A Letter to the Biology Department: Improving Curricula and Access to Research


After careful review of curricula and research opportunities within the Biology Department, Danielle Reed '21, Eva Nelson'22, and Andrea Mirow'22 (with the support of 105 signatories as of May 11, 2021) call for the following steps to further integrate anti-racist values and practices within the Biology Department. Reed'21, Nelson'22, and Mirow'22 would like to thank Claire Hawthorne'21, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and other students who helped edit this piece.


May 2021

Dear Biology Faculty,


This letter is from students in the Biology Department and will address issues that are perpetuating racism and negatively impacting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students in the Biology Department. First, we acknowledge the Biology Department’s current work to combat racism in our educational system and to integrate anti-racist values and practices. These are great first steps and we are appreciative of your commitment to this work. However, we envision further progress within the Department and have done the work of outlining current issues and actionable solutions below. Our letter will focus particularly on curricula within Biology classes and access to research.


Topic 1: Curriculum


Context/ Issue: Science has been used as a tool to perpetuate racist and sexist ideas throughout history, such as by Francis Galton to promote eugenics and scientific racism. Similarly, scientific discoveries have been made to the extreme detriment of BIPOC, women and femmes, and other minorities. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Henrietta Lacks’s immortalized cell line, and the treatment of Rosalind Franklin are only a few of many examples. In Biology classes, you teach us the research stemming from the exploitation of marginalized groups, but hardly ever the specific people exploited or the lasting harm such ideas have caused in marginalized communities. This racist scientific history must be acknowledged in class; anything less perpetuates these harmful ideas and erases the trauma and pain experienced by BIPOC at the hands of science and research. Often, textbooks and course materials fail to recognize the deeply disturbing history of science, placing this responsibility on Biology faculty to explicitly acknowledge scientific racism.

With the Department’s recent addition of an equity and inclusion course requirement, more Biology majors will be exposed to systemic issues of racism and exclusion in the sciences. Nonetheless, it is vital that these topics are also discussed in other STEM classes to place the content in a human context. There is often an expectation that STEM courses and research more generally are removed from history, politics, and social issues. Being anti-racist, however, means actively educating on and dismantling the legacy of scientific racism. The work must occur in STEM courses in addition to classes in humanities departments. Before the equity and inclusion requirement, only students actively interested in learning about marginalization and racism in the sciences would take courses relevant to these issues. Now that this is a general requirement for Biology majors, it follows that some Biology students are being forced to take a class that they would not otherwise consider necessary. Because of this, these students may engage and reflect less seriously on topics of inclusion and equity because they are not being presented in a science class. If Biology professors do not believe that these issues are important enough to discuss in their own courses, why would a Biology student believe that equity and inclusion are important to their scientific education? Therefore it is imperative that all professors, BIPOC or not, highlight these ideas in their courses. This content is just as important as the scientific concepts taught in class and needs to be prioritized.


Solutions:

  1. We ask Biology faculty to pay special attention to the history of the concepts they teach, particularly how these concepts impact BIPOC, women and femmes, disabled people, neuroatypical people, fat people, low-income communities, and the LGBTQ community. By not addressing the origins of and intentions behind harmful theories, or the problematic nature of some scientific figures, educators actively harm and alienate students falling under any of the identities listed above. Often, professors are not aware of scientific racism themselves. This is due to our educational system’s lack of emphasis on systemic racism and exclusion, but it is still unacceptable. There is a breadth of resources available to fix this knowledge gap. We have provided a list of books below that touch on some of these issues and encourage the faculty to educate themselves about the history of scientific racism.

  2. Additionally, we will push for the Biology Department to collaborate with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which has detailed resources on becoming anti-racist educators. Racism – particularly anti-Black racism – and other forms of oppression are systemic and therefore inhabit every aspect of our society. Because everyone grows up receiving messages about race, we all have implicit racial biases that will lead to racist behaviors and actions, whether intentional or not. Everyone is implicated in these systems. Therefore, it is everyone’s responsibility to actively combat implicit bias and dismantle racist ideas perpetuated in our society. This starts with our educators, no matter the discipline. The CTL has multiple resources on becoming an anti-racist educator and incorporating anti-racist and decolonized curricula into courses. The Center is also willing to partner with faculty members and departments to lead more intensive anti-racist programs. We insist the Biology Department utilize these resources to inform their teaching practices.


Topic 2: Research Opportunities


Context/ Issue: Our second concern regards institutional access to research. Amherst College prides itself on equipping its students with the necessary academic tools and skills for life beyond their undergraduate education. However, this institutional priority often excludes BIPOC and first-generation and low-income (FLI) students coming from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances. Undergraduate research is necessary for students pursuing biomedical science careers, but access to these experiences is not equitable. Although faculty may not explicitly discriminate against students based on race or gender, there are privilege-based discrepancies that prevent students, and in particular BIPOC and FLI students, from attaining research positions. For example, professors may be inclined to select students for research positions with whom they are more familiar. However, speaking up in class or directly talking to faculty about research are not things that all students feel comfortable or able to do. In The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Anthony Jack '07 explains that FLI and marginalized students are less likely to attend office hours and approach professors individually. Jack defines the level of comfort of navigating educational spaces as a form of cultural capital. Due to inequitable systems within our educational system, these cultural capital forms are automatically expected and not adequately communicated to BIPOC and FLI students. Therefore, relying heavily on these types of interactions as indicators of interest in research perpetuates bias. Likewise, professors may prefer students with a strong STEM background or prior research experience from high school for research positions, putting students without prior research experience at a disadvantage. These differences in research experience are often because of access and privilege, not interest or ability. With all of this in mind, it is important that the Biology Department work towards making more research opportunities available to all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and background.


Solutions:

  1. We suggest the Biology Department make the research interest form more available and accessible to students. Widely advertising the research interest form would create a more equitable process for marginalized students seeking research opportunities. The link to the research interest form should be included in all Biology class syllabi and moodles. In addition to supplying the link to the research form, it would be greatly beneficial if professors spoke about research (both at Amherst and as a career), shared their own research and career path, and encouraged students to talk to them about their research and career interests. Many incoming students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, do not know what research actually entails, what life in research looks like, or whether their professors are resources to talk about career interests. Not encouraging students to try out research does a disservice to those who might love research but not know it yet, and it especially affects BIPOC, FLI, and marginalized students. An additional way to make research more accessible is to better advertise research opportunities during the interterm and summer. The Greg S. Call academic internship program, the Kauffman Summer Fellowship in Biomedical Research, and summer internship funding programs through the Loeb Center are all opportunities that the Biology Department should advertise to students. A priority of the Biology Department needs to be getting interested students of all backgrounds actively involved in research throughout the year.

  2. Another more long-term solution is designing and implementing a program that matches marginalized students to research labs, similar to the Women In Science Project (WISP) at Dartmouth. The WISP program matches first and second-year undergraduate women interested in STEM with faculty mentors to conduct research. If possible, the STEM departments can adopt a related program to ensure that more students have access and the opportunity to explore different disciplines.


Context/Issue: The Biology Department also has a problem retaining BIPOC and FLI students as majors and in research positions. National studies have shown that while students of all races enter STEM majors at roughly equal rates, BIPOC students leave STEM majors at nearly twice the rate of white students. This is due to the lack of support from STEM departments and the bias and discrimination faced by BIPOC students in STEM. At Amherst, this lack of support is largely due to the lack of BIPOC representation within the faculty. BIPOC students are significantly less likely to remain in a department composed of people who do not look like them and do not have shared life experiences. BIPOC students often feel more comfortable building relationships with faculty from similar backgrounds to them, as it creates a vital system of representation and support for BIPOC students and limits the likelihood that the student will experience microaggressions/racial discomfort in the classroom environment. Furthermore, BIPOC faculty tend to face the brunt of invisible labor associated with being the main support system for underrepresented students in the Department. Faculty representation, however, is not the only issue. Inclusion and comfort in learning and research spaces are essential to retention and often overlooked. BIPOC students in predominantly white spaces have experienced microaggressions and other forms of racial bias. These events are serious and call for an appropriate response by professors to correct harmful behavior and educate students on systemic issues in science. When privilege in any form is not openly discussed in laboratory spaces and issues surrounding bias are not confronted, BIPOC and marginalized students face a hostile and exclusionary research space.


Solutions:

  1. The most obvious solution is to implement more inclusive hiring practices and prioritize having a representative Biology faculty. We recognize that this is a demand made in previous letters and cannot be implemented overnight. Therefore, we will provide additional, more immediate solutions, but we remain insistent that this is a pressing and incredibly important issue that needs to be addressed. We ask that professors attend and promote programs, talks, and events that discuss bias and discrimination and/or diversity and inclusivity in science and research. Events like these are common on campus and should also be attended by science professors and students, as they directly pertain to the Biology Department’s anti-racist work. These types of events should also be organized by the Department to encourage open discussion about diversity and inclusion in science. Similar to the weekly Biology seminars, perhaps the Department could organize a lecture series on scientific racism, racial discrimination, and anti-racism work in the sciences. Ongoing conversations about diversity, inclusion and anti-racism led/organized by the Department ensures all Biology majors will have at least some understanding of racism and anti-racism in the sciences and hopefully carry those beliefs into their future work. These conversations will also grant students, staff, and faculty the opportunity to connect with researchers and educators outside of the College who have experience in leading anti-racist environments in the sciences.

  2. In addition to supporting students on their way into research, there also needs to be a concerted effort to foster a positive and inclusive research environment for all students. We ask that professors incorporate anti-racism into their laboratory research. This means setting and upholding group norms, leading informed discussions about anti-racism in research spaces regularly, and confronting issues of racial bias appropriately when they occur. We suggest professors use the following paper as a resource to build an antiracist lab: Chaudhary VB, Berhe AA (2020) Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab. PLOS Computational Biology 16(10): e1008210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210.


Studies* have shown that bias and discrimination in the sciences thwart scientific achievement, reduces the diversity of scientists and clinicians, and contribute to racial and ethnic health disparities. The Biology Department needs to provide more research opportunities to BIPOC and FLI students and better support to underrepresented students within the Department. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. We hope that tangible progress will come from the discussion of the problems and potential solutions that are outlined above. We would be happy to discuss these concerns further or assist the Department in the logistical implementation of the solutions provided. We look forward to hearing back from the Department.


Sincerely,

Danielle Reed, Andrea Mirow, and Eva Nelson


Resources:

  • Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century by Dorothy E. Roberts

  • The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome by Alondra Nelson

  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

  • Ecological Revolutions by Carolyn Merchant

  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

  • Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

  • Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

  • Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity by Banu Subramaniam

  • Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino -/American Postcolonial Psychology by E.J.R David

  • Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney

  • “We Must Confront Anti-Asian Racism in Science” by Michael Nguyen-Truong

  • “The Science Policy Community’s Responsibility to Address Anti-Asian Xenophobia” by Christopher Tonnu Jackson and Melody Tan

  • “How LGBT+ scientists would like to be included and welcomed in STEM workplaces” by Kendall Powell, Ruth Terry, and Sophia Chen

  • “Transphobia, Cloaked in Science” by Sarah Richardson

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