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In this time of national reckoning, a grassroots movement of scientists and academics is asking their colleagues to solve problems beyond their research: the scientific community’s own issues with racial discrimination and bias.

Scrolling through social media posts tagged #BlackInTheIvory illuminates just some of the experiences Black students, professors and researchers have encountered — and what the community must face as they seek lasting change.

A Black professor said someone reported him to the police while he was wearing a medical white coat walking to a friend’s house. Black students have been told to switch majors because advisors assumed they didn’t have the right backgrounds. Then there are the constant encounters with positive references to eugenicists and white supremacists.

“There need to be consequences for actions that create a hostile atmosphere for Black people and people of color in academia,” said Emma Bonglack, a Ph.D candidate in pharmacology at Duke.

The results are two national movements known as #ShutDownSTEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and #StrikeForBlackLives, and scientists in the Triangle are lending their voices to the cause.

For many of the groups participating in the Triangle, this includes looking at how they recruit students and faculty. Black workers remain underrepresented in nearly all STEM job sectors, according to the National Science Foundation.

“The scientific research community is not only about the science, is not only about the data, is not only about the questions that we ask, it’s also very much about the people who are conducting that work,” said Johnna Frierson, assistant dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Diversity and Inclusion at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Calls to action

Just like there have been protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, Triangle universities have organized marches, times of reflection and calls to action.

Duke Health had a march against racism on June 10. On June 16, Duke held a university-wide virtual symposium on Living While Black, with experts providing context to the national movement as well as students and staff sharing their personal experiences at Duke.

Duke’s School of Medicine and Pratt School of Engineering encouraged faculty, staff and students to participate in #ShutDownSTEM on June 10. Organizers said the goal was for the reflection and education from that day to lead to lasting changes in how science and academia address racism against Black people.

“Systemic racism involves all walks of life, we can’t not be involved,” said Christopher Newgard, director of the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute.

In the School of Medicine, Frierson said graduate students expressed a strong interest in the movement, and the administration worked to amplify those voices.

In both the medical and engineering schools, there was active discussion with students and staff. Newgard said they are collecting materials to help educate people and to brainstorm future action.

In the short term, Newgard said Duke could enhance its collaboration with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in research and training. HBCUs, like NC Central, are responsible for educating a significant portion of Black scientists and engineers, especially relative to the size of these institutions.

Bringing ideas to action

At UNC, NC State, and NC Central, participation primarily took place in departments and research groups.

Diane Markoff is a physics professor at North Carolina Central University. As a white professor at a historically Black university, Markoff said she felt like she should participate because it’s important for her students. She thinks all institutions need to consider the environment they establish for Black scientists.

“There’s a stereotype that we’re so involved in the science that nothing else matters,” Markoff said.

As part of Markoff’s particle physics research, her NCCU students routinely travel to other universities and labs for collaborative projects.

“The HBCU is a comfortable environment for our students,” Markoff said. “It should be a comfortable environment at a predominantly white institution, too.”

Bonglack hopes the day of #ShutDownSTEM is a turning point for the scientific community. By equipping future leaders in science and engineering with the tools to address racism, Bonglack said, they should be able to break the cycle.

That starts with more accountability for racist behavior. Students in her department have asked mentors to create detailed plans to address disputes related to racism in their research groups.

They also want the curriculum to both better reflect the history of racism in science and to highlight the contributions of Black scientists and other scientists of color, whose work has often been marginalized.

Claire Gordy, a professor in biological sciences at NC State, said her department is exploring the policies regarding hiring committees to make them more equitable. They are also planning to formalize new professional development expectations for faculty and staff about diversity and inclusion, beyond the NCSU’s new training module.

Gordy said there has been “a failure to recruit or retain minoritized or marginalized faculty.”

“That’s not specific to us, that’s almost everywhere,” Gordy said.

Frierson said the Duke School of Medicine wants to evaluate its interview practices to ensure everyone is treated fairly, in addition to ensuring it reaches out to a diverse applicant pool.

Ultimately, Frierson said, it comes down to making sure the school is a welcoming environment.

“You can’t expect to recruit a talented, vibrant, diverse community if the community that currently exists isn’t optimal for the people already there, “ she said.

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