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Scientists can take steps now to build antiracist labs

Bala Chaudhary
Bala Chaudhary, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Health, in her lab preparing to extract fungal DNA from dust samples to study aerial dispersal of microbes using genetic barcoding techniques. Chaudhary teaches environmental science and leads a research group that studies mycorrhizas, beneficial plant-fungal symbioses, and their belowground ecology. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
Racial and ethnic diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics remains low, continuing to raise concerns for equity and inclusion of scholars from minority communities. But, steps can be taken now to help make research groups more equitable and inclusive, stress the authors of a new paper published this month in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.
10 rules to build an antiracist lab

“Our paper is aimed particularly at STEM leaders, who set the culture and workplace climate in our labs and research groups, and are increasingly looking for tangible steps they themselves can take to address racism in STEM workplaces. The idea was to compile an easily digestible list to help so many of our colleagues who are in search of clear actionable items," says Bala Chaudhary, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Health and co-author of the paper, “Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab."

Some of the documented causes for a persistent lack of diversity in STEM include bias, discrimination and harassment of members of underrepresented communities. 

“These issues persist due to continued marginalization, power imbalances, and lack of adequate policies against misconduct in academic and other scientific institutions," write Chaudhary and co-author Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a professor at the University of California in Merced. “All scientists can play important roles in reversing this trend by shifting the culture of academic workplaces to intentionally implement equitable and inclusive policies, set norms for acceptable workplace conduct, and provide opportunities for mentorship and networking."

Chaudhary and Berhe are environmental scientists whose research projects are supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1844531 and HRD-1725650 respectively). They wrote of first meeting on Twitter, “where they both sought and found a community of like-minded scholars who are passionate about equity and inclusion in the academy."

In fact, they tweeted about working on this paper in early June and garnered more than 950 retweets and 1,400 likes, with scores of supportive comments. The paper was downloaded more than 6,000 times from the preprint server EcoEvoRxiv before it was officially published by PLOS Computational Biology.

“The global uprising against racist violence that began in May 2020 sparked in the science community a level of interest in antiracism that I have never seen before. We wrote this paper to help scientists who are new to antiracism work identify tangible actions and connect with resources to encourage the development of a more antiracist STEM environment," Chaudhary says.

The steps outlined in the paper range from having principal investigators regularly lead informed discussion about antiracism in their labs to intentionally recruiting BIPOC students and staff; from advocating for racially diverse leadership in science to holding accountable the powerful, as well as colleagues and oneself, in creating healthy workplace climates.

“As educators of the next generation of scholars, we have to boldly stand for justice and acknowledge that the academic institutions we are part of are built on racist and colonial systems that were precisely created with a culture of exclusion in mind," Berhe says. “These historical structures continue to contribute to the persistent underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. But we can all play a role to improve culture, climate and representation of people from all walks of life."

In their paper, Chaudhary and Berhe make a distinction between antiracism and avoiding racism.

“Scientists increasingly acknowledge the problematic lack of racial and ethnic representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in science and are in search of clear actionable steps they themselves have the power to immediately enact," Chaudhary and Berhe note. "Building a lab that is antiracist is very different from building a lab that simply avoids racism."

They conclude with a call for peers to act now: “the work in our labs can begin today — no additional committees, focus groups, or surveys are required."

The paper, “Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab," is part of PLOS Computational Biology's Ten Simple Rules collection and can be found online.