Looking Beyond the Individual: Reflections on E.E. Just and How Academic Institutions Shape Scientific Careers

This President’s Column is by guest columnist Daniel Colón-Ramos, recipient of the 2016 E.E. Just Award from the ASCB and associate professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Yale University.

Science as something already in existence, already completed, is the most objective, impersonal thing that we humans know. Science as something coming into being, as a goal, is just as subjectively, psychologically conditioned as are all other human endeavors.
—Albert Einstein

In the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Massachusetts, in a hallway that leads to the main library, hangs a framed portrait of E.E. Just. The portrait was taken in the 1920s, when Just was making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the changes that take place in the extracellular matrix during fertilization. Just was an internationally recognized and accomplished scholar. Toward the end of his career while in Europe, he worked and lectured in some of the best institutes on the continent. He was the first American ever invited to the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where several Nobel laureates carried out research in topics related to Just’s discoveries. Yet as a black scientist in the United States, besides his home institution of Howard University, MBL was the only place where Just was welcomed to do his experimental work.

In Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just, Kenneth Manning describes E.E. Just’s complicated experience as a scientist.1 One of his mentors suggested that he should abandon his aspirations to be a scientist and focus instead on “promoting the interests of his own race at Howard University.” But Just did not abandon his scientific interests and ended up promoting the interests of humanity by excelling in his research. He was a rigorous scientist and a gifted experimentalist, and in spite of the prejudices at the time, his expertise on embryo manipulation was sought after by colleagues from around the world. He discovered what today we know as the fast block of polyspermy—changes in the extracellular matrix that happen upon fertilization. His pioneering discoveries broadly influenced evolutionary and developmental biology by reframing the importance of the extracellular matrix on cellular adhesion and intercellular communication.

Today we celebrate these accomplishments with named lectures and awards. The scientific accomplishments merit praise in their own right, but E.E. Just’s experience as a successful black scientist in a segregated United States in the 1920s also deserves reflection, particularly in light of our own aspirations to make science more inclusive. At first glance, it is easiest to interpret Just’s experience as one that supports the notion that if we identify and nurture the right types of students and faculty, our scientific workforce will be more diverse and inclusive. But a deeper dive into Just’s life provides a less-discussed, but equally important, perspective on the role that institutions play in supporting, or hindering, careers in science.

The MBL, even among the outstanding landscape of research institutes in the United States, is a unique place. Designed by scientists and for scientists, it has, since its inception, aspired to be an inclusive space for research and higher learning. Decades before women were admitted to most academic institutions or were given the right to vote, MBL supported women scientists who wanted to conduct research and take classes. This did not happen organically; it happened by design. The MBL was influenced by eminent biologists like Jacques Loeb (who discovered artificial parthenogenesis), T.H. Morgan (Nobel laureate and father of modern genetics), and F.R. Lillie (embryologist and director of MBL), among many others.

These scientists, all contemporaries of E.E. Just, led by example. Loeb, a Jewish scientist who emigrated from Germany during Bismarck’s reign, besides being a remarkable scientist, also devoted much of his time in the United States to fighting the evils of racism in all its forms. At the MBL he was an early mentor to Just and supported him in obtaining the inaugural NAACP Springarn medal for his scientific work. It was in this institution that E.E. Just was able to complete his scientific training.

Daniel Colón-Ramos

Daniel Colón-Ramos

Yet after two decades of scientific work, Just left, embittered, as he self-exiled to Europe. That prejudice in the 1920s—no matter how enlightened his colleagues were, or how driven Just was—would have affected Just’s career is obvious today. But Just’s departure from MBL came as a surprise to his colleagues, many of whom thought the institute had done everything possible—and more—to accommodate him. The prevailing narrative is that Just was unable to adapt to the system. Missing from the discussion is how the system as a whole, beyond the MBL, was designed to exclude people like E.E. Just. It was probably hard to see, much less acknowledge and address in the 1920s, how the prevailing structural racism affected Just’s work. Much has happened since E.E. Just trained as a scientist in the 1920s and yet much has remained the same.

In summer, MBL becomes a teaching institution. Last summer, an African-American student was approached by a teaching assistant (TA) who threatened to burn a cross in front of the student’s house. The TA was expelled and banned from the MBL. Yet, as I argued in a New York Times OpEd, the most dangerous aspect of prejudice is not its presence in an individual, but its pervasiveness as an ideology.2 As long as we focus solely on the individual, we are missing the point.

Today, like in the 1920s, most of the interventions having to do with diversity in science focus on the individual. I would argue that approaches focused on the individual are based on two assumptions, both partially flawed: 1) The problem can be fixed by an individual, if we can just help him or her to adjust to the system; and 2) If the solution can be provided by the individual, there is an implicit assumption that the problem is the individual. Approaches are therefore structured to help the underrepresented minority student or the female student to adjust to the system. When an approach fails, the individual is blamed (and sometimes the group of people that this person represents). That was the case for E.E. Just a century ago, and that is the case, I would argue, for many targeted training programs today.

To be sure, individuals have agency, and focusing on the individual is an important part of the equation. But if the problem is simply framed as one of agency by the individual, the intervention will fail if part of the problem is contributed by the system. Mentoring programs aimed at increasing numbers of women in science, while necessary, are likely to fail if we as scientists fail to also critically examine the role of institutions and their policies that tolerate sexual harassment, that sustain gender disparities in salaries, or that promote implicit and explicit biases.

Successful approaches require that we first recognize that modern science, for all of its history, was conducted by and served a very narrow demographic. And for the majority of this time, women and many groups that we now consider underrepresented minorities were not admitted to the higher institutions where science was conducted. The reason we have underrepresentation of certain demographics is not because individuals lacked agency, but because the system was designed to exclude those individuals. We inherited and inhabit these structures today. Until we are willing to acknowledge their legacy, and how that legacy permeates the current culture of institutions and the scientific enterprise, until we are purposeful about critically examining how those legacies and existing prejudices in society contribute to disparities in scientific training, our initiatives, even the most well-meaning among them, will be at best incremental.

There will always be exceptional individuals, and their narratives also influence our history of science. Yet as we remember and celebrate their accomplishments, we best honor their memory by recognizing that while contributions come from individuals, legacies in training and culture are carried on by institutions. Only by purposefully examining and addressing policies that target the culture of the institutions, and not just the individuals, will we come closer to our collective aspiration of making science more equitable and inclusive in its reach.

1Manning KR (1983). Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press.
2Colón Ramos DA, Quiñones-Hinojosa A (August 4, 2016). Racism in the research lab. The New York Times.

Questions and comments are welcome and should be sent to president@ascb.org.

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