Tag Archives: diversity

Graduate Student Ambassadors: An APS Effort to Increase Involvement in Professional Societies

The Graduate Student Ambassador (GSA) program was organized by the American Physiological Society’s (APS) Trainee Advisory Committee in 2015. The goal of the program is to train graduate students to act as liaisons between APS and local undergraduate and graduate students. GSAs visit schools in their local area to share their experiences as graduate students, discuss physiology careers and the benefits of an APS membership, and encourage students to consider becoming a member of APS. The program has a unique, symbiotic relationship in that GSAs learn valuable outreach, public speaking, and leadership skills, while APS receives promotion of their awards, programs, and memberships. One particular goal of the GSA program is to recruit and retain individuals from under-represented communities. This is the aim that attracted me to the program.

 

As a first-generation college student, I was raised in a very low socioeconomic background. My exposure to careers was limited and like countless other young girls, I grew up with a short supply of role models who looked like me. While most of my public school teachers were female, the science labs and principal’s offices were considered masculine domains. In my mind, a scientist was that image we all remember of the mad chemist brewing his potions in a lab, hair all in disarray. Although I got the messy hair right, I couldn’t picture myself as this version of a scientist. I didn’t know anything about college because nobody in my life had ever been to one. I certainly didn’t know what a Ph.D. was at the time. By luck and happenstance, I wound up at the University of Kentucky for my undergraduate studies as a nontraditional student following community college. UK is a Research 1 institution, so I was exposed to the scientific method from the start. However, looking back, I’ve always wondered what if I had attended a different university? Would I have ever found my niche in research? And, thus, is the goal of the GSA program: to expose students to careers in research and promulgate the ways in which APS can assist them in these pursuits.

 

When I first got wind of the new GSA program, I was quick to apply. From the beginning, I was excited by the prospect of sharing my experiences as a graduate student with undergraduates. I knew I wanted to visit less research-intensive universities and try to reach under-represented students, first-generation college students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I recognized the need for diversity in STEM and wanted to contribute to efforts being made to increase it. According to the National Science Foundation, while blacks and Hispanics constitute 36% of the US resident population ages 18-24, they only represent 17% of enrolled graduate students. There is even less representation at the level of doctorate holders (Figure 3). Ethnic and cultural representations in science do not match their share in the US population. However, it is absolutely essential to the growth of STEM to sample from all groups of people.

 

Science is meant to be an objective process, but much of science has been shaped by individuals of a similar background. This not only halts progress but can actually hurt it. For example, the standard medical treatment for breast cancer used to be radical mastectomies. It wasn’t until female voices were welcomed that alternative treatments were implemented—treatments that allowed women to keep their breasts and have been shown to be just as, if not more, effective. Progress was made because of a different perspective. The same is true of drug development, our understanding of sex differences in cardiovascular disease, even air-bag design which was initially tailored to a man’s height and thus not as effective for women. A diverse and inclusive program can promote widely applicable and lifelong learning so that historically under-represented groups can contribute to future breakthroughs with a new perspective. If fields are not diverse and inclusive, we are not cultivating potential but instead losing talent.

 

Berea College, the first coeducational and interracial college in the south, is an example of an ongoing effort to increase inclusion. This school, located in Berea, Kentucky, is a 4-year university that offers a tuition-free education to every single student. They enroll academically promising, economically challenged students from every state in the U.S. and 60 other countries. Over one third of their student population are of color, 8% are international, and 70% are from the Appalachian region and Kentucky. They are inclusive regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, race, citizenship status, etc. Despite not being a research intensive university, they have an excellent science program with a newly built Natural Sciences and Health building featuring state-of-the-art teaching laboratory equipment. They also encourage students to participate in the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, a program designed to support undergraduate students in biomedical research, promote collaboration, and improve access to biomedical facilities.

 

I wanted to visit Berea to share my experiences as a graduate student, discuss the different career paths within physiology, and provide interested students with information about beneficial awards and programs offered through APS. Many of the students I spoke with didn’t know much about graduate school or obtaining a Ph.D. They seemed intrigued by my experience as a teaching assistant to fund my program. Berea College offers a unique work program at their school where students work as part of their tuition-free enrollment. Some act as teaching assistants in their courses, giving these students the experience they need to enter a funded graduate program with a teaching component. A lot of the students didn’t realize, though, that you could simply apply to a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree—they thought you needed to obtain a master’s degree first. Most of the students were particularly interested in the undergraduate summer research programs offered through APS, such as the STRIDE fellowship. They wanted to know more about the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship for graduate students. I was also very excited to share with them the Martin Frank Diversity Travel Fellowship Award to attend the Experimental Biology conference.

 

I had a meaningful and productive visit to Berea College. My next step will be visiting a local community college, another area where efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are progressing. Community colleges are also an excellent place to reach nontraditional students, such as myself. These students sometimes transfer to larger universities to finish their bachelor’s degree, but being a transfer student often doesn’t allow for exposure to research as an undergraduate. I hope to encourage these students to pursue careers in physiology.

 

If you’re interested in contributing to this mission, consider applying to become a GSA. The position is a 2 year term and requires you to attend Experimental Biology each year of your term. The applications for 2019 are currently under review.

 

References

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.

 

Chelsea C. Weaver is a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky where she studies hypertensive pregnancy disorders in African Green Monkeys. She has served as a teaching assistant for Principles of Genetics and Animal Physiology for undergraduates. She also guest-lectured for graduate level Advanced Physiology courses. Chelsea is interested in pursuing a postdoctoral position in STEM education research in K-16 upon graduation.
Acknowledging race in the science classroom

thinking“I don’t teach about race. Leave it to the social scientists. They are trained to talk and teach about this stuff. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” I am embarrassed to admit it, but there were times in my life I thought this, and I know I am not alone.

As a science educator, it is easy to stick close to our training as scientists. Scientists teaching science is normalized, largely unquestioned, and safe. Early in my career as an educator, with every institutional equity initiative announcement, I easily convinced myself that I supported my students in other ways. “Leave diversity to the experts.”

What about my expertise? Diabetes is a topic I know well after more than 15 years of training, research, and teaching. It was easy to incorporate this topic into all of my courses. In fact, I teach my entire introductory biology course using humans as a model and diabetes as a way to connect many of the systems. Most students know someone with diabetes. Their personal experience with the disease, complemented by a continuous barrage of hands-on, inquiry-based laboratory activities in this intro course, completely hooks the students! They succeed, with very low drop or fail rates (<5%). At the conclusion of the course, students are enthusiastic about taking more biology courses (Johnson & Lownik, 2013). Things seem to be going well. Why worry?

During the introductory biology course, we spend days going over CDC data about the trends and risk factors for diabetes (CDC, 2015). Are the relationships correlations or causations? How can we use population data to think about the biological mechanism of diabetes? These are great questions for introductory students, and they totally buy in.

However, something funny happens when we start looking at these data. Diabetes is a disease that affects black and Latinx populations at a vastly higher rate than white populations (CDC, 2015). Why would I talk about that? Let’s talk about the science. I know the science. I have spent years studying how hormones regulate glucose (i.e. “the science”).

Frankly, I was scared to stray from my training. The students of color really engage the topic of diabetes, intrigued by the data indicating racial differences.  Many students of color speak of their beloved grandparents’ struggle with diabetes. What if students started asking me questions about race? As a white professor, how could I answer their questions? I know how hormones act to change glucose levels; I don’t know why certain racial and ethnic groups are more susceptible to diabetes. Students want answers about their own risk, and I didn’t know how to help them.

Looking back now, in response to my fear, I deliberately avoided discussions of race disparities. During the introductory biology course, we talked about socioeconomic factors, cultural factors, obesity, and food availability, but in vague and general terms. I might put up a graph to demonstrate disparities, but we never “had time” to engage the topic. We never really talked about why these disparities exist.

As a researcher, I would never intentionally ignore a major contributing factor to a disease. Would we ever ignore smoking as a risk factor for lung cancer? Why completely avoid race as a risk factor for diabetes, even though some individuals are almost twice as likely to develop the disease (CDC, 2015)?

 

By ignoring race and ethnicity as risk factors for diabetes in my course, I taught my students:

  1. Only traditional aspects of disease are worthy of investigation and emerging or relatively newly identified risk factors do not deserve attention.

Potential long-term impact: Reinforcing old practices comes at the expense of new findings and approaches. Focusing exclusively on the role of hormones in diabetes ignores other potential mechanisms, specifically those related to race, limiting the scope and creativity of questions investigated in my classroom and the scientific community.

  1. Scientists don’t “do” diversity.

Potential long-term impact: While national science education initiatives have a strong emphasis on encouraging diversity and equity, these movements have struggled to develop at the grassroots level. In my experience, most white science undergraduate students cannot articulate the importance of diversity of thought and experience in science. Students typically miss the mark when they emphasize that science is “objective,” and therefore, unbiased.  In fact, every scientist has different experiences, training, and assumptions, resulting in different approaches to asking questions and drawing conclusions. Diversifying these approaches is essential for innovation. If the importance of diversity in science continues to be misunderstood, current and future scientists will surround themselves with individuals that think and act like them, limiting new ideas, interpretations, and innovations.

  1. To ignore the concerns and questions of students of color.

Potential long-term impact: By glossing over the details of racial health disparities and not taking the time to understand them myself, I silenced the legitimate health concerns of my students of color. It should not be a surprise that many of my black and Latinx students switched their majors to public health and sociology. I was ignoring their queries and interests. They went to disciplines that addressed their questions. Mass exodus of individuals of color represents a deletion of perspectives from the scientific community. The result is a limited set of experiences that determine the scope of future research agendas; therefore, severely limiting the ability to solve large and complex scientific problems (Page, 2007).

To address these problematic gaps in my pedagogy, I continually challenge the way I think about diversity and equity in my classroom and make impactful changes. Avoiding potential harm to my students was a factor in making these changes; however, my greatest influence was students of color at my institution stating that they did not feel safe or welcome in the sciences (Johnson & Mantina, 2016).

Here are a few first steps I have taken to change the atmosphere in my classroom:

  1. We now talk about racial health disparities and investigate mechanisms related to these disparities in my courses, using CDC data or peer-reviewed scientific articles (ex. Herman, et al., 2016).
  2. I continue to educate myself about the interdisciplinary research investigating these disparities.
  3. I acknowledge publicly to students that when we discuss race and diversity, I might not get it right, might not have all the facts, and might have different personal experiences than theirs.
  4. Prior to larger class conversations about race, I collect input from students of color about how they might approach these conversations.
  5. I never ask a student to speak on behalf of their race or identity, only to speak to their own experiences. I never force a student to speak on the topic of race, period. However, reflective writing or small group discussions are helpful to bring ideas to the forefront.
  6. I avoid telling students that their experiences with racism are wrong or overblown.
  7. I use an assets-based approach to teaching science. Students develop strategies to become successful by identifying the skills and information they bring to the classroom based on their unique experiences and background.
  8. I challenge myself to continue to evolve my approaches to active learning and engaging students. For example, in my early years of teaching, to establish an interactive environment on the first day of class, students introduced themselves and talked about a summer experience to a small group. However, students that worked as day labors found this exercise intimidating when sharing with students that went on wonderful European vacations. I now prefer to ask students to describe their favorite food or dessert.

I acknowledge that issues of race, equity, and diversity are multi-faceted and nuanced, and purposefully, this description is a broad overview of the topic. I still have a lot to learn and do, but I am now a scientist that “does” diversity.

References

CDC (2015). Diabetes Public Health Resource. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/incidence/fig6.htm, accessed August 2, 2016.

Herman, et al. (2007). Differences in A1c by race and ethnicity among patients with impaired glucose tolerance in the diabetes prevention program. Diabetes Care, 30 (10): pp. 2453-7.

Johnson, K.M.S. and Lownik, J.C. (2013). Workshop Format Increases Scientific Knowledge, Skills, and Interest when Implemented in an Introductory Biology Course that Attracts and Retains Underrepresented Minorities.  Poster.  Experimental Biology, Boston, MA, April 20-24, 2013.  Published Abstract: FASEB J. 27:739.7

Page, S.E. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey).

 

KatieJohnson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Johnson, Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College, evaluates the effects of active teaching practices on learning attitudes and outcomes in different student populations. She has been recognized by the American Physiological Society for her work. Her laboratory research assesses the connection between obesity and hormones that regulate glucose levels in animals. She mentors a diverse group of trainees and has numerous physiology and pedagogy publications and presentations co-authored by undergraduate researchers.