Always room for one more

This was first published as a note on the Bioconjugate Chemistry facebook page. -Erin

When I was in college, the dining hall was organized with large, round tables, and smaller square ones. The round tables sat 8-10 people easily, and the smaller tables were designed for 4. Most people gravitated towards the smaller tables or, if the small tables were full, towards opposite sides of the large tables, except for one group.

Every evening, at 5 pm when the dining hall opened, a group of people gathered at the first big table. Each time a new person showed up, they cheered. When the table was full and someone showed, they cheered “detray, detray…” to make more room. When the table was full, and people would come up slowly, someone would always announce, “there’s always room for one more.” Room was found, even if it meant merging multiple tables. No one was ever turned away. As loud and chaotic as it could be at that table, everyone listened to each other. I have a quiet voice, and I never, once, had to yell to be heard. The loud people were loud, the quiet were quiet, and there was room for everyone.

I was a very shy freshman who really wondered if I’d find my place in College. This group, and their motto was an important part of feeling included. I didn’t sit with them every evening, but I was always welcome, no matter how full the table was, and I was always invited to be part of all of the chaos.

I think about that group of people a lot when I think about inclusive excellence. Just knowing that everyone was welcome changed the way the dining hall and the dorm were. It was a practice that set a culture whether it was hockey teams, the annual musical, or the Thursday night panic to get through the problem sets due on Friday. The brilliant thing was that everyone was welcome, period. The anxiety of being part of something was eliminated. Instead, we all focused on what we wanted to do.

How do we incorporate this mentality in science? I think we start with the words. If there is always room for one more, how do we support them? How do we make space and invite people in? I think we start by valuing each person’s strengths and are open about our own shortcomings. I think we change the way we approach graduate education from a place where people have to prove that they belong to a place where we learn how to help people capitalize on their strengths to do novel research. I think we stop seeing whether or not people are worthy of tenure and start supporting work that truly is interdisciplinary, inclusive, and by that, excellent. We value people and groups who go beyond traditional boundaries and expectations and who support each other.

Inclusion doesn’t stop at those who work in research labs. We need to expand the table to include the lay public not just as listeners but as people who are valuable partners in science. We all wonder about things. How do we go beyond demos and simple data collection to helping each other to ask questions and find solutions to the daily challenges we face? We need to work together not only to look for answers but to figure out what questions we need to be asking. Foster curiosity and provide the tools to start to pursue questions.

There is always room for one more.


Launch Committees: A walk to lunch

Many of my colleagues have been circulating an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about U. Michigan which has done exceptional work in promoting diversity and inclusion in the faculty and leadership in the College of Engineering (Chronicle article)

What they have done and what they have learned is exceptional, and they have made the investment to try new things, to study the outcomes, and to institutionalize the best practices.

Two of their major initiatives are their STRIDE program and Launch Committees. Launch committees are near and dear to my heart– they were envisioned and started by myself and GQ Zhang when we were at Case Western as part of the ADVANCE leadership program there.

GQ and I were told we would be the representatives from Engineering. I had just come on campus, and GQ was trying to be more integrated in Engineering (most of his time had been at the med. school), so it made sense. We had no idea what it meant, but we said we’d help. I’m sure information was shared with us, but like the good faculty we were, we had missed all of the information.

We were walking to a lunch meeting with the ADVANCE team and suddenly realized that we were supposed to have a plan for a project. GQ and I dropped back from the group. “Did you know we needed a plan and that we were presenting?” GQ responded, “No. Thoughts?” And so, as we walked we started talking about what we wished we would have had that would have helped us succeed.

There was no research, no investigating the literature. We just talked. Both of us felt like getting started was tremendously hard, and both of us felt incredibly isolated in our first positions. I had moved to Case Western in the hopes of being in a more collegial, collaborative environment. I vented about how frustrated I was that no one seems to think about where a person will go or what space they need until after they start. GQ wished people tried to help make connections.

Over the course of the walk, we put a plan together. By the time we sat down for lunch, Launch committees were born. I can’t help but think that seeing the lunch menu spurred the idea of calling it launch committees, but I don’t remember.

We were given a coach, Helen Williams, who was beyond great. We both wondered what a coach did, and as we learned, she helped us figure out how to implement it. She brought up the idea of a checklist so we could make sure all the committees covered the critical content. It also helped with tracking.

We were in the middle of a strategic hiring initiative, and GQ and I were both involved in the hiring, so it made it relatively seemless to organize them. We didn’t require the new faculty to have launch committees, but we were delighted that the vast majority wanted them. Our early data was promising. People had the space they needed earlier and, based on interviews, had more contacts and connections that were leading to collaborations.

After two years, we were supposed to turn over running the program to the associate dean for faculty development. Unfortunately, that person stepped down and the position wasn’t filled. We ran it in an ad hoc way for people and departments who were willing to participate, but it stopped being the norm.

We presented on the project at the IDEAL leadership Plenary ADVANCE meeting in 2011. A number of colleagues from the universities in attendance asked for the how to guide. We happily shared it. Our colleagues at U. Michigan ran with it and did formal studies of the impact and published the work.

Launch committees have a positive effect on getting faculty started and helping to support them as they grow and become part of the university. It is worth taking the time to invest early and often with new faculty in a formal way. It helps them get started, but it also helps to build a practice of collaboration across disciplines.

I’m thrilled that it has become a successful and formal part of U. Michigan’s approach to helping faculty be successful and that it is part of what has increased inclusion and diversity of the faculty. I hope more and more universities embrace the practice. I’ll never forget, though, that it all started when GQ and I asked what we would have liked and then tried to figure out how to make it happen as we walked to lunch.