By Gregory Arena
Integrative Biology PhD candidate, Dawson lab
Amidst the last few weeks of summer break, campus is abuzz with preparation for the start of the fall semester. But in all that bustle, staff, faculty, graduate students and postdocs are taking time for the important work of coming together for inclusiveBio (iBio), a day of conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion in the Departments of Integrative Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology. According to IB graduate student, and long-time organizer, Jessica Aguliar, the symposium took inspiration from an event first hosted by Lisa Eschun-Wilson in 2018, then a black graduate student in MCB. Coming from a background underrepresented in academia, Aguilar found that experience positive and affirming, and knew it was something she wanted to bring to a larger audience. “It felt like a weight lifted through naming those experiences, knowing that other people had similar experiences, and building community.” With help from a few other dedicated graduate students and staff members, Aguilar grew the program into an annual event for the department. According to IB-chair Dr. Eileen Lacey this work has paralleled “a remarkable and encouraging increase in DEI efforts in Integrative Biology, in recent years.” Three years later, this will be the first year that IB has teamed up with its sister department, MCB, in hosting a joint, all-day symposium called iBio. This year, iBio symposium was made possible only through the dedicated efforts by graduate students: Jessica Aguilar, Sarah Herrejon Chavez, Valeria King, Jaemin Lee, Khansaa Maar, Hector Torres Vera as well as staff and faculty members: Monica Albe, Dr. Diana Bautista, Hannah Bloom and Carina Galicia.
Aguilar describes the iBio symposium as committed to two main goals: “learning about issues faced by URM grad students/people in academia and ways to make change for the better and building community.” This year iBio’s theme, titled: Anti-blackness in STEM: moving past inclusion toward belonging, has focused specifically on what it means to be Black in academia. Speaking as part of a panel on the Black experience in STEM, Khansaa Maar, a Sudanese PhD student in MCB, called attention to the history of the biological sciences as a tool to support and justify racism and how this impacts her and her Black colleagues. She explained that as biologists, we inherit a responsibility to dismantle the racial oppression that has stemmed from our discipline. During Maar’s first year at UC Berkeley, the biases and prejudices in Biology and the academic community often made her “feel like 3/5th of a scientist.” She is not alone in that sentiment. Panelist Dr. Diana Bautista (MCB) offered these sobering statistics: “over 60% of Black students [at UC Berkeley] feel excluded, prejudged in their abilities, and isolated. 25% of Black students leave our programs without attaining a PhD.” Left unexamined, discrimination embedded in the culture of academia has consequences far beyond who participates and who feels they can have a voice in science. STEM Graduate Diversity Officer Dr. Devon Horton (UC Davis) noted that for the many IB and MCB researchers focused on medicine and the human condition, it is imperative we recognize an often overlooked reality that “racism is a public health issue.” In her assessment, identifying and rooting out racism must be integral to our scientific practices.
Throughout the day the conversation returned to the important intersections between research, education and DEI, not only as a catalyst for changing the classroom climate, but in effecting greater belonging in our workspaces. In her keynote address, Dr. Horton drew parallels between how we tackle difficult questions in our research and how we can combat oppression at both a personal and systemic level. “Science is 95% screwing-up and 5% luck. And, it’s the same with confronting racism,” quipped Dr. Horton. As scientists we learn to become comfortable with constructive critique, with uncertainty in what we know, and the diligence to seek out difficult truths. Allyship requires these same skills, said Dr. Horton, “learning to become comfortable with discomfort.” “iBio’s invitation made only one request of its participants,” noted Galicia, “that they come to the symposium with an open mind.” That means being open to making mistakes and being wrong.
Professor Paul Barber of UCLA, and an alumni of the IB graduate program, shared how the creation of truly inclusive and supportive spaces requires the same dedication and commitment applied to work in the lab or field. “Embracing a growth mindset, practices for unlearning unconscious biases, and challenging assumptions with data” claimed Dr. Barber, are all imperative. While the process may sound daunting, Barber promised “low-hanging fruit” for educators looking for immediate change, through straightforward modification to grading-scheme, classroom expectations, and vocabulary. IB instructor, Dr. Jules Winters added that in her work the “simple values of kindness, compassion and empathy improve how we relate and communicate with our students.” These are values that can have equal weight in enriching our lab and work spaces. But all this requires collective action, as pointed out by IB-Chair, Dr. tyrone B. hayes, who stressed that “creating a sense of belonging is ultimately up to the community, not the individual.” That’s why Dr. Winters has been most interested in cultivating the rising generation of scientists and teachers with “more focus on training undergraduates and graduates in these practices.”
To these ends Dr. hayes and Dr. Bautista have piloted an interdepartmental initiative called Future of Biology 2.0, which recently produced a “short list of evidence based ideas for fostering belonging.” Voices from faculty, staff, and students echoed this need for concrete tactics as well as more DEI focused trainings and infrastructure. In her closing keynote remarks, Dr. Chrissy Stachl (right), founder of Reflecting Equity, outlined areas for development and expansion through DEI book clubs and classes, systems of accountability, and opportunities for community driven dialog. Too often, the burden of DEI work and activism is shouldered by those most affected. When formal or compensated opportunities for DEI work do not exist, students of color and students from marginalized communities are placed in a position where they must sacrifice the quality of their academics either through their activism or their endurace. In her remarks, Dr. Stachl recognized that graduate school is a busy time and “graduate students are rarely in a position to leverage systemic change, so staff and faculty input is vital.”
After the event I spoke with several incoming PhD students in IB and MCB. For one student, who had just relocated from El Paso, Texas, the California landscape, curb-side compost-pick-up, and the very concept of a workshop dedicated to topics in DEI, are the geography of an exciting, strange, new territory. What brought her to Berkeley, she told me, was a strong sense of empathy and inclusion she found among the students and faculty she has already met. For her, iBio affirmed the decision to make Berkeley home for the next six years.
We discussed the honest, and at times unvarnished testimonials we had heard that day. Stories that pointed to both the beauty and the ugliness in academia. It is nothing that makes for a tidy narrative, no straight, sure path toward any one solution. Instead, as Dr. Stachl intoned, the way forward is messy, awkward, and therefore very human. To present this any differently, would be dishonest. And the iBio symposium never shied away from this truth. Through moments of raw acknowledgment of the challenges we still face in the biological sciences, the symposium was powerful, moving, but also hopeful. A deep and abetting capacity for introspection, and willingness for self-improvement is rooted in our community, as scientists. Qualities like these foreshorten any shadows of doubt as to what can be accomplished. But only when we choose to commit ourselves to the important work ahead.