Ways to Rethink How We do Academic Work to be More Inclusive

Black lives matter. They matter everywhere, and they matter in science and engineering, but we have far too many barriers and far too few colleagues.

There are so many structures we have in academia that whether we are willing to admit it or not are designed to see if people can hack it. It’s such a strange demented thing. Science and Engineering are already tough enough without putting up artificial barriers. These barriers become pressure points for structural racism, sexism, and bias.

Doctoral Students. If we want to be inclusive and empower students for success, fund them. Don’t fund them on research grants where they are beholden to a specific investigator who, in turn, is beholden to the whims of funding. Fund the students. We have NSF fellowships and others, and they are phenomenal. They give students great opportunities. If if were not for an NSF Fellowship years ago, I would have left science. It allowed me to change fields and find my passion. We need more of these opportunities.

Funding Agencies. Study section pains me. Grant applications should be blind. Study sections shouldn’t judge the talents of an investigator. It’s bunk. It comes up when reviewers find fault. Someone didn’t publish enough of had a gap. Is the work important? Is it innovative? Great. If we are truly putting out PhDs who can propose innovative work, it should be funded. Stop basing proposals on perceived track records and start basing them in creative, important work.

Publishing. In fields where publishers have moved to double blind reviews, the diversity of authors increased. Why is it so important that we know who the authors are?

Team science. We need to find more opportunities for everyone who wants to be part of a team to be part of one. It is incredibly difficult to do science in a silo, but if you are a woman or minority in science, chances are you will not have the same opportunities to collaborate, and if you do, you’re going to be doing the majority of the work– diminishing the impact of being on the team. We need to find ways to promote building more diverse and inclusive teams. Incentives related to funding and publishing can help change the landscape.

These are small but important steps to help change the structural flaws in the system. If academia really wants to undo the structures, start with getting rid of tenure. Tenure is not about freedom of speech. If it was, it would be for all faculty. Tenure is about propagating the status quo.

The status quo needs to change.

Shock, Horror, and the Role We Can Play

I feel like I’m letting my students down. I look at what is happening, and I don’t have the words. In too short a time, the list of names is far too long. I saw the video of George Floyd being pinned down, begging for his life, calling for him mother, and I wanted to reach through the screen and tear that officer off him and hold him and tell him it would be ok.

It is not ok. It is terrible, and horrible, and unthinkable, except how can it be unthinkable when it keeps happening.

So, what do we do? We demand better from our governments, our officials, our colleagues. We stand with each other and say enough. We stop using the terminology of savagery that tries to dehumanize humans and we get over our fear that our parents tried to teach us and treat people as full human beings regardless of their race, gender, orientation, or any of the other preconceived classifications we could derive to debase their humanity.

But that is not enough. In every aspect of our lives, we participate in the structures that contribute to racism. How many times have I sat in reviews where the person’s race was discussed? How many times have I heard it used to explain their failure, and how many times have I thought, what failure are they talking about? I spoke, but never loudly enough or often enough.

Women are speaking out, but too often they are speaking out against black men. I look at how Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog and her response, and I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve been told to be scared of being alone with a man, especially a black man. We are finding our voices, but using them for the wrong reason too much of the time– to feed fear rather than finding a new structure where being asked to leash a dog is the legal and sane thing and an opportunity for a conversation about the space rather than a threat.

My mother gave me the greatest gift. She implored me to be brave and speak out. We all need to speak out and speak up for our students, our colleagues, and our discipline. We need to change the structures of academia that allow us to window dress our racist beliefs with structures and procedures that we claim insulate us and force us to be more inclusive.

There is nothing inclusive about a search that can’t find women or one that revels in an African American professor like a pet. The pet to threat transition is real, and we have to stop allowing it.

In music, artists began auditioning behind a screen, and it changed the makeup of orchestras. We have to find the screen to apply in academia for students, for faculty, for staff, and for ourselves, because we have for far too long pretended to care while perpetuating the same biases seen in society at large.

In the meantime, we need to listen to our students, be at their sides, and refuse bow to a government that again and again not only allows but supports people who murder citizens.

Innovating During the Pandemic

In my administrative role, I think a lot about labs, and I think a lot about mentoring faculty and their success. With the pandemic, some of the things we do are scuttled, but we have an opportunity to not only do those things differently, but at least in some cases, do them better.

We have new faculty who are scheduled to start this Fall. Normally, we reach out over the Summer, but for many, contact increases as the Fall starts. This year, more of our incoming faculty are excited about having launch committees not only to help them get started successfully, but to also have regular contacts before they are meeting in person. It’s a first step along the way to helping welcome them and have them be part of the community.

We have faculty who are going up for promotion and tenure. I have been humbled by colleagues who are organizing pretenure online talks. This is brilliant. Not everyone can afford or is at an institution that can afford to pay for faculty to do the circuit as they get ready to turn in their packages. This offers a brilliant opportunity for people to get to see their talks and learn about their work first hand even if they cannot attend a talk. I hope we all keep this moving forward. It’s a chance to level the playing field a bit.

We have researchers who have risen to the challenge to rethink how they do research. On this, I am absolutely humbled. Most of my work involves chemicals one doesn’t want in one’s house. In fact, my insurance company a number of years ago asked me to sign something that stated I would not do chemistry at home. But I’ve been inspired by my colleagues who have thought through how they might be able to do at least some part of their work at home whether it is collecting and storing environmental samples, 3D printing components, testing sensors, or even printing electronics. My seven year old is getting roped into my work to see if we can print structures for a project. It may not be the highest resolution science I will ever do, but it will be the most fun, and perhaps, we’ll gain some new insights into what can be done.

Reopening labs without leaving people behind

My lab does bench work. We can analyze data and do a bit of modeling, but in the end, we make and test things at the bench. If we’re not at the bench, there are questions we cannot answer. I love our work, and I want to get back to it.

Beyond running a lab, I help to mentor faculty, and I sit on a committee to discuss how to reopen labs safely. These three tasks are coming to head now. Like many institutions, we want to reopen research labs with a low density of people. It is possible, and there is interest in doing this before schools, camps, and childcare will be open. Ultimately, we are a state institution who must follow State guidelines, but as we talk about what would need to be in place from our perspective to open, childcare is not on the table as a requirement.

I and many of my colleagues are desperately trying to juggle taking care of family members, a full time job, homeschooling, and figuring out how to manage things during the pandemic. (I feel like a hunter returning from the kill when I get groceries or place an online order successfully right now.)

My colleagues who are juggling all of these things are not getting out more grants or more papers. They don’t look like they are sleeping in many cases. I feel their pain.

Reopening labs without ways to support families stinks. It is another not so subtle way of saying how little we value people who have lives and the balance they are trying to find. Even if we don’t mean to say that, it’s awfully hard not to hear it. So, what do we do?

Maybe this is an opportunity to rethink how we do research. When I moved to my current institution, I hoped to be part of a team where multiple PIs worked together and comentored students. We would have each other’s backs. I hoped that we’d be able to build an environment where students could participate at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in more flexible ways that allowed people to be part time or full time in ways that fit with their lives.

In grad. school, I had a colleague who worked from 7 pm to 4 am. He and his partner figured it out so they could both work and raise their families. I’m still not really sure when he slept, but he was an incredible colleague and was always willing to help when I had questions in the wee hours.

We need to change the model. Yes, it is nice to check in, but there are lots of ways to do it asynchronously. It is even nicer to find ways to involve more of us in science and work more broadly. We need more perspectives, and this provides us a way to be more inclusive. We can build teams that provide collaborative ways of working, but we need to be willing to move from the model of one person one project and one person as a head of a lab. If we do it now, we have the potential to help both students and colleagues navigate the pandemic and their work and, perhaps, we can actually do better science in the long term.

The end of academia?

We have all been working remotely for a number of weeks now. In the quiet moments, which is my home are few and far between (and, honestly, I’m really grateful for that), many of us think about what the future will look like. How will the pandemic play out? Will our loved ones be ok? What will happen to our jobs, our friends jobs, our neighbor’s?

I run a research lab. We work at the bench. Everyone is anxious to return. During our last group meeting, everyone wanted to get back to the lab as soon as possible. I do, too…. but then I pause. I want to get back to research. There are so many unanswered questions. But the last thing I could ever want is to put my students, their families, or our community at greater risk. What if we became an inadvertent hub for transmission even with all of us trying to maintain social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, wiping things down. It scares me greatly.

I have colleagues who are looking at the finances and wondering if their universities can survive if they have to open online in the Fall. I have other colleagues who wonder if their departments or mission or institutions will be fundamentally changed by the pandemic. They’re scared. We all really love what we do.

But, I think it is time to stop being scared and time to start doing what we can do really well– envision a new future. How can we make lab classes hands on and accessible even if students start out at home in the Fall? (I am a huge fan of the research care package. It is incredible, when one gets over what one usually does to think about what one might do.) Maybe, some of that would help make classes more accessible moving forward.

How can we build community when people don’t have a history and don’t know each other and can’t even be in the same room? What if we have small groups– 3-4 led by a more senior student. What if those become the basis for learning communities? It isn’t the same, but maybe it is a way to build things out and help make things more interactive than they currently are.

Whatever we do, we have to go back to basics. What are the learning objectives? There is always more than one way to do something. What we have done may work well in person, but what can we do that gets to the same objective with different tools? How do we connect? What helps us feel part of each other?

I am a huge fan of stopping to rethink what we’re doing and why on a regular basis. Perhaps, one positive in the absolute awfulness of a pandemic is to stop and think. To innovate. To engage. To develop new ways to be inclusive. And to carry that with us through the other side of this. Something good can come from this if we create it. I, for one, am starting with research care packages.