A group, mostly consisting of neuroscientists, meets bi-weekly outside the lab with a simple but powerful common purpose – to fundamentally change the bench.
“This experience has been eye-opening,” said Manuel Gomez-Ramirez, Ph.D., assistant professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and chair of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Diversity Commission. “It is such a diverse group in every sense – cultural, gender, experience in both academics and non-academics – we are all able to have input and listen to each other while considering different perspectives and focusing on one problem together.”
In 2020, the Neuroscience Diversity Commission (NDC) was formed following a letter penned by the director of the Del Monte Institute, John Foxe, Ph.D., in response to the death of George Floyd. It read in part:
Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D., M.S. (’10), Ph.D. (’13), read the letter while he was in Washington, D.C., serving as principal investigator and the director of Basic Neuroscience Research in the Center for Neuroscience Research at The Children's National Hospital and Research Institute and assistant professor of Pediatrics and Pharmacology and Physiology at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Though states away, he felt drawn to become part of the percolating movement at his alma mater. “I went through it. I was the first African American to graduate from the [Neuroscience Graduate] program. I had to be a part of the change to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. I did not create the problem, but I wanted to be a part of the solution to fix it,” Smith said, who has since returned to Rochester as an associate professor of Neuroscience and associate dean for Equity and Inclusion in Research and Research Education in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “I believe in the mission here. I think that by putting the right people at the table, we can make a substantial change in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want to be a part of that and make sure we get it right.”
June 2020 was pivotal for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Rochester Medical Center and School of Medicine and Dentistry. It was the month that the CEO of URMC and SMD Dean Mark Taubman, M.D., committed to a comprehensive equity and anti-racism plan for our Medical Center. Adrienne Morgan, Ph.D., vice president for Equity and Inclusion, URMC and senior associate dean for Equity and Inclusion, SMD, took the helm of this initiative. Two months later, she also became a member of the NDC.
“The Neuroscience Diversity Commission should be the model that other departments look to in this space,” Morgan said. “The fact that they have brought in external people to be a part of their efforts to get a more diverse sense of what is happening in the world and bring that back to our institution and share what we are doing outward has been transformative.”
CREATING A PATHWAY TO THE BENCH
The NDC is organized across three main action groups – Pathways, Cultural Transformation, and Community Connections. Under the Pathways umbrella, two programs aim to provide real-world lab access to historically marginalized, minoritized, or excluded students.
NEUROCITY developed as a partnership with City College of New York. In its first year, eight students spent 10 weeks working in neuroscience research labs and living on the University of Rochester campus. “The program has helped me tremendously to understand how graduate school and research work. It has also allowed me to explore the neuroscience field, something that I never thought of doing before, and now it is a career I am considering pursuing,” one of the program’s scholars said.
NEUROEAST is another Pathway program created by the NDC. This program is a partnership with East High School in the Rochester City School District. East is designed and monitored by the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education and Human Development. High school juniors and seniors rotate through multiple labs for the academic year and learn how to navigate the education and training necessary to pursue a career in research. “It’s changed my life. I want to do this for my life,” said one of the students in the program. Another expressed how it has encouraged their love of science. They now have a desire to pursue teaching the subject.
“These programs have created invaluable partnerships,” said Gomez-Ramirez. “Being able to provide these students a real-world experience working in research labs sets the foundation the future of science. Progress in neuroscience depends on having the best researchers doing the work. And to find the best, we must provide access to all."
TRANSFORMING THE CULTURE OF ACADEMIA
Creating this access is only sustainable if the support for trainees and faculty is also in place. The NDC’s effort to diversify the bench aims to give students faculty who look like them and cultivate a place that values different perspectives and backgrounds. Smith’s move back to Rochester is an example of this momentum. “I know this work is not going to fix everything overnight,” said Smith. “But by saying these are the issues or problems that need to be addressed and not shying away from them is the start to making the systemic changes necessary to transform academia.”
There is a depth of experience levels on the NDC, and students like Shraddha Shah, a neuroscience graduate student who has been with the commission since its inception, play an integral role in its effort. She is an intricate part of the group implementing the Lab Mentorship Certification Program. This program will train both mentors and mentees and give them tools to create a more equitable and inclusive lab environment. She is also a founding member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program Student Solidarity Organization (SSO), which has provided an avenue for gathering student perspectives to bring to the NDC. It has allowed the groups to work collaboratively toward a similar goal.
“One of the hard and early lessons one learns in academia is the immense value that the ‘hidden curriculum’ plays in one’s success, especially if you are a trainee,” Shah said. “An important goal for me working on the mentorship project has been to work toward eliminating these knowledge gaps. I am very excited that our pilot versions of the program had significant mentee participation and feedback. And that we were also able to work with mentors as well. It is a special feeling to see ideas in action that hold the potential to lead to systemic changes. It has only been possible due to the intentionality that the SSO and NDC have brought into the process, providing a space to put forth our most genuine selves and voice frustrations about the broken parts of our systems.”
Collaboration is a key component to the success of the NDC. A new seminar series – NEURO YES – Neuroscience Young Investigator Extramural Seminar is being hosted by NDC, the Center for Visual Science, and the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. This series will bring early-career investigators to the University of Rochester to share their work and elevate their experience and exposure while creating a network of scientists interested in building an inclusive and equitable culture in academia. The first speakers will come to the University in fall 2022.
Providing a space where people from different backgrounds can conduct research will cultivate a culture where better ideas, questions, and ultimately research can be born. This work could also change what study subjects look like, providing valuable information to the neuroscience community for all demographics. “I think making sure that scientists also look at their research through their diversity, equity, and inclusion lens is important,” said Morgan. “This is significant because when we look at studies, they very rarely involve diverse populations. DEI efforts remind researchers that they need to be more inclusive in the research that they are doing.”
This year marks two years since NDC started, and its work seems far from waning. But change has come to the commission as students graduate. New people are joining, but it leaves questions about how the work will be sustained for the long term. According to Morgan, setting measurable goals is one way to ensure efforts continue.
“I also think having everyone at the table is key. And so is constant engagement,” Smith said. “You have to have the conversation. Yes, you will get tired, but being tired does not negate your responsibility for creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment. It is our job to continue to train the best scientists for the future. And if we are going to do that, we have to have it open for all.”
“We have created an awareness amongst people that this is the work we need to do; this is the blueprint that we put in place to get there,” said Morgan, reflecting on the NDC and the URMC Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “We need people to come along with us, and I feel that there is a groundswell that has not been there before to do the work in the diversity, equity and inclusion space.”
Originally published in NEUROSCIENCE Volume 13.