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Leadership Institute Promotes Diverse Perspectives in STEM

During the 2017 Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute at AAAS' headquarters in Washington, participants discussed strategies for promoting diversity and inclusiveness in the science community. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Researcher Judith Simcox was completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry when she realized she was not sure what she wanted to pursue once wrapping up her graduate studies.

Simcox, a first-generation Filipino American with Crow Indian ancestry, was completing her graduate work at the University of Utah, an institution with a graduate student body comprised of 64 percent white and 54 percent male students in 2016.

“There’s this feeling of not belonging anywhere in particular,” Simcox said.

Coincidently, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) established a chapter at the University of Utah at the same time to provide professional development workshops and other learning resources for scientists from underrepresented groups including women and minority scientists, as well as science students with disabilities.

“SACNAS kind of saved me,” said Simcox, now a postdoctoral fellow at the university and active member of her university’s graduate student SACNAS chapter. The organization, which has 115 student and professional chapters and approximately 6,000 members, aims to foster the success of Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists by building a national network of mentors, providing professional development and leadership trainings, and cultivating a sense of community among scientists from underrepresented groups.

Simcox was one of 30 scientists, chosen from a pool of more than 70 applicants, who participated in the 2017 Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute. Leadership Institute applicants must have a doctorate degree, preferably in a field related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The program, held at AAAS headquarters in Washington from July 17-21, provided leadership training for underrepresented scientists through group exercises, keynote speakers and opportunities to network with other scientists. A variety of topics, including case studies related to implicit bias and how it can be mitigated, managing emotions in the workplace and discussions of what it means to be a leader were explored during the 16 sessions.

SACNAS Program Manager Eben Lindsey said that the opportunity to build relationships with other scientists is one of the program’s major strengths. “To be in a room where they can speak honestly about their experiences can be incredibly powerful,” Lindsey said.

Simcox applied for the Leadership Institute eager to learn how best to handle conflict head-on, something a lack of diversity can make difficult to navigate, she said.

“You learn to pick up cultural cues and fit in anywhere,” she said, “but one of the problems with that is you start to lose your own individual voice because you’re trying to be pleasant and fit in.”

Since the inception of the Leadership Institute in 2009, SACNAS has put out a national call each year for scientists to submit applications to participate in the program. As part of the process, applicants answer questions about their leadership experience and goals.

Based on the responses, SACNAS reviewers select and invite applicants who are most likely to benefit from the Leadership Institute to participate. Potential participants are required to be SACNAS members so applicants are asked to join the organization before they apply.

Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, welcomed participants on the opening day of the weeklong SACNAS leadership event. He underscored AAAS’ longtime dedication to promoting diversity in the science community.

“Science cannot be an elitist or an exclusionary undertaking,” said Holt. “It must be as broad as the society that it asks for support.”

National Science Foundation Director France Córdova echoed that sentiment when she addressed Leadership Institute participants on July 20, saying science is “too important for anyone to be left out.”

“We need all hands on deck in order to keep the U.S. at the forefront of research and development,” said Córdova.

Hosting scientists from diverse backgrounds is a major priority of the Leadership Institute. Program manager Lindsey noted that the institute seeks to represent a “diversity of scientific disciplines and sectors” as well as cultural diversity among its participants.

Among the 30 post-doctoral researchers chosen each year to participate in the Leadership Institute are early-career and mid-career scientists. Blending experience levels ensures a variety of professional backgrounds and perspectives are represented.

The Leadership Institute featured receptions, dinners and other opportunities that allowed participating scientists to network with one another and build a sense of community. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

The prospect of building a community of scientists with diverse backgrounds, particularly those from underrepresented groups, is part of what drew Marcus Lambert to apply and win a position at this year’s Leadership Institute.

Lambert’s background is in biomedical science and the study of mood disorders, but he began his career in 2014 as the director of diversity at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University’s medical school.

Since then, Lambert has been helping promote diversity and inclusion at his institution through initiatives like the Advancing Cornell Career Experiences for Science Students Summer Internship Program, which gives underrepresented undergraduates a chance to work in the laboratory of a research mentor.

He said that taking part in the Leadership Institute provides a unique opportunity to network with scientists and members of the academic community that come from a variety of backgrounds.

“It’s not often that you get to interact with underrepresented faculty from around the nation,” said Lambert, adding that the program also provides time to evaluate personal goals as a scientist and leader.

“We often get so caught up in the day-to-day,” Lambert said, “but having the time to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses is very important.”

Shirley Malcom, director of the AAAS Education and Human Resources department, was among the event’s keynote speakers. Malcom urged the scientists to appreciate the value that they can bring to leadership positions and the science community.

“Just know that you have something to bring to the party and don’t apologize for it,” said Malcom.

[Associated image: Stephen Waldron/AAAS]