explore how their identities influence the scientific process, especially towards reframing problems, creating new approaches, or defining new areas of innovative basic research.”
-Albert Hinman, PhD, 2021, Genetics
By Varupi Gupta
“I have always felt like an outcast in many different areas of my life, whether due to my mixed-race ancestry, moving constantly to new communities as I grew up, or just having eclectic interests; I often considered these non-assimilatory characteristics as a personal fault.” This extended to Albert’s time at Stanford, where he never felt like a perfect (stereotypical?) example of a graduate student, and often felt terrible for not being obsessed with achieving the benchmarks that typically define “success” in science.
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Meet Albert Hinman, PhD, Genetics 2021, now pursuing a Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship with the American Society of Human Genetics & the National Human Genome Research Institute. Albert was the cofounder/president of the SACNAS Chapter at Stanford and coleader of the Stanford Science Policy Group. He’s also an alumnus of the ADVANCE program.
It was not until late in his training that he began to see that the most interesting work came from scientists often not winning fellowships or awards, and whose work was labelled by much of the scientific world as being esoteric or not progressing the field forward. “These wonderful, complex people were not afraid to see science through their unique identities and interests. I strongly believe that our best scientific future will emerge when we allow individuals to explore how their identities influence the scientific process, especially towards reframing problems, creating new approaches, or defining new areas of innovative basic research,” offers Albert.
Reflecting on how identity, diversity, and inclusion play out in everyday work, Adrienne Mueller, PhD shared an important lesson that she learned: that it is possible to be DEIBJ-aware in every aspect of your work (DEIBJ: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, Justice).
From 2013-20, Adrienne was a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s Neurobiology Department before transitioning to her current role as Associate Director of Scientific Education and Outreach at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute (CVI).
One aspect of Adrienne’s current role is leading DEIBJ initiatives for the CVI. “If you’re studying patients – are you drawing from a diverse population? If you’re organizing an event – are you reaching out to junior, female, and speakers of color – and are you giving them the same airtime as everyone else? If you’re mentoring an undergrad – are you selecting them based on objective criteria and not just how well they fit in,” Adrienne asks.
Sharing similar considerations, Christophe Tchakoute, PhD, Epidemiology 2020, and now Senior Data Scientist at Genentech is committed to increasing representativeness in clinical research. “How do we ensure that we develop medicines that benefit all the different subgroups that have been traditionally underrepresented?” He asks himself this question every day, stemming from his commitment to practicing science that does not enhance disparities but helps generate more insights into subpopulations. “Not only is it the right thing to do scientifically and morally but it is also the best way to ensure that our scientific research draws from a much wider cross-section of the population and our innovations benefit all,” he offers.
Deepa Sengupta, PhD, is proud of her company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and cites the example of ensuring diversity in clinical trials. From 2016-21, Deepa was a postdoctoral researcher at the Gozani Lab in Stanford’s Biology Department and is now a Senior Scientist at Pfizer.
“At Pfizer, we’ve made a commitment to design clinical trials so that enrollment can reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the countries where the clinical trials are conducted. In our research, for deciding targets for drug development, we use databases that have representation of underrepresented populations, so that our research is unbiased and inclusive,” she shares.
“There is significant room for improvement in diversity and inclusion within biopharma, both in terms of workforce composition and the patients represented in clinical trials,” says Elizabeth Steinberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (Malenka Lab) from 2013-20, and now a Lead Clinical Scientist at Genentech.
“DEIBJ aspects are increasingly getting the attention they deserve, but sustained effort is needed to bring meaningful change. Clinical trials should enroll patients who are representative of the population with medical need, but this is often not the case. Consequently, potential variation in safety or efficacy outcomes in specific subgroups cannot be assessed, and underrepresented groups may be more hesitant to take a treatment that wasn't extensively tested in patients like them. One of the ways Genentech is addressing this issue is by creating a site network to enable recruitment and retention of underrepresented patient populations in clinical trials,” Elizabeth says.
While acknowledging the many positive strides in the area, Albert believes that no organization, company, or university has truly ‘solved’ issues related to DEIBJ and therefore policymakers, program leaders, and administrators need continued innovation and experimentation in their approaches to address diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Some of the approaches I am interested in are how to democratize access to economic opportunities in sciences to people without a graduate degree, understand how science and technology can spur economic development in geographically diverse areas of the United States, and how scientists can more critically examine and methodically dissect the DEIBJ components of their individual projects. Science policy, especially along dimensions of DEIBJ, needs creative innovators who can come up with new strategies to address and solve the ongoing issues,” he says.
Albert believes in academic institutions’ “moral and mission imperative” to ensure that trainees are prepared to answer the most pressing scientific questions of the next century – something that requires new perspectives and approaches, many of which are inspired by subjective sources such as one's lived experience. “I think it is important that advisors/mentors help inclined trainees to understand how their individual identities can enrich their vocational or scientific work,” he offers.
Furthermore, “organizations also need to do their part in this puzzle. They need to create workplace conditions that truly leverage the benefits of a diverse workforce – where their employees thrive not despite but because of their differences and feel safe expressing their individual identities,” Albert notes.
The EHLI is a project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford. The goal is to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code, and in everyday language and terminology.
The EHLI website focuses on potentially harmful terms used in the United States, starting with a list of everyday language and terminology. “Suggested alternatives" are in line with those used by peer institutions and within the technology community.
This Harvard Business Review article presents a similar argument: leaders must acknowledge that increasing demographic diversity does not, by itself, increase effectiveness; what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity, and whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure. One of the four key actions the authors recommend for leaders ‘getting serious about diversity’ is using employees’ identity-related knowledge and experiences to learn how best to accomplish the firm’s core work.
What advice do you have for underrepresented and marginalized trainees as they pursue their graduate degrees or postdoctoral research?
Deepa underscores the need to be proactive and seek out opportunities. “Look for networking events and new opportunities! There are so many options available – scholarships, funding, training, internships, etc. – and the only way to remain updated on such opportunities is through connections. LinkedIn is also a great source of information. Most big companies have programs dedicated to actively recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds for summer programs, internships, and postdoctoral programs,” she says.
Adrienne reminds trainees to be prepared to accept frustration along their career journey. “Academia is frustrating. As a trainee it is very challenging to be in a position with little power and to feel out of place. But you 100% deserve to be in the room, and your opinion is every bit as valid as everyone else's. If people cut you off when you voice your opinion - that's their lack of professionalism, not your lack of value. It's okay to be frustrated and it's okay to push back,” she says.
Albert highlights the importance of building a support network and investing time in areas beyond the immediate work. “It is important to develop resilience. The scientific world is full of many different people – you’ll meet some of the most incredible people, while others may seek to harm your experience. Make sure you have an external source of validation and support to get through the rough periods. Whether it's a loved one, a hobby, or a community of people who understand you - invest in something outside of your work that feeds your soul,” he advises.
On another note, please share your insights and experiences on how the pandemic impacted your field and work and what our trainees need to know as they prepare to enter the job market?
Deepa shares good news. “There’s a lot more funding in the biotech sector, and so a lot of open positions are available in the biotech industry at the moment,” she says.
Adrienne was among those who started a new role just when the pandemic hit, so she does not know what it was like before – but she can do a lot of her work remotely and appreciates the flexibility. “It’s great being able to work from another location if I want to,” she says.
Like Adrienne, Albert also moved into his science policy postdoctoral role during the pandemic and worked from home for the entirety of his fellowship. However, this was more of a barrier than a benefit for him. In general, science policy is a lot more adaptable to work from home than other professions, especially given that most of your time is spent in meetings and writing.
“There are definitely positives in that commute times are effectively removed, and you have more flexibility with your free time. However, I realized that I like to learn from casual, in-person conversations, such as asking a colleague if a sentence makes sense or what the expectations are for an assignment. You can use messaging services, like Slack, in some cases, but I found it couldn’t replace the in-person conversations that were critical for me to rapidly integrate into the field. In the future, I am looking for a hybrid scenario to try to get the best of both worlds. And while I am a bit critical of my work-from-home experience, a lot of my peers were incredibly fond of it and found it optimal,” he offers.
Albert’s experience is supported by a new Stanford Graduate School of Business study published in Nature that finds that virtual meetings have a significant drawback: they hinder creative collaboration. The study found that in-person teams generated more ideas than remote teams working on the same problem. However, the authors caution that the costs and benefits of working remotely are more nuanced and less understood than most people realize.
The pandemic has revolutionized the workplace and transformed many sectors. How workplaces leverage the benefits of remote/hybrid work both for employers and employees, and strike a sustainable and healthy balance between productivity, flexibility, and reducing commutes, will continue to evolve and unfold in the weeks and months to come.
Adrienne, Albert, Christophe, Deepa, and Elizabeth are BioSci Connect mentors and are happy to share their experiences. To connect with them, sign up to be a mentee on BioSci Connect, a mentoring community for career and life conversations.
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