Mutually beneficial research partnerships for equity and innovation in science

Blake Riggs
Blake Riggs

When describing commitment necessary in professional sports, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden described the commitment in terms of your typical breakfast of bacon and eggs. He stated, “The chicken is involved in your breakfast, but the pig is committed.” Over the past 50 years, federal agencies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) have been involved in efforts to increase the diversity talent pool, but these efforts have not been very successful. Genuine commitment from all those involved in research and training is now needed. Here I describe programs that take a new, committed approach.

Detached Involvement Has Failed

There is consensus within the STEM fields that increasing diversity in science is important not only because of basic concepts of fairness but also in terms of increasing success of the scientific enterprise by bringing in a wider range of voices and viewpoints. While various funding organizations have provided financial support to historically underrepresented students to engage in research experiences and to enroll in doctoral training programs, the numbers of PhDs granted to underrepresented populations remains relatively low.

[S]electing underrepresented undergraduate students from top-tier universities and placing them at top research institutions for doctoral work have barely moved the dial on diversity.

Although these efforts have recognized the “the lack of diversity” problem and prompted leaders of scientific institutions to engage in dialogue about why diversity is important, the predominant strategies for increasing diversity that include selecting underrepresented undergraduate students from top-tier universities and placing them at top research institutions for doctoral work have barely moved the dial on diversity. Much like the chicken in the above quote, this detached involvement in diversity efforts has shown only marginal success. We need to adopt the commitment of the pig in becoming an integral part of the strategies necessary to achieve equitable diversity in STEM.

Improving the Culture Is Essential

To achieve equitable diversity in STEM, we must first explore the narratives of students who are underrepresented in the research-intensive institutions involved in their training. Programs to engage underrepresented students in training opportunities in research laboratories rarely display the necessary commitment to improving the culture and climate in these environments. As a result, the narratives of students funded to engage in research training describe labs and graduate programs as hostile environments that often function as a culture of hazing. Moreover, access to these often toxic environments is limited because funded programs work to train the few who have been selected for the programs while excluding the many who could benefit from systemic changes to the culture of research and training.

Programs to engage underrepresented students in training opportunities in research laboratories rarely display the necessary commitment to improving the culture and climate in these environments.

The finding that low numbers of underrepresented students are matriculating through the training environment has led many universities and industry to look inward to create a more supportive environment for true diversity. Universities and companies alike have recognized systemic problems that thwart diversity, including sexism, homophobia, and racism, and begun to implement policies and training to address these issues that create a toxic training and working environment. Recognizing that many climates for STEM training are toxic is a step in the right direction, and implementing trainings to decrease their toxicity is even better; however, eliminating the negative will not completely address the lack of diversity.

Mentoring Is Important

Narratives gathered from underrepresented students with successful outcomes in STEM point toward the importance of good mentorship from PIs and supervisors, as well as strong social support from peers in their local scientific community as critical to their perseverance and success in STEM training environments. The need for good mentorship has been recognized by funding agencies as well as by scientific and professional societies. For example, National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding led to creation of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), a consortium of biomedical professionals promoting mentorship and professional development programming. Additionally, in support of mentorship many professional societies like the ASCB, though the efforts of the Minorities Affairs Committee, have funded junior faculty and postdoctoral workshops focused on historically underrepresented groups entering academic positions, providing opportunities to engage in dialogue about how to best recruit and retain them.

SF BUILD: An Equitable Partnership

The opportunity to engage in dialogue about how to best recruit and retain historically underrepresented students in biomedical research fields is an important feature of the San Francisco Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (SF BUILD) project, led by PIs Leticia Márquez-Magaña, San Francisco State University (SFSU), and Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Funded by an NIH grant, SF BUILD is a research partnership between SFSU and UCSF to enhance diversity of the biomedical research workforce by implementing and testing the signaling affirmation for equity (SAFE) model. This model frames a multilevel (student, faculty, institution), cross-institutional effort to create affirming and inclusive environments at SFSU, a minority-serving institution, and at UCSF, a research-intensive university. A strong feature of the SF BUILD program is the equitable partnership between the two institutions, which relies on the commitment (not just involvement) of institutional leaders, policies, and practices to improve the campus climates for meaningful and authentic inclusion of historically underrepresented students in biomedical research.

[G]ains in diversity cannot happen through programs that focus on the few.

Toward this overall goal SF BUILD is currently launching a new activity and another, re-imagined activity to better understand and improve upon the culture and climate for STEM at the partner institutions. The new activity is centered around the development and testing of the MA2 app that enables students to record microaggressions and microaffirmations in real time by accessing an app on their smartphones. Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional insults that make the victim feel invisible or invalid in a particular environment. Alternatively, microaffirmations make the individual receiving them feel valid and/or that they belong in the environment. Whereas a microaggression can negatively affect the performance and/or persistence of the victim in a STEM environment, a microaffirmation is expected to improve performance, well-being, and persistence. The MA2 app was designed to confirm and test these predictions and to gather additional information about the nature, impact, and ability to reduce microaggressions and increase microaffirmations in STEM environments.

Preliminary data from the app shows that the experience of microaffirmations can increase when historically underrepresented students are part of near-peer mentoring networks. In SF BUILD near-peer mentoring has been re-imagined to be cross-institutional and sustainable. Efforts are underway to link high school students in local communities to lower division undergraduates at SFSU, these undergraduates to upper division SF BUILD Scholars at SFSU, and the Scholars to PhD students and postdoctoral fellows at UCSF. To improve the efficacy of these dyads, mentors receive training and support for their mentoring efforts from seasoned mentors with a strong history of effectively mentoring underrepresented students, and mentors are made aware of the importance of this type of activity to their professional development. In fact, a local study found that mentors benefitted more from the near-peer mentoring relationship than their mentees. This study promotes sustainability of the near-peer mentoring activity because the mutual benefits are recognized. Moreover, this model can be amplified to address the needs of many more students.

Integrating Inclusion into Leadership and Research: The Center for Cellular Construction

The example displayed by the SF BUILD program is that gains in diversity cannot happen through programs that focus on the few. Rather, these efforts need to done as a commitment of equal partnership between institutions. In 1987, the National Science Foundation rolled out funding for creation of the Science and Technology Centers (STC), with the goal to create an integrative partnership between academic institutions, national laboratories, and other public/private entities to take an innovative approach to training and research at the interface between these institutions and around a shared disciplinary aim. In 2016, one such STC, the Center for Cellular Construction (CCC) was awarded support under the guidance of PI Wallace Marshall at UCSF. In addition to UCSF, the center includes partnerships with SFSU, a designated minority-serving institution; IBM-Almaden Research Center; the University of California, Berkeley (UCB); Stanford University; and the Exploratorium to expand research and training in cell biology. In particular, the mission of the CCC is to approach cell biology with an engineering lens by learning how to engineer the physical structure and interactions of living cells, so as to turn them into living bioreactors and models of novel self-organizing devices.

Rather than exploiting a minority-serving institution as a source of students for programs at a large research-centered institution, the CCC has integrated inclusion of all partner institutions in leadership and research efforts. For example, IBM and the Exploratorium offer internships to all CCC-affiliated students, and genuine research collaborations between UCSF and SFSU faculty are sponsored, which has the broader effect of bringing the highly diverse student population at SFSU into the research of the top NIH-funded public university in the country.

[C]ommitment to a true partnership between institutions with different strengths and resources can be an effective strategy for promoting diversity….

As equal partners, CCC affiliates who lead these internship and training programs are responsible for implementing professional development opportunities to improve the training culture of affiliated labs. This includes in-person training sessions on ethics, culturally sustaining mentoring, and mitigation of sexual harassment. These trainings address particular issues that have plagued our research environments and made them toxic to trainees. Rather than being a box that is checked to show compliance with funder diversity requirements, these trainings generate discussion that allows the training community to explore issues in a collaborative fashion and generate strategies for creating a research and training environment that is affirming and inclusive. The success of the CCC approach points to a general lesson, that commitment to a true partnership between institutions with different strengths and resources can be an effective strategy for promoting diversity and scientific productivity for everyone involved.

Our society is faced with many scientific challenges, and a diverse scientific workforce is critical to overcome them. Diversity spurs innovation and is key to research efforts that address the world’s problems. However, to effectively harness diversity, changes in the research culture and training environment are desperately needed to convert toxic environments into affirming and inclusive spaces for scientific innovation. Equal partnerships between research institutions involved in this work lay the groundwork for this systemic change, and will ultimately move the dial that measures diversity in a positive and meaningful direction.

About the Author:


Blake Riggs is an associate professor in the Department of Biology and San Francisco State University.

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