Next Generation Faculty Symposium: Enhancing STEM Diversity in Higher Education

November 12, 2020

The Stanford.Berkeley.UCSF Next Generation Faculty Symposium held its inaugural event on October 23rd to highlight the work of exceptional early-career scientists in the broad field of quantitative biological and biomedical sciences, with a track record of research productivity and demonstrated contributions to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM.

The primary goal was to support an increase in the number of talented candidates in faculty search pools, who not only demonstrate promise to become great scientists but who will also become the next generation of great professors. One motivation was to refute the notion that there are not enough talented candidates to make recruiting pools more diverse.

Assistant Professor Aaron Streets of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Assistant Professor Polly Fordyce of Bioengineering and Genetics at Stanford, and Professor Jason Sello of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF, all of whom are Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigators, were inspired to create this symposium to reform recruitment with targeted efforts prior to the announcement of faculty searches, with the goal of increasing the diversity and quality of applicant pools. 

Research seminars at the symposium highlighted the work of a cohort of diverse postdoctoral fellows. In addition to the presentations, the symposium featured one-on-one and small group discussions between next-gen scientists and a scientific advisory board made up of faculty from related departments at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF. The program also featured a presentation from Jennifer Chayes, Associate Provost of the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, and Dean of the School of Information.

“I started out doing biology and physics in 1974 as an undergraduate,” Chayes told the participants. “When I talk to young people I always tell them the interface of biology, medicine, and data science is the most exciting and important field. It is the field that will transform our lives. 

“We have all these different kinds of data, demographic data, and physician’s notes, but unless we learn how to integrate this data, we are not going to have precision medicine. One of the problems with this data is that it is extremely biased. We tend to have more data on men than on women. We tend to have more data and White people than on Black, LatinX, Asian, Southeast Asian, and Native Americans. So our data is very skewed,” Chayes said. “We want to go into places that are less well served. Let us start collecting data from community hospitals in areas that are less well-served than UC hospitals. It is only if we do this that we will truly understand the different factors that contribute to people’s health.”

Streets said he was inspired to create this event based on his experience as a Black person in STEM and wanted to create more access for other people of color into the world of higher education. In fact, Streets is the only Black faculty member in the Bioengineering Department at Berkeley and one of only a few Black faculty in the College of Engineering. 

“After George Floyd was murdered there was this huge reaction across the country and in academia,” Streets said. “Faculty across campus was starting to send around emails about how ‘we need to do better,’ and Black students were sending letters to their departments demanding steps be taken to increase diversity.

“It became magnified over the summer that a lot of faculty don’t have an experience they can draw on to address issues underrepresented students are facing,” Streets said “I realized the most efficient thing I could do is to help increase the number of candidates of color in our faculty searches.” 

Typically there are very few post-doctorates of color on the job market, Streets said. 

“On an absolute scale if you look at the total number of Black, LatinX, women post-doctorates looking for a job in a given year there could be at least 30 candidates; small statistically speaking, but more than enough to populate a search with diverse candidates,” he said.

Streets said that he and symposium co-organizer Polly Fordyce got on a call around the time of #shutdownSTEM. They decided to take steps to disprove the common notions that the applicant pool is too small to recruit for diversity and that there is a tradeoff between diversity and research excellence.

“We did this by aggregating a pool of diverse scientists that would contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus,” Streets said. 

Streets and the committee were focused on finding presenters who could write about diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful way. 

“You don’t have to be Black to contribute to diversity and inclusion,” Streets said. “You could have shared experience, you could be the first in your family to attend college or you're just passionate about equity. We wanted people who could talk about the issues, who would not just be good scientists, but would be good professors.”

In the future, Streets and the organizing committee hope to expand the symposium to a bigger in-person, two-day event on campus (the event was held virtually this year due to COVID-19) to aid recruitment in the formal searches to increase the diversity of applicant pools.