October 13, 2020


DePaul Professor and Environmental Scientist Shares How to Build an Antiracist Lab

Racial and ethnic diversity within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields remains low, and many scientists and researchers are seeking solutions to help address racism in their workplaces. To help, assistant professor and environmental scientist in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies for DePaul’s College of Science and Health, Dr. Bala Chaudhary, collaborated with another researcher of color to create the “Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab.”



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.  

Racial and ethnic diversity within the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields remains low. A National Science Foundation survey found that in 2016, scholars who identified as Black or African American were awarded just 6 percent of all doctorates in life sciences and less than 3 percent in physical and earth sciences.

Now, in the midst of the country's ongoing dialogue around race, many scientists and researchers of color are sharing their personal stories of harassment and raising concerns about a lack of equity and diversity in the field.

Dr. Bala Chaudhary, assistant professor and environmental scientist in DePaul's College of Science and Health, is helping to tackle this complex issue. She collaborated with a fellow researcher of color to pen the academic paper “Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab."

Dr. Chaudhary, thank you so much for joining me today and congratulations on your paper's publication in PLOS Computational Biology.

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: Thank you and thanks for having me today.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You wrote “Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab" with a colleague of yours. Can you share how this idea came about?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: So, for several years now, I have been involved in research that examines the reason why racial and ethnic diversity is so low in my own field of ecology and the environmental sciences.

The events of May 2020 that include racist violence and the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor resulted in an uprising against systemic racism that scientists really sat up and paid attention to.

It was at that time that colleagues began reaching out to me to learn more about what they could do in their own labs. And then on June 10, Black scientists initiated a global strike to shut down STEM and encourage colleagues to think about antiracism and reflect on plans of action.

So, it was at that time that I teamed up with my colleague Asmeret Asefaw Berhe who is a professor at UC Merced to write this paper.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, if you could, what are the top three rules for building an antiracist lab?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: I would say the most important rule to begin with is to address racism in lab and field safety guidelines. This is an issue that affects the very safety of lab members right now. And so, addressing the potential for racist violence of trainees and staff is something that should happen immediately.

The next most important rule would be to publish papers and write grants with Black, indigenous and people of color who are colleagues. Papers and grants are the sign of success and career longevity in our field. And research is increasingly done in teams but these teams can be insular. And so, we have to seriously examine who we collaborate with.

And then finally, I would say it's important to advocate for racially diverse leadership in science, that it's time for change to really come from the top down.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Okay. So, let me take a step back. How did you formulate the rules?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: I was invited to present to colleagues on some of my research on racial and ethnic diversity in ecology and I took that time to try to educate colleagues about the common mistakes that many scientists make when they are beginners to working on antiracism in STEM.

So, I laid out the don'ts. And then I thought well, in addition to laying out the don'ts, let's lay out the do's. And what do we really want scientists to undertake when they start off as beginners in promoting antiracist STEM policies?

 Was there a particular audience you had in mind while writing this paper?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: We were especially interested in speaking to primary investigators, or PIs, and group leaders in science. So, oftentimes diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are initiated by undergraduate students or graduate students. But it really needs to come from faculty and administrators in order to promote accountability in actions.

LINDA BLAKLEY: One particular quote from your paper resonated with me. It says, “…building a lab that is antiracist is very different from building a lab that simply avoids racism."

Can you talk a little bit about what makes these two very different?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: The science has been interested increasingly in promoting health and wellbeing, and support in-lab groups and we support all of that. But, building an antiracist lab goes beyond that. It goes beyond being kind, treating people equally or taking a color-blind approach.

Being antiracist means creating antiracist policies through serious introspection and action about personal biases and where those exist in our science structures.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Even before the paper was published, the scientific community was very excited that you were tackling this topic. What have you heard from your colleagues? What did you think of their response?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: My co-author and I have been truly overwhelmed with the response to our paper. We posted the paper as a pre-print online and it has had almost 7,000 downloads at this point which is just amazing to us.

For scientists who work in racial and ethnic diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, this is new. I'm used to talking about racism and promoting racial equity in science, and being met with a lot of silence and some cringes. And so, it really feels different this time. It really feels like the science community is interested in engaging in meaningful ways.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Just for a bit of additional clarity, can you cite an example or two of racist practices in university labs today?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: The racism that we see in science isn't always overt. It can exist with covert examples. So, a couple of examples is many times labs are interested in engaging underrepresented groups in supporting roles or in subjugated roles and not necessarily engaging with Black, indigenous and people of color as colleagues or involving them in all processes of science.

Another example is how Black and Brown scientists tend to be targeted in science spaces or considered not necessarily belonging. So, if a Black or Brown scientist has to access lab spaces or greenhouse spaces after hours, they may be questioned by campus security or even by other scientists as to whether or not they belong in that science space.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Creating that sense of belonging is so important; so very important. So, what are some of the benefits of creating an antiracist lab and who will benefit from these changes?

That's a really good question and I think it's central to the paper because everyone benefits from increasing racial and ethnic diversity in science. Study after study shows that the science is better, more innovative, more creative when the diversity of the science team is higher.

So, it's not just underrepresented groups that will benefit. Everyone in science will benefit from increasing diversity and equity.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, how can the rules be implemented in labs?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: Well, the first rule centers around talking about race, and I've been really encouraged to hear from many scientists that have used our paper as a guide to the first conversation that they hold in their own lab group about racism in science and ways to achieve better racial equity and inclusion.

Beyond lab groups, I think the paper can also serve as a guide to educational programs at the department level or higher at the college level. And I'm involved in efforts in my Environmental Science Department's DEI committee and also through the College of Science and Health's DEI committee to figure out ways that we can implement some of these measures at DePaul.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, to sum up, what can scientists and people in STEM do right now to create antiracist environments?

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: Well, I would say there are two main ways. 

First is to recognize and learn about the historic and contemporary behaviors and structures of racism that permeate all scientific disciplines. All sciences have experienced this in their history and continue to experience it to this day.

And then the second is to recognize that there really are simple steps. You know, instead of throwing up our hands and saying, "well, it's too big, what can I do?" There are a lot of things that we individually can do and that we as science leaders can do to advocate for anti-racist actions in our groups if we want to.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Dr. Chaudhary. And thank you for your efforts to create safer and more diverse and equitable spaces for marginalized communities.

DR. BALA CHAUDHARY: Thank you for helping to share this message.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Visit the DePaul Download website to learn more about Professor Chaudhary's efforts and to read the paper, “Ten Simple Rules for Building an Antiracist Lab."  

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.