More than 400 people tuned in as Einstein’s BETTR (Bronx-Einstein Training in Teaching and Research) program co-hosted a national conference for postdoctoral scientists the last week in June called “Inclusive Teaching and Research for a Diverse Nation.” The three-day virtual event featured workshops, a wide variety of poster sessions, and a keynote address from Marie Bernard, M.D., the chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the National Institutes of Health.
In addition to Einstein, organizing schools included Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University and Stony Brook University.
Einstein’s BETTR program is one of 21 Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) programs nationwide funded by the National Institutes of Health. IRACDA postdoctoral scholars are a diverse group, competitively selected based on their research training as Ph.D. students, their interest in education and desire to expand opportunities to all learners, and their commitment to increasing the diversity of academic science. Scholars teach undergraduates at partner minority-serving institutions, mentored by experienced faculty. More than 70% of IRACDA alumni obtain tenure-track academic positions.
Workshops, Poster Sessions
The three-day event featured three keynote speakers: the NIH’s Dr. Bernard, who spoke about fostering a more diverse workforce; Jill Bargonetti, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of molecular, cellular, and development biology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), who uses dance to teach genetics; and Kimberly Tanner, Ph.D., professor of biology at San Francisco State University, a national expert on active learning and inclusive education.
Conference participants were offered 17 research and education workshops on topics such as career development resources for postdocs, building a publishing pipeline, and conversations on race and social justice in academia.
Poster sessions included the following research areas: behavioral psychology and neuroscience, biochemistry and chemistry, bioinformatics, cellular and molecular biology, education, engineering and physics, evolutionary biology, genetics and developmental biology, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, reproductive endocrinology, and systems biology.
The conference also featured a career fair, with opportunities for colleges and universities to recruit future faculty.
“Working closely with our partners at Stony Brook and Rutgers University IRACDA programs, we carefully selected a mix of platforms along with different sessions that encouraged interaction, communication, networking and socializing while in a virtual space,” said Dianne Cox, Ph.D., Einstein professor of anatomy and structural biology and of developmental and molecular biology. Dr. Cox co-directs Einstein’s BETTR program along with Barbara Birshtein, Ph.D., professor emerita of cell biology. “The importance of this conference and of IRACDA cannot be overestimated,” Dr. Birshtein added. “Science really brings diverse people together. And that’s our goal.”
The Benefits of Diversity
During the keynote, Dr. Bernard spoke about the current composition of the scientific workforce, the benefits of becoming more diverse, and the strategies the NIH is using to make that happen.
She said entry pathways for scientific careers show “a fair amount of diversity. But as you move into academic positions, diversity goes down considerably,” leaving a lot of room for improvement.
The NIH is committed to diversity, Dr. Bernard said, “because we believe that makes for excellence, creativity, and innovation. You'll often find higher concentrations of scientists from underrepresented minority groups who are pursuing an investigation into health disparities and asking different sorts of questions. Our country is becoming much more diverse, and the generation that has the gray hair, like mine, is going away. We're not as diverse. And if we're going to take advantage of all of the talent within our country and maintain our global research preeminence, we need to take advantage of our diversity.”
How to Implement Change
Addressing implicit bias—those unintentional assumptions we make about others based on factors such as race or gender, for example, is essential, Dr. Bernard said. Research suggests that there are interventions that can help, such as simply raising awareness of the phenomenon and teaching people to speak up when they see bias occurring.
The importance of this conference and of IRACDA cannot be overestimated. Science really brings diverse people together. And that’s our goal.
Barbara Birshtein, Ph.D.
But change is also needed at the institutional level, “and those changes include being systematic and transparent about hiring and promotion, collecting and publicly aggregating diversity metrics, providing tools to allow people to be more effective in recruitment and retention, and then evaluating the impact of everything that's being done. And very importantly, this needs to be linked to institutional values and reward systems. If the people on the top don't value this, it's just not going to get done.”
The NIH, she said, is trying to live by what it finds from the data it has gathered. For example, Dr. Bernard said that in 2019 her office led a workplace climate and harassment survey for the NIH to try to assess the prevalence of problems such as sexual harassment. And what it found, she said, was that one out of five respondents had experienced sexual harassment, 50% had experienced incivility, 10% had experienced bullying, and 6% had experienced intimidating behaviors. Dr. Bernard said this tended to occur among women, sexual and gender minorities, people living with disabilities, younger people, and trainees.
“What did we do about that?” she asked. “Lots of things. We put into place an anti-harassment steering committee, we changed policies and procedures. We had an aggressive campaign to let people know that harassment doesn't live here at NIH. And we've put our information out there for anyone to see, for academic and research institutions to replicate if they so choose. And we are in the process of re-surveying our staff to see what may or may not have changed.”
Putting the data out there can “spur people on to do better,” she added. “Sunshine is a great disinfectant.”
Posted on: Thursday, July 15, 2021