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‘If you can name it, you can tame it’: How exposing academic culture helps students

When Diedra Wrighting saw a preprint published last month reporting that Black scientists disproportionately “leak” out of the academic pipeline following their Ph.D. and postdoc years,  she wasn’t surprised. “Not one of my women of color friends is currently a scientist working at the bench, like we were as graduate students,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean she thinks the data are unimportant. “I’m personally very interested in understanding the ‘whys’ behind that,” says Wrighting, who now works as executive director of the ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development at Northeastern University.  

She’s also committed to trying to make a dent in that phenomenon. Her efforts include developing a course for undergraduate students to better prepare them for the culture of graduate school, unveiling some aspects of the so-called “hidden curriculum.” The unconventional course, which she created with others while she worked in a student support role at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, was open to all but geared toward increasing the persistence of students who belong to groups underrepresented in science, such as racial and ethnic minorities. Through the course, students learned about mentee-mentor relationships, imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, and unconscious bias; engaged in discussions about how a scientist’s identity intersects with their work; and developed confidence communicating about their work, as described in a paper published online this month.

Science Careers spoke with Wrighting—the lead author of the paper—about the course and her own experiences training as a scientist. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why do you see it as important to look beyond academic training when preparing students for grad school?  

A: A lot of it comes from personal experience. I don’t come from a family of scientists. When I was in grad school, I would go home for Christmas break and come back, and my colleagues who had scientists in their families would have all of these experimental ideas. Their world was permeated by these conversations, and mine wasn’t at home. There was so much more going on than just what we were doing in the lab and in the classroom. So the question is: How do you capture all of that for first generation students, who just happen to not have the same background as some of their peers? That’s a large part of what the class does—it captures these things that some students happen to know because of their background.

Q: Looking back, what knowledge gaps do you think you had when you started grad school that you wish had been filled in through a course?

Diedra Wrighting

Diedra Wrighting

A: I think there’s always, for me, been a subcontext I didn’t know about. I grew up in San Francisco, in a very diverse situation. Then I went to Howard University, which is a historically Black university. During those periods I wasn’t really confronted with some of the identity issues that came up as a Ph.D. student, like being completely ignored during meetings. I don’t know that people consciously did that. But sometimes I would transmit an idea and it wouldn’t land, and then 3 minutes later someone else said the same thing. How come everybody was excited about what I said, coming from someone else’s mouth? I internalized all of that—it was all personal, it was all something that I was doing wrong. It really was demoralizing. If you’re not being heard, are you a good scientist? Sometimes I would think, did I say it wrong? And I didn’t know about systemic structures or unconscious bias or ways to cope with them that could have taken some of that pressure off of me as the sole person responsible for all of these things that were happening.

So one thing we tried to transmit with the course—and I think we were successful—is confidence. Each of the students participated in a research project while they were taking the class and their mentors submitted anecdotal feedback, telling us that the students were so much more engaged and had this confidence about their science and their ideas that they didn’t have before taking the course. And that’s something that’s not tangible—how do you transmit confidence to someone? How do you transmit this belief that they don’t have to check their identity at the door, that their identity actually contributes to their success?

Q: That’s a good question. How do you do that?

A: One of my co-authors, Bruce Birren, used to say this often, and it became a mantra: If you can name it, you can tame it. Once you have something to point to—oh, I’m experiencing this problem because of unconscious bias or some other phenomenon that really doesn’t have anything to do with me, and this is how I address that directly—then it becomes much easier to navigate.

One of the magical things about the course was that all of the instructors talked about their own experience. All of the mentors who attended the classes did as well. I remember a very powerful moment when we were talking about anxiety during presentations and how people deal with that, and a mentor talked about how terrified they were of speaking and what she did to overcome that. And you could see—especially for the person she worked with, but also everyone in the room—it was a “we’re not alone” moment, like, “Wow, other people go through this and have overcome it and I can, too, and I’m learning from that person.” I think this class really made people human beings that you could interact with and have relationships with—even though in some cultures it’s very difficult to have that type of close relationship with someone who’s supposed to be your superior.

Q: I’m curious how you came up with the curriculum, which includes science communication training mixed in with discussions about mentor-mentee relationships and identity. I think someone could look at those as disparate topics. How did you decide on those focal points?

A: They really come from data on barriers to persistence. If you can’t communicate your science, you’re not going to go very far. And if you can’t get the most out of the relationships with your mentors, you’re not going to go very far. And if you allow parts of your identity or others’ identities to hold you back, you’re not going to go very far. Those are, in my mind, the three main buckets that can hold a scientist back.

But the course material was a work in progress the entire time. With each iteration of the course, a lot changed. It was a combination of the instructors, who each brought their own body of knowledge, and interacting with the students and seeing what they needed and incorporating that.

Q: You write in the paper that the course was designed to benefit all students, including those who don’t identify as part of an underrepresented group. Did the course open some students’ eyes to the experiences of people who aren’t like them?

A: I think that’s part of what happened. Another good thing that happened is we thought of diversity not just as race, but everything you’re bringing. We would do identity exercises and have students basically list different aspects of their identity. At first they’d say things like “I’m conscientious”—those types of characteristics were the first things to come out. We had to sort of dig to get them to identify other intersectional identities like race and gender. But I think that everybody in the course got in touch with the things that were diverse about them. If you think of an iceberg, there’s what you can see and there’s everything below—and the students really had a lot of diversity that wasn’t obvious, like their views on religion and politics. By doing those exercises, I think people also got to see their privilege in a different light and hopefully latch on to the idea that those with privilege can really affect change.

Another question that we would ask students is how their identity is a benefit in the lab. This a hard question to answer, especially as a bench scientist because many people think when you enter the lab, your identity is out of the picture. The best answer came from a social scientist. She mentioned how, as an undergraduate student, she was working with a group designing a survey using one dialect of Creole. She happened to know that the population they were going to be surveying really spoke a different dialect, so their survey wouldn’t have worked. So that was her big contribution—and that was huge. Other students, like I said, had a really hard time, but they ended up seeing benefits for the interpersonal environment in the lab, where they saw that their identity really did bring something to that. We didn’t tell them “you matter”—they derived for themselves that they matter.

Q: Did that happen for you as a scientist? Did you have any moments when some aspect of your identity was an asset?

A: This was prominent in my own experience. When I started my postdoc in a genetics lab, I had little human genetics experience. But I really wanted to understand some of the racial dynamics that happened with the research group’s studies, and that just wasn’t something that others were thinking about at the time. That was important because we studied diabetes, which disproportionately impacts people of color.

Q: I could see someone looking at your course and expressing concern that you’re trying to “fix” the students before throwing them into a system that treats them poorly or puts up roadblocks. What are your thoughts about larger scale systemic issues and the need to address those as well?

A: Right. I agree with that. I’ve thought that myself: “Are people going to think we’re trying to fix these undergraduate students?” But nothing about the curriculum was “fixing” or deficit model. We were building the students up. That’s important because systems aren’t going to change tomorrow.

In terms of systemic issues, we did address that through interventions with the mentors. Many of the mentors received mentor training, and they also got to attend classes and follow the student along with the curriculum. The mentors, especially the first time we ran the course, were there almost every night, doing the course with us, understanding how to give and receive feedback, for example. I think that’s really a big part of it—working to improve the environments where the students are learning to become scientists.

As part of the course, the students were also given an assignment to interview their mentor. They asked questions like, “What aspects of your identity do you bring with you? What do you leave at home? What aspects of your identity are important in your work?” By the end of the course, students were much closer to their mentor in ways that I don’t think they would have been otherwise.

Q: I could imagine, too, that if the mentor felt as though they benefited from having those types of conversations, maybe they’d start having them with other members of their research group.

A: I hope so. No one told me about that directly. But I think people worry about how much of themselves to bring into the work environment. And for the principal investigator to be able to be comfortable to signal, “I know that you’re a whole person and I appreciate that and want you to bring your whole self into the lab”—if they can do that then I think it would be positive.

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