Talking about maximizing access
To increase awareness of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology activities, during my term I’m talking to chairs of the committees that steer the society’s initiatives.
I recently spoke with Sonia Flores of the Maximizing Access Committee, or MAC. Sonia is a professor of pulmonary sciences and critical care at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She has chaired the committee since 2020.
Our conversation has been edited.
AS What led you to join the MAC?
SF About 10 years ago, Craig Cameron invited me to give a talk about my HIV work in a session he organized at an ASBMB annual meeting. After that, he asked me to join what was then called the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee, which he was chairing at the time.
AS What personal experience do you bring to the MAC?
SF I am originally from Puerto Rico. When I moved to the continental U.S. to do my Ph.D., for the first time in my life I was exposed to a lot of microaggressions, a lot of biases, people assuming that I was there as part of a quota. As a Ph.D. student in basic medical sciences, I took classes with medical students who assumed I was inferior.
I realized that there are a lot of students who have no role models, and they have never seen anybody like me getting a Ph.D. I decided that, in addition to my research on free radicals and pulmonary medicine, I would concentrate on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice issues. The MAC is a perfect pairing with what I want to do professionally.
AS What was the rationale for the recent change in the committee’s name from Minority Affairs to Maximizing Access?
SF “Minority” has a negative connotation. When you use the term “minority,” it’s almost implying that individuals choose to be minorities, even though this term has been imposed on them. I am an example. I never thought of myself as a minority until I moved to the continental U.S., and suddenly, I was classified as a minority or whatever moniker was popular at the time.
Maximizing access includes not just different ethnicities but also people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community and first-generation college attendees. The National Institutes of Health has expanded the definition of underrepresented individuals, and after consideration for almost two years, the MAC decided to change as well.
AS Diversity and inclusivity are at the forefront of many conversations today. How has this impacted the MAC and the society?
SF I think it has changed things quite a bit. An example is the move by the ASBMB to infuse diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, or DEAI, into all of the committees. I think the MAC has influenced this. Together with Ciearra Smith, the society’s manager of DEI programs, the MAC plans to help spearhead the incorporation of DEAI into the strategic plans of other committees.
I really like the direction the ASBMB has taken. Diversity should not be something that only the individuals in the MAC care about — everybody should care.
When you look at the sessions at the society’s annual meeting, clearly there is a lot more diversity than 10 to 15 years ago. There are intentional actions by all ASBMB committees and organizers to pay attention to diversity and gender balance. I am very happy that this is happening across the society.
AS The 2023 annual meeting is approaching rapidly. What sessions has the MAC organized for #DiscoverBMB?
SF The sessions organized by the MAC at each annual meeting fall within the framework of biochemistry and molecular biology but with a twist toward health disparities. This year, the focus is on the inherent biases in data sciences and in coding. An example is facial recognition software that can’t differentiate between individuals if they have darker skin color. The individuals who coded the computer failed to account for the many different shades of skin color.
Similar to the documentary film “Coded Bias,” our focus will be on “bias in, bias out.” In the first session, Mahzarin Banaji, one of the developers of the Harvard Implicit Association Test, will talk about biases in general. This session, a joint activity with the ASBMB’s MOSAIC (Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers) program, will be led by MAC member Ruma Banerjee. The subsequent sessions, organized and chaired by MAC member Allison Augustus–Wallace, will be about bias in coding, especially when using genetic information and genomic information to make inferences about susceptibility to diseases.
AS One of the events that I most enjoy at the annual meeting is the MAC reception. What can we look forward to this year in Seattle?
SF The MAC reception provides an opportunity for all meeting attendees to network with our Graduate Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion travel awardees and MOSAIC scholars. The DEI travel awardees will present posters during the reception. This year, we will also highlight the 10 recipients of our Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates.
The MAC reception will be held in the exhibit hall on Saturday evening, at the end of the first day of the meeting; it has been scheduled to avoid conflicts with other receptions. We anticipate a large turnout for this event, which has a tradition of high energy, great conversation and delicious food. I look forward to seeing you there!(To mark Black History Month 2023, members of the MAC have shared their picks for what to read and watch.)
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