Despite evidence that diverse teams of scientists outperform more homogenous teams, women and people of color are severely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the issue, as women were more likely to take on increased domestic burdens, causing research hours and paper production to fall relative to men, while scientists of color took on extra challenges as American society and institutions reckoned with racism in the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The pandemic “has really put the clock back in terms of closing the gap for women and underrepresented minorities,” the Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki told The Atlantic.
“Scientists of color have had a particularly challenging year,” says the DePaul University environmental scientist Bala Chaudhary, “because in addition to being scientists, we also have really stepped up in our role as activists.”
Last year, as Black scientists and academics responded to the racism encountered by the birder Christian Cooper in Central Park and protests against systemic racism with movements such as #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackintheIvory, Chaudhary and her colleague Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil biogeochemistry researcher at UC Merced, wrote a paper titled “10 simple rules for building an antiracist lab.”
“Asmeret and I have both been active in the area of broadening participation in STEM for groups that are historically underrepresented for several years,” explains Chaudhary. “She and I were really bombarded by a lot of requests from scientists saying, ‘We want to do something, but we don’t know what to do. What can we do?’ I’ve been thinking about this a lot for many years, so we were able to put our heads together and come up with this paper.”
The rules range from “Address racism in your lab and field safety guidelines” (a response to the danger that people of color can face in the field, as in the instance of Cooper) to “Publish papers and write grants with BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] colleagues” in order to foster an inclusive lab environment. Chaudhary and Berhe specifically note that such “efforts towards inclusion and retention…should be addressed first,” before recruiting underrepresented groups, to provide a better opportunity for success and address the higher rates of attrition among students of color in STEM—the opposite of a predominant approach that focuses more on recruitment to simply ensure a diverse demographic.
“I think there is increasingly a recognition that diversity by the numbers is not enough, because you can have people of color recruited into toxic environments and then there’s attrition,” says Chaudhary. “It’s not difficult to attract people of color to science, and people of color are certainly prepared for all science careers. It’s the issue of preventing attrition.”
Rather than “building a lab that simply avoids racism” or states that it is “not racist,” Chaudhary and Berhe advocate approaches that specifically address racism. “We really wanted to say that it goes beyond being nice,” explains Chaudhary. “In particular, it goes beyond a color-blind approach of treating everybody the same. Anti-racism in the lab looks like specifically calling out and addressing the historical and contemporary pervasiveness of racism in all sciences, and then working to create systems and policies that break those down.”
Chaudhary drew on her own research into why her field, environmental science, in particular falls short in racial and ethnic diversity compared to other STEM disciplines. “The rules in part came from recommendations that students and trainees have made on how to make environmental science programs more inclusive,” she says.
This activism and work on diversity is in addition to Chaudhary’s scientific research, which focuses on the plant microbiome, specifically mycorrhizal fungi that live in plant roots and deliver nutrients in exchange for carbon sugars. She came to the topic via an interest in endangered species conservation and ecosystem restoration.
“When you’re restoring an ecosystem, it’s difficult to restore degraded soil,” she says. “I realized that we didn’t know much about how to restore healthy soil-microbial communities. So that’s why I went to graduate school and started researching this topic, because the applications are huge when it comes to conserving global biodiversity.”
In her research, Chaudhary seeks to understand how to restore degraded soil to allow roots and plant life to thrive and contribute to biodiversity; in her activism around diversity in STEM, she’s also looking to provide a healthier sort of soil, by addressing racism in order to allow diversity to take root in labs.
Rectifying and dismantling racism in science is difficult, as Chaudhary and Berhe acknowledge in their paper. But it’s an important step to a healthier community.
“As a publicly funded scientist it is literally my job and my responsibility to make sure that the science I do is representative of everyone in our society,” says Chaudhary. “For too long, it has not represented or been done by everybody in our society, and we all suffer as a result, because there’s a limitation to diversity of ideas and viewpoints and approaches. Science will only be better for everybody if it is done by and represents everyone in our society.”