Life Sciences & DEI
UCLA Life Sciences has been leading the way towards a more inclusive educational environment.
In 2011, Life Sciences Diversity Advisory Committee (DAC), comprised of Life Sciences faculty, as well as members to represent post-doctoral scholars and graduate students, was assembled to advise the dean on actions that would promote a more inclusive culture in Life Sciences, starting with undergraduate education.
In its first year, the committee advised the dean to establish a new strategy for hiring top research scientists: the Mentor Professor Initiative. This initiative would recruit professors who are not only at the forefront of ground-breaking research, but who are also committed to mentoring students from diverse backgrounds. While it started in Life Sciences, this has become a model for faculty recruitment, not just at UCLA, but across UC campuses. Through the Mentor Professor Initiative, over a dozen Mentor Professors have been hired in the Division of Life Sciences.
In 2012, the DAC advised the dean to require all Life Sciences faculty members to submit their “Contributions to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)”– a document listing their recent contributions to promoting DEI– as part of their promotion process. This was not required by UCLA policy at the time, but it is now.
In 2014, Life Sciences’ dean and Erin Sanders (who was then-faculty in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics) took the lead in establishing the Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences (CEILS). Since its establishment, CEILS has been a driving force in improving undergraduate education in the sciences.
CEILS brings instructors of undergraduate courses together in a learning community that aims to create optimal and inclusive learning experiences–a great benefit for our students, who come from a broad range of cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. CEILS not only trains faculty in best-practices in scientific teaching, but it trains graduate students and post-docs too. Many undergraduates are also trained to facilitate collaborative peer-learning in required science courses, through the Learning Assistants Program.
In recent years, CEILS and Life Sciences have made fundamental improvements to Life Sciences’ undergraduate curriculum, creating better course alignment, and improved student success, in core courses required of all of Life Sciences’ undergraduates.
CEILS and Life Sciences also led the establishment of the Inclusive Excellence Institute which brings together key leaders (of programs, departments, institutes, and instructors of large classes) to participate in facilitated discussions and exercises to help leaders and instructors understand the inequities and viewpoints of students who come from a diverse range of disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 2015, UCLA was one of the last University of California schools to NOT require its undergraduates to learn about diversity and equity. (There had been years of resistance within UCLA’s Academic Senate.) Members of Life Sciences’ DAC played a key role in passing a diversity course requirement which went into effect in Fall 2017, for all entering first-year students at UCLA.
In other actions, the Dean’s Diversity Advisory Committee recommended that Life Sciences’ departments abandon the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) for admissions to graduate programs, since research shows that GRE scores are not predictive of a student’s future success, and that they disadvantage students from diverse backgrounds. Today, departments like Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Integrative Biology and Physiology; Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics; Society and Genetics; and Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology have all done away with the GRE requirement. Since 2013-14, enrollment of domestic underrepresented-minority graduate students in Life Sciences has increased from 14% graduate students to 29%. And over the past 5 years, the total number of underrepresented-minority graduate students in Life Sciences has nearly doubled from 81 in 2015-16 to 153 in 2020-21.
In August 2020, in response to listening to Black members of Life Sciences’ community, then-dean Sork and our current Dean Johnson, convened Life Sciences’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. Members of the Taskforce included undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff and faculty. The Taskforce met nearly every week from August 2020 to April 2021. From these meetings emerged a core foundation of understanding, an identification of our strengths, as well as how Life Sciences might focus its efforts to improve equity and inclusion, both within the division and at the higher level of the university. The Taskforce recommended that the Division of Life Sciences focuses its attention in the following areas: Culture and Climate; Recruitment and Diversity; Mentorship and Training; Data (to see how we’re measuring up and progressing); and Funding and Resources. We are now following up to see where and how we can move forward with recommendations.
With unprecedented challenges leading up to Fall quarter 2020 (the first academic year that all UCLA classes went online because of the pandemic)– Dean Johnson, in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and CEILS, launched Out of the Box – a teaching workshop, that provided instructors with monetary compensation and a toolkit to create an optimal, inclusive and anti-racist, online teaching environment for undergraduates in Life Sciences.
30 Life Sciences faculty completed Out of the Box and transformed their courses to be more equitable and inclusive. Here are some participant reflections:
“After a long lonely summer the teaching initiative felt like a great support like a fresh breeze. It inspired me to introduce a focus on Group Work for the Fall offering and enhance equitable learning modules. I was able to revisit strategies I already had implemented during summer and refine these. Furthermore I also learned about new strategies and tools, which I was able to adopt and try out for the fall offering.”
“…attending….was an important time for self-reflection and forced me to confront some harsh truths about systemic racism and the nature of microaggressions. It was eye-opening and oftentimes uncomfortable. But it helped me understand and appreciate the significant challenges that under-privileged and minoritized groups face on a daily basis.”
In Winter quarter, Out of the Box was extended to also include instructors in Physical Sciences.
In Winter 2021, with a team of Life Sciences’ faculty and staff, and the Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences (CEILS), Dean Johnson launched Life Sciences’ Dialogues, to create a learning community within Life Sciences, centered around the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) lecture series, to grow our understanding around topics of equity and inclusion in academic biology. The SABER lecture series continues through March 2022, and our UCLA community can join CEILS-facilitated Dialogues following each lecture, by registering here.
This is our story up to now. We are continuing to listen to our community, and continuing to move forward to create the best possible environment in which all our amazing students, post-docs, staff and faculty can thrive. Please stay tuned.
Focus for Our DEI Efforts
The Life Sciences Anti-Racism Task Force explored five key themes to focus DEI efforts:
Culture and Climate
All members of our community, and particularly faculty, need to build a deeper understanding of the real-life challenges faced by our students from diverse and marginalized backgrounds. To this end, we need to develop tools and resources to foster inclusive student success. We also need to reduce and diminish hierarchies within Life Sciences and re-evaluate the power dynamics implicit in our norms and move towards becoming more actively anti-racist.
Recruitment and Diversity
How can we enhance diversity among students, postdocs, staff, and faculty? We can increase diversity within our recruitment pools and by better-supporting the success of diverse individuals once they join our community.
Mentorship and Training
We must improve mentorship of BIPOC students, postdocs, and faculty– to better support their success. Discussions around the training of faculty and staff could help catalyze this change. And while there are multiple successful programs within Life Sciences that are focused on increasing the pipeline of BIPOC students into STEM careers, impact of these programs would be maximized if there was better integration and coordination of these programs.
We need quantitative and qualitative tools, and metrics, to understand where we now stand to support the success of BIPOC individuals within Life Sciences, and to track and evaluate the impact of anti-racism efforts, so we can refine strategies for maximum effect.
Funding and Resources
We need to evaluate how current resources are allocated in ways that advance anti-racism. We should highlight opportunities to leverage extramural funding that supports BIPOC students, and incentivize significant engagement in activities that help develop anti-racism within Life Sciences specifically, and UCLA more broadly.