Growing up poor, there were few things my family could afford and any complaint about fairness received my father’s patented response: “Life isn’t fair.” I never dared to voice my internal reply of “But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.”
Despite the acknowledgment that life isn’t fair, I still held the assumption that my country was fair. Everyone had the right to vote and access to capitalism, which meant that hard work always led to success. If it didn’t, then you were doing something wrong. It wasn’t until my graduate career at the University of Michigan that I learned otherwise.
In 2014, I traveled to Ethiopia in my first international experience. There, I taught immunology and microbiology to medical students who had only recently learned English and who had different values, experiences, and assumptions than I did. Not only did I learn a lot about teaching and how to navigate interactions with other cultures, but I also learned the isolation that comes with being visibly different from your peers and how privileged I was just by virtue of my birth country. This experience led me to question my career goals and laid the foundation for what I would learn in the years to come, that a couple of laws don’t change the backbone of a country founded on inequity.
The scientific literature is finally catching up to the personal experiences of underrepresented minorities in academia, documenting that implicit biases, and systems designed to support white men, repeatedly fail nearly all other demographics. Potential inequities lay at nearly all steps from childhood through academic administration and limit the access of less privileged individuals to “successful” academic careers. This isn’t fair.
Returning to the States, the first problem I noticed, was how scientists speak to each other. The language and syntax used in academia is highly exclusionary, so I co-founded a student group that focused on translating and communicating science for non-experts. One of our most successful ventures was live-blogging a campus academic conference to make it accessible to scientists unable to attend as well as non-scientists.
My passion for breaking down barriers in science, led to my postdoctoral fellowship in the journals department of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Here, I was given the opportunity to study the barriers and biases in the peer review process. Academic publishing is a cornerstone to academic careers and the decisions made by journal editors and reviewers have lasting impacts on careers. A literature review of the field left me angry at the seemingly endless documentations of bias. I was also mentally exhausted, but the experience has made me a stronger advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Throughout my graduate career, I supported and mentored several undergraduate students from underrepresented groups in academia, made efforts to make science more accessible, and participated in programs for underrepresented groups, such as the McNair Scholars Program. However, since beginning my postdoctoral fellowship, I have begun making more thoughtful and concerted efforts to improve fairness through DEI. I’ve suggested and helped brainstorm department-wide DEI discussions that led to action items adopted by my department at UM. I helped draw attention to and improve invited speaker diversity by compiling data on previous invited speakers and presenting my findings to the department faculty. I’ve also become active in the department DEI committee and the broader UM DEI community through completion of a professional development certificate focusing on DEI.
These efforts are small, and only a beginning, but they are the foundation of what I believe should be everyone’s life work - making life as fair as it can be.
Member, M&I Department DEI committee, December 2018 - Present.
Investigator, Department Invited Speaker Diversity, November 2018 - Present.
Collected and analyzed demographics of previously invited speakers for trends in diversity.
Presented at department faculty meeting.
Research in preparation for publication.
Instructor, Ethiopia-Michigan Platform for Advancing Collaborative Engagements, 2014 - 2015.
Prepared and taught curriculum for immunology and renal microbiology at a medical school in Ethiopia.
Selected to return for a 3-day symposium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aimed at extending grant collaborations and developing a 5-year plan.
Student Mentor, 2006 - Present