We’ve witnessed crescendoing calls for equity and justice in recent months from many quarters: our labs, our institutions, our scientific societies, our research and education fields, and our nation. This energy can be exhilarating, but its future course is uncertain–will things be “different this time?” Many of us have good intentions about equity and inclusion but still hesitate to act for a variety of reasons, often wondering if we belong in these roles. In my opinion, it’s incumbent on all of us, no matter who we are, to actively promote equity in our scientific and professional lives. But how we approach this work can and should vary, depending on whether we’re acting in in-group or allyship roles. (“In-group” refers to a person identifying as a member of a particular social group, such as men or Canadians or Red Sox fans.)
I’ve been an out gay scientist since my undergraduate days, and I’ve been open about my sexual orientation and personal life throughout my time as a faculty member. My partner joined me on second-interview visits when I was on the faculty job market, and he knows many of my colleagues at my institution, Duke University. For me, being out has been more of a personal choice than an intentional form of activism. (Sadly, of course, many LGBTQ+ scientists still cannot safely choose to be out in academia or other sectors, and I recognize this unfair disparity.) At the same time, my own experiences and ample social science research indicate that visibility of, and personal relationships with, out LGBTQ+ people can help reduce the fear, prejudice, or hostility of non-queer folks toward our community. I’m glad that I’m in a position to contribute to that effect.
I believe that being out in academia is important for providing individual role models to more junior LGBTQ+ scientists and for forging good interpersonal relationships across difference. Beyond that, queer scientist visibility may also help effect a positive (albeit slow) culture change within our institutions and our country. My colleague and friend Tehshik Yoon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has pointed out in his seminars that representation by out queer scientists may help change our collective notion of “what a scientist looks like,” normalizing us as part of society’s implicit notion of who belongs in scientific and professional spaces. I hope my ability to be visible and authentic in my quotidian life contributes to that sea-change in some small way.
As a faculty member, I’ve also participated in a number of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activities designed to promote belonging for LGBTQ+ scientists. These include panel discussions about being out in academia, queer faculty focus groups on the professional climate at Duke, events with student organization (e.g., o-STEM and Blue Devils United) on my campus and during seminar visits elsewhere, leading WICB-sponsored “LGBTQ in Science” roundtables at the ASCB annual meeting, and, most recently, serving as a liaison to ASCB’s LGBTQ+ Committee. In these roles, I draw on the authority of my own lived experience. I don’t presume to represent all queer people, of course, and I’m not an expert in the medical or social science scholarship of LGBTQ+ issues. Nonetheless, when I engage in LGBTQ+-related DEI work, I can ground my opinions and actions in my own personal history, which helps give me confidence in this sphere and, conversely, reminds me to remain receptive to the lived experiences of others.
Interestingly, though, the story is quite different in most of my DEI activities, which are focused not on sexuality but on race and ethnicity. I’m involved in several anti-racism and DEI initiatives at Duke, and I’ve served for nearly five and a half years on ASCB’s Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC), which I currently co-chair with Professor Latanya Hammonds-Odie. The MAC is an amazing organization, launched over 35 years ago, which promotes the scientific and professional development of PEER cell biologists at all career stages, from undergraduate to senior faculty and equivalent. (“PEER” refers to persons excluded because of ethnicity or race, a term coined by MAC affiliate David Asai of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; see PMID 32413295.) The MAC has a long history of running high-impact, federally funded programs, earning grants from NSF and NIH to support such initiatives as postdoc and junior faculty professional development (e.g., the Accomplishing Career Transitions program), a year-long, mentored grant-writing program (Faculty Research Education Development, or FRED), former Visiting Professor and Linkage Fellow initiatives that connected PEER scientist faculty with new mentors and institutions, and numerous travel grants and professional development sessions at the ASCB annual meeting. Through this track record of programmatic and funding success, the MAC leverages considerable resources to promote PEER scientists’ careers, with a 2019 operating budget north of $769,000. (For more on the MAC, see the committee website, this brief history, and PMIDs 12669099, 28389427 and 32313596.) Most recently, I worked with ASCB Director of Professional Development Ashanti Edwards, former ASCB CEO Erika Shugart, and Professor Mary Munson of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to secure and co-direct an NIH MOSAIC UE5 award, creating a national ASCB program that will support cohorts of NIH MOSAIC K99/R00 scholars belonging to historically excluded groups as they obtain and thrive in tenure-track faculty jobs at research-intensive universities.
I’m committed to this work because race and ethnicity are major fault-lines that contribute to exclusion and inequities in the U.S. scientific enterprise, and I want to do my part to remediate these grave wrongs. I believe majority-group scientists, such as white people, have a clear role to play in these efforts, both because redressing injustice in our professional community is everyone’s responsibility, and because buy-in and hard work from historically dominant groups will be required to create durable solutions to systemic, long-standing discrimination. At the same time, as a white man trying to help in this realm, I am always mindful that my role is as an ally. I don’t know what it’s like to have the lived experience of being a PEER scientist (or any PEER person) in the United States, and I can’t act or speak as though I do. Instead, I believe true allyship requires a certain epistemic humility, recognizing and remembering what I don’t know or experience personally.
Maintaining the balance between proper humility and impactful action can be challenging. When I first joined the MAC, I felt comfortable and welcomed, grateful to be part of such a diverse and vibrant group. As a new member, it was easy for me to absorb lessons from committee leaders and to volunteer for specific tasks when help was needed. After three years, when I planned to apply for a second term as a regular committee member, I was surprised when MAC leaders and ASCB staff asked me to consider applying for a co-chair position instead. I was tremendously flattered (even if their request was partly motivated by the need to drum up applicants willing to serve!). But I also had serious misgivings. Would it be appropriate for the MAC to have a white co-chair? Would I be taking an opportunity away from someone more deserving? Would I be credible? After some consultation and convincing by leadership and staff, I agreed to apply and serve. I’ve been deeply honored and thankful to contribute in this way, and I’ve redoubled my efforts to hone my skills as an ally, working closely with–but never speaking for–PEER scientist colleagues on the MAC and beyond. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, as we all do in the face of personal and professional challenges. But my hope is that my hard work and devotion to the continued success of the MAC have helped dispel others’ concerns about me in this role.
It’s important to use an intersectional lens in understanding and addressing DEI injustices. Each of us has a personal identity comprising many axes, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, sex and gender, ability/disability, educational
Attainment, and so on. We may not fully understand the lived experiences of colleagues with identities different from us, but these differences shouldn’t deter us from acting. Instead, they simply require us to be thoughtful when we engage in DEI work as a member of an in-group versus as an ally. The way I approach my DEI work is context-dependent, because my identity diffracts differently through an intersectional lens when I’m engaged in LGBTQ+ or PEER scientist activities, for example. Each of us might sometimes feel unsure or unqualified to speak or act in an ally role, when we can’t draw on our own personal experience to inform us. That’s natural. But, as scientists, we know how to learn new things and to risk mistakes as we strive toward important goals, and we can translate those skills into DEI work as well. The wealth of social science scholarship on inequities in biomedical research and education (much of it published in our Society’s own outstanding CSE—Life Sciences Education journal!) provides an accessible starting point for all of us as ASCB members. With this flexible and intersectional mindset, more of us will be empowered to help to address the longstanding inequities and unjust structures that still bedevil our field.
I’m grateful to Professors Latanya Hammonds-Odie, James Olzmann, and Claire Thomas for helpful advice on this article.
About the Author:
Mike Boyce is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Duke University