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diversity & inclusion matters

We asked our members and affiliates to tell us how they perceive the state of diversity and inclusion — the lay of the land, so to speak — in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology. Here, we've printed what they had to say. In future issues, we will dive deeper into the discussion of what can be done in the short term and in the long term. We welcome your contributions. Email us.

Inclusion enriches output and awareness

I believe that inclusion of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in research greatly enriches both our science output and cultural awareness. For example, research on diseases relies on the diversity of patients and samples, and a diverse research team can facilitate the recruitment of diverse study participants. It is also evident that working in a multicultural environment does change our views and perceptions of other people whom we unconsciously think are different from us. Although diversity is mostly associated with race and ethnicity, a homogenous group can still be diverse in areas less often considered — like professional training, country of origin and life experiences. I think we need to start looking at diversity beyond what is visible. But this does not come to replace what diversity was initially intended: to bring members of underrepresented populations, women and other groups into science settings and participation. This diversity would not only broaden research questions and opportunities but also improve our cultural understanding for one another.

Joshua Muia is an instructor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

ASBMB meeting speakers lack diversity

The diversity efforts are inconsistent and only as good as those constantly reminded that they need to be inclusive in their work, committees and output. The featured speaker list for (the ASBMB annual meeting) this year is an example of a lack of diversity. Few women, fewer minorities. We all need to be reminded to be cognizant of the issue. I teach courses that include diversity in health care from a science and research perspective, and I also teach gender in science and engineering. Many ASBMB members are not trained in these areas and don’t always understand how the workplace and education have changed and need to continue to change to attract and retain a diverse set of scientists.

Marilee Benore is a professor of biology and biochemistry at the University of Michigan–Dearborn.

Differently-abled individuals are the next frontier

The National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report, which is released every other year, has shown a trending increase in the number of awarded STEM doctorates in the United States over the past decade. The good news is that there has been a corresponding increase in doctoral degrees awarded to African-American and Hispanic scientists. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the proportion of doctorates awarded to disabled scientists has decreased.

This is surprising because we’d think that the protections secured by the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, would have had a more positive effect after two decades. The ADA has been fairly successful with improving access to education. What the ADA hasn’t been able to secure are the other ingredients essential for success: removing biases, prejudices, and discrimination; social capital in the form of professional networking; and aspirational capital in the form of successful role models.

ASBMB Today asked me if the field of biochemistry and molecular biology embraces or discourages diverse voices and experiences. I had difficulty answering this question, because the scientists who work in these fields display a spectrum of attitudes and behavior. I have been fortunate to meet and work with remarkable scientists who embrace diverse voices; I have also unfortunately met some who actively discourage these voices; but most scientists I’ve worked with are unaware of the challenges facing disabled scientists.

ASBMB Today also asked: Are women and minorities given a seat at most tables? I interpreted this question to mean: “Are disabled scientists proportionately represented in positions of power within the field of biochemistry and molecular biology?” Clearly, the answer is no. Fourteen percent of the population between the age of 21 and 65 is disabled; however, if you examined the composition of the biochemistry and molecular biology faculty at any university, any conference committee, or any editorial board, you will most likely not ascertain a 14 percent representation of disabled scientists.

Finally, ASBMB Today asked how having people of color, women, LBGT and differently-abled individuals at the bench or in the classroom enriches scientific perspectives. Scientists are human too, and we seek out and direct research according to our passions. By having a workforce with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, we accordingly increase the diversity of our lines of scientific research. My own research, for example, focuses on the commonest form of genetic deafness from a genomic and population genetics perspective. Previous researchers who studied this form of genetic deafness have focused on it from a diagnostic and clinical perspective. As a deaf person, I carry a natural interest in deafness that goes beyond medicalization. I believe that there are secrets in our genome about human history and disease that can be unlocked by studying genetic deafness.

Derek C. Braun is director of the biology program and the molecular genetics laboratory and a professor at Gallaudet University.

Awards and the Matilda effect

It’s 2016, and the Matilda effect is alive and well.

Named after 19th century American women’s activist Matilda Gage and first noted by science historian Margaret Rossiter in 1993, the term describes the systematic undervaluation of research done by women in favor of men. As documented by the RAISE project, the world’s largest awardees database, men are significantly overrepresented in both award nominations and success, whereas women are underrepresented. A mere 2.5 percent of all STEM Nobel Prize winners and 2.1 percent of the prestigious mathematics Fields Medal recipients are women. Only this week, we learned that 95 percent of 2016 national awards of the American Chemical Society were awarded to men even though women made up 17 percent of the nominee pool and constitute 29 percent of the 158,000-strong membership.

Why is this a problem? Awards and prizes are widely accepted markers of professional achievement that influence salary, promotion and tenure decisions to shape and advance careers. Studies show that the gender disparity in awards is recurrent and unrelated to “pipeline” issues. Women are less likely than men of equal ability to self-promote and seek nominations because of persistent cultural beliefs in the capabilities of men and women. The prize criteria evoke strong stereotypes associated with men, calling for “leaders” and “risk-takers.” Unconscious gender bias is propagated through recommendation letters, which use more standout adjectives and fewer grindstone words in describing male applicants compared with female. Most importantly, the gender composition of the awards committee has crucial effects on outcome, with success rates for women strongly tied to the number of women involved in selection.

With this background, how does the ASBMB fare? Not badly! In the past four years (2013 – 2016), 32 percent (17 out of 53) of national awards have gone to women. However, there are notable problems: Four awards have included zero women (education, Merck, Vallee, and Stadtman awards), and four have included only one (DeLano, Kirschstein, Tabor and Wang awards). A smaller number of awards are well represented by women: two of four (ASBMB Young Investigator and Shaw awards), three of four (Rose and Avanti awards) and four of four (Cohn award). We can do better. For detailed analysis of the Matilda effect and concrete guidelines on how professional societies such as the ASBMB can promote diversity and ensure gender equity, see our latest blog post on

Rajini Rao is a professor of physiology at the Johns Hopkins University, has chaired the Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women at the Biophysical Society and is co-founder of, a blog site dedicated to promoting the careers of women in science.

A need for more minority leadership

Are women and minorities given a seat at most tables? The Minority Graduate Student Network was first created as a support network for minorities in graduate programs throughout New York City. Since its inception it has grown to provide professional development, career opportunities and leadership training as well. Feedback from members indicate that leadership positions within academics and industry often lack underrepresented minority representation or do not address many of the circumstances that concern minority students in the sciences. MGSN now has a reach of more than 400 local students. As the number of students voicing similar concerns within MGSN grows, it must be considered that more minority advocates in leadership positions are needed.

Rodrigo Valles Jr. is the associate program director at Hunter College, City University of New York, Center for Translational and Basic Research. He wrote on behalf of the Advisory Board of the Minority Graduate Student Network.

Underrepresented minorities are game changers

I’ve seen more appreciation for challenges that face women, LGBTQ and minority scientists in the past two years than I have seen in the prior two decades. While these groups are now being included to some degree, where I see the biggest changes are that we are doing far better at calling out harassment and bias. Even with that, I think we have yet to hear the real angst of the LGBTQ community, because it is still unsafe for many scientists to come out, as many states still don’t have nondiscrimination protection and you can be fired for being gay.

While these conversations of inclusion are coming to the forefront, I worry that the problems of unconscious or conscious racial or gender bias have become more covert. I see a lot more “punching down” — where there is a real push to stabilize funding for near-retirement principal investigators or even well-established groups. It’s pretty obvious that the groups that are going to be most impacted by senior PIs getting more earmarked money will be the most vulnerable junior and midtier investigators who are far more diverse. That tension hasn’t been well addressed, and I don’t see that the National Institutes of Health can have it both ways.

I hate that so many universities and societies seem to be reinventing the wheel for themselves and hoping that simply getting a diverse faculty on campus will solve their problems. There seems to be genuine shock that a female, LGBTQ or underrepresented minority wouldn’t simply be grateful for a job. I’m always surprised when people are unaware that these folks are going to be game changers. And that’s a great thing. Everyone in my lab is either a woman or from a racially underrepresented group — or both — and I couldn’t wish for a better group of people. They are smart as all get-out, will ask and then answer the best questions, read everything and are crazy enthusiastic about getting work done. I love that they know there is no one else who will be effecting change and that they need to do it. You can’t teach this. It comes knowing they have great obstacles and hopefully powerful cheerleaders making opportunities for them.

BethAnn McLaughlin is an assistant professor of neurology and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University and TheEdgeforScholars.Org’s director of awesome.

Expand diversity efforts from the top down

Although gains have been made in encouraging diversity from the ground up, our efforts must be expanded from the top down. For the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology to flourish, diversity must not be just a noble goal — it must be a priority. Research fellowships targeted specifically to underrepresented minorities, along with scholarship and internship programs seeking to improve access for underrepresented minority students to universities and industry, are only the beginning. These efforts must be paired with the support and guidance of faculty and administrators. Achieving buy-in from faculty already overburdened with tenure and promotion requirements is realistically achievable only if the pursuit and maintenance of diversity in science is stated as a priority on the department, college and university levels. This becomes possible once outreach, science communication and mentoring efforts, particularly those targeted to underrepresented minorities, become required, rewarded and valued. High-quality efforts toward enhancing diversity need to become a prominent feature of our academic system, not just something that is occasionally recognized in a department newsletter or a tweet.

Rick Page is an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at Miami University.

Helping everyone be successful

The thing about diversity is that there is no single definition about what makes someone diverse — we all take different paths and contribute valuable life skills and perspectives based on our journey. What we have in common is that we all deserve to be successful and the opportunity to make an impact. Never make an assumption that someone doesn’t need help, even if they seem to be thriving. We all need support, but that will take different forms for different people. Some of us internalize stress or never ask for help because we don’t want to feel singled out from the rest of the group. The most important question to ask of others, especially those you mentor, is “How can I help you be successful?” Then truly listen and connect us to the resources we need to ensure success, whatever that may be.

Donna Kridelbaugh is a writer, editor and career matchmaker at Science Mentor Consulting.

Diversity is critical for scientific progress

Although I am not a member of an underrepresented group, I do teach at a historically black college or university. Based on my experiences in the classroom and laboratory over the past 30 or so years, I can say without a doubt that diversity is critical for promoting creativity and finding solutions to problems. Science itself is a creative process. Solutions to scientific problems do not arise out of thin air but instead arise from scientists as creative agents who bring their whole personalities and all of their talents and life experiences to bear on the problem at hand. Clearly, the greater the diversity of the workforce, the greater the likelihood that creative solutions will be found. Some citizens in high places do not recognize this fact, but this could be because they are not familiar with how science works.

As proof that diversity promotes creativity, I give you the example of the great biologist Ernest Everett Just, who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century. He proposed a theory of how cytoplasmic factors and chromosomes in the nucleus of the cell interact during embryonic development. Just’s theory (of “genetic restriction”) opposed the gene theory of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who later won a Nobel Prize. Recently the case has been made that Just’s epigenetic theory of nuclear–cytoplasmic interaction, which has been shown to have considerable merit, bears close similarity to sociological ideas involving intercultural dialogue that were prevalent in the African-American intellectual community at the time. Because E.E. Just was immersed in this community and deeply familiar with black intellectual thought, he was perfectly positioned to put forth the unique ideas that he did. Thus, he embodies the notion that unique perspectives can spawn unique scientific contributions. Of course, what is true about ethnicity is true about any kind of characteristic or set of experiences. Diversity of all types promotes creativity and scientific problem solving.

W. Malcolm Byrnes is an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Howard University College of Medicine.

Diversity is about uniqueness

Diversity is recognizing that while we are all the same, we are also all unique and bring our unique differences to bear on what science we work on, why we work on what we work on and how we approach what we work on.

Avery August is a professor of immunology and chair of Cornell University’s microbiology and immunology department in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sexual harassment and the importance of inclusion

As the community has reacted to sexual harassment in many different forms, we are reminded of a bigger problem in all STEM fields. Gender equity is an ongoing problem especially at higher ranking positions. This results in inexcusable behavior that occurs far too often. Whether it is microaggressions or sexual harassment or a host of other offenses, it is essential to urge all individuals to carefully consider their words and actions toward others. To build a more inclusive community, we must recognize our own unconscious biases or inappropriate behaviors, take responsibility for our actions and consequently change our attitude toward others. For those who cannot treat others with the respect everyone so rightly deserves, consequences should be administered to remedy the problem.

Also, there is a distinct difference between diversity and inclusion that should be recognized in order to create an equitable landscape in any STEM field. Merriam–Webster refers to diversity as “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.” and “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.” Inclusion refers to “the act of including: the state of being included.” You can have diverse organizations or fields, but it can be meaningless if not all individuals feel included. We need to work not only to increase diversity in STEM fields but also inclusivity, as we are unlikely to increase the first without the second.

Shaila Kotadia is the education, outreach and diversity manager for Synberc at the University of California, Berkeley.

Discrimination is country-dependent

The status of diversity and discrimination is country and time-dependent. When I immigrated to Canada 30 years ago, the professional standards related to discrimination by gender, religion, color, sexual preferences, etc. were somewhat relaxed. I have seen the progressive change of these standards from the state of “some tolerance” to a state of “zero tolerance.” My current institution is very vigilant regarding issues of equality, discrimination and harassment in the workplace and is continuously educating the staff on what is acceptable and what is not. There are serious consequences for offenders, and there are professionals who listen to and handle complaints. Bottom line: There is no more a gray zone for discriminatory or abusive behavior in the workplace, and workers are encouraged to report offenders, who may get punished severely for inappropriate actions (even if such actions are purportedly intended as “jokes”).

My interaction with international colleagues has confirmed repeatedly that professional standards related to diversity, discrimination and harassment are very different in other countries. I have witnessed clear cases of sexual harassment in the workplace (verbal, touching, joking, etc.) that seem to pass unnoticed by the victims. Clearly, the lack of strong directives on what is permitted and what is not permitted in the workplace encourages abusers to continue their customary behavior and discourages the abused from reporting them.

In my estimation, eventually, in most countries, institutions will adopt the principles of zero tolerance, educate all employees on what constitutes discrimination and abuse, and will open specialized offices that will deal with education, counseling and punishment of offenders. When these policies are in place, I predict that all forms of discrimination and abuse in the workplace will be highly diminished.

Eleftherios Diamandis is head of the clinical biochemistry division at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and division head of clinical biochemistry at the University of Toronto.

Comfort of quick consensus may suppress diversity

Imagination is often essential to making a transformative breakthrough. Scientists routinely imagine how molecules move and fit together, anthropomorphize proteins and cells, and try to draw useful analogies between familiar everyday phenomena and molecular events that can be detected only indirectly. These mental exercises can be strongly influenced by each scientist’s personal perspective. Brainstorming to crack a previously intractable problem is obviously less effective if every person’s vision is similar. Similarly experienced individuals may rapidly reach consensus, but they may miss the chance for a creative leap forward. The comfort of that quick consensus may be one driver of the implicit bias that suppresses diversity in the field. Nevertheless — in addition to the clear demands of fairness and the personal benefits of working with a varied group of colleagues — research by diverse teams is both more rewarding and more original.

Despite broad and explicit institutional commitments to inclusion and official invitations to women and members of underrepresented groups to join scientific leadership, representation is still low. The persistent barriers to parity may be founded on outdated or biased evaluation strategies and unconscious discrimination by benevolent but still unenlightened leaders. Moreover, dissenting hypotheses may not be welcome even when well supported by data — particularly if out-of-the box ideas are put forth by those who don’t outwardly conform to the accepted scientist phenotype. We have hope in sustained efforts to research and address the structural obstacles to equality and, importantly, efforts to effectively educate those already in power about how to be welcoming, open-minded and inclusive.

Jean Cook is an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics and associate dean for graduate education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Diverse groups perform best

As scientists, we should be driven by data. I think perhaps the most powerful argument for the importance of diversity is the established scientific fact that groups of diverse problem solvers actually can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. See Lu Hong and Scott E. Page’s paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study settled the question of the tangible benefit of diversity for me. But of course, whenever policies that affect people are concerned, there is also the question of simple human decency. I find it reassuring and heartwarming that diversity is beneficial to our practical outcomes as well as to our sense of humanity.

Gregory A. Petsko is a former ASBMB president. He is the Arthur J. Mahon professor of neurology and neuroscience and the director of the Helen and Robert Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Societies and institutions need to do better

My experience as a member of ASBMB for most of my career and an especially strong advocate for inclusion for minorities and women for just as long of a time, is that BMB (i.e., the ASBMB) is just like all of the other sciences and societies (the Endocrine Society, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the American Society for Cell Biology, etc.) in that they love to talk the talk about diversity and inclusion, but all you have to do is look at the numbers (memberships, officers, administrators, sessions/themes at conferences, etc.) to see that no one is really walking the walk. Am I cynical? Just honest, frustrated and angry that science and, actually academia in general, is discriminatory, elitist and totally not about embracing what benefits inclusion can offer. The problem? White privilege has long ruled the academy, and society for that matter. And as someone who has fought intensely against that for many years, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. This is especially disappointing when, as scientists, we see the paucity of diversity everywhere but are really not committed to try and fix it. Hell, even the National Institutes of Health, which talks a lot about diversity and has actually numerous programs designed to achieve it, only has 2 percent black principal investigators! What does that say?

Thomas Landefeld is a professor of biology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of “Mentoring and Diversity: Tips for Students and Professionals for Developing and Maintaining a Diverse Scientific Community.”

Evidence-based training and mentoring practices

Practical implications for improving diversity in STEM education and training

Recent national conversations about the benefits of diversity in university science classrooms are stimulated in part by a case before the Supreme Court of the United States that has reignited a firestorm of interest in how diversity is engaged, or not, in many areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the backdrop of these intense and needed discussions, there is a growing recognition in biochemistry and many other areas of STEM that an increased ability to identify and integrate evidence-based practices for recruiting, training and retaining a diverse pool of individuals and for improving mentoring for broadening participation is needed (see here, here, here and here). The specific roles and responsibilities that STEM professors and administrators, particularly those receiving federal funding, should have in securing future access and success for individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in STEM also are being debated. Related to this, a need to document the outcomes of broader impacts and outreach, particularly those efforts supported with public funding, is a growing concern for many. There have been calls for public funding agencies, which provide substantial financial research support to a large number of institutions that continue to struggle with recruiting and retaining student body populations and faculty compositions that reflect national demographics, to serve as catalysts in driving needed changes through supporting evaluation of progress and evidence of advancement and dissemination in the areas of broader impact, in addition to more widely accepted metrics for primary research efforts, for funded endeavors and continued eligibility for funding (see here, here, here and here). These concerns represent an opportunity for the development of progressive and potentially transformative initiatives that center the work of broader impacts and attempts to promote diversity in STEM in the effective engagement of evidence-based mentoring and outreach practices. One potential avenue for promoting such change is through research partnerships or “communities of practice” that include STEM primary investigators and higher education researchers in the social sciences, education and organizational development who are studying factors contributing to STEM success. There is great potential for such efforts to play a critical role in accelerating progress in improving diversity in STEM recruitment, retention, education and training to sustain our nation’s STEM educational enterprise.

Beronda L. Montgomery is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University.