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.

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