Inclusive MCB (iMCB+): Strength & Safety in Numbers

Diversity among scientists fosters innovation, yet retaining graduate students in STEM fields from underrepresented minority (URM) groups persists as a serious challenge. A 2017 study in Science magazine highlighted that the transition between college and graduate school is a “strategic point of loss” of these students. As women and minorities in STEM advance in their career and become increasingly few in number, they disproportionately face non-tangible, subtle aggressions driven by bias, which can collectively have a negative impact on their experience. It is key to shift our focus from increasing the number of diverse students to creating an institutional culture that is inclusive and celebrates our differences. Otherwise, we risk of deterring URM students from pursuing life-long careers in academia.

While the numbers show an increase of URM student participation in STEM training programs, URM faculty in STEM fields remain discouragingly low. The National Science Foundation recently reported that URM participation in graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships increased by 50 percent from 2000 to 2013, but there is “no comparable increase in the number of URM trainees who advance to tenure track basic science appointments.” This significant loss may be due to two factors: URM fellows may intentionally choose not to pursue academic faculty positions due to a negative opinion of the career or URM fellows are less likely to secure such a position even if their interest and experience is as strong as any non-URM candidate due to bias and discrimination. These statistics support that the accumulative impact of continued bias, imposter syndrome, and stereotype threat can diminish the enthusiasm URM graduate students have for a career in science.

Here at Berkeley, for example, the Department of Molecular Cell Biology (MCB) has admitted 6 African-American women PhD students over 10 years. Of those 6 students, fewer than half have pursued postdocs—which is consistent with national average—and even fewer have pursued careers in academia. These persistently low numbers reinforce a need to improve our efforts to recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds and create a social climate where they feel welcomed, supported and motivated to pursue a career in academia.

The first challenge lies in shifting the existing climate.  According to the 2014 Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report by the Graduate Assembly, students who feel valued and included by peers, faculty and administration have higher life satisfaction and overall success. “Fellow graduate students routinely make comments that are deeply discriminatory. The department offers no forum, no seminar to address these problems and prepare graduate students to be aware of the issues faced by marginalized communities,” one student explained. Another student stressed, “Racial microaggressions are the hardest part of graduate school.”

Currently, faculty who serve as pioneers in the field of diversity and inclusion, such as Talithia Williams and Tracy Johnson, are invited to our campus from across the nation to share innovative strategies on how to improve our current social climate. These events are often hosted by fantastic student-led groups: Black Graduate Association, Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students (BGESS), and the Alliance for Diversity in Science and Engineering (ADSE). All three reach a wide range of students and offer fantastic services, such as informative seminars and engaging student panels. However, this creates a sense of dependency on these pioneers. These efforts raise awareness about the value of diversity and inclusion but are short-term solutions and cannot substitute long-term, systemic solutions. Moreover, there is no one size-fits-all solution—each department is a unique social microcosm and deserves a personalized solution. Hence, there is a need to reassign responsibility for inclusion at the institutional level to send a strong message of support to students of under-represented races, genders, socio-economic statuses, sexual identities, and/or students with disabilities. Recent work this year confirms that academic programs that have a more inclusive curriculum and greater student compositional diversity are significantly more likely to attract and retain URM.

Within MCB, the MCB Equity Committee is devoted to addressing equity and inclusion matters. However, there is a severe disconnect between the MCB Equity Committee and our students and postdocs. Both students and postdocs are either too intimidated to approach the committee with their concerns or unaware that they deal with such issues. iMCB+ will serve as an intermediate program to connect students and postdocs to resources the Equity Committee has to offer and create new opportunities to improve the overall experience of all participants. Michelle Reid, a current first-year MCB student commented on the issue:

“An organization such as iMCB is needed at UC Berkeley because it differs in critical ways from existing committees. For example, the Equity committee on campus is largely made up of faculty with one student representative; this structure inherently limits the issues that get addressed to only those that are most critical, time sensitive, and within earshot. In addition, this places a disproportionate amount of responsibility and work on the graduate student member to survey the climate and well-being of their peers. On the other hand, iMCB was created by a graduate student with other graduate students in mind. It offers a platform where narratives from historically under-represented groups can safely surface, when they otherwise would not. Fundamentally, iMCB offers students the ability to address the problems that affect all students but disproportionately affect under-represented groups. I strongly believe that if iMCB was made available to me during my first year I would have a better sense of what normal is when it comes to personal experiences and challenges that I have faced as a URM graduate student.”

Dr. David Weisblat, Chair of the MCB Equity Committee, explained:

“I hope that iMCB will provide the opportunity for well-intentioned faculty members and others to act on their good intentions—to increase their understanding of and sensitivity to students who are not so sure of their welcome within the department or in science generally. I also hope it can reassure students that they are genuinely welcomed and supported here, and help both groups be able to avoid and work through unintended or misinterpreted messages that can otherwise undermine that sense of welcome and belonging.”

We hope the student panel, Overcoming Stereotype-Threat and Unconscious Bias: The Student Perspective will bridge the gap between students of all cohorts and foster open and honest discussions around pressures from finances, family, and peers. In one workshop, we will focus on the role of power and privilege in academia and, in the second, on mental health and wellness. Esteemed social psychologists Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Claude M. Steele, professors of psychology here at UC Berkeley, are partnering with us to plan our two workshops and help students address how threats of negative stereotypes, low expectations and systemic bias feed into the underperformance of URM students in a non-competitive, safe and inclusive space. iMCB will serve as the first initiative of its kind within the department to create a space to critically discuss these issues and provide concrete exercises to help students overcome feelings of uncertainty, isolation, or fear.

Inspired by the powerful social movements of our time, including #BlackLivesMatter, #parkland and #MeToo, we hope that iMCB can serve as a pioneer program and inspire other departments to also take responsibility for the inclusion of their URM students. Together, each initiative can collectively create a safer, more accepting and inclusive environment for all our graduate students here at UC Berkeley.

For more information, please visit our website at mcb.berkeley.edu/diversity/inclusive-mcb.

Featured image: Group photo taken on Day 2 of our 1st Annual iMCB+ Summer Workshop Series! 

Image credit: Melanie Worley

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