“Many students of color struggle in large predominantly white institutions because of a feeling of detachment from the university community as a whole,” Nia Johnson, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, explained. “This feeling of detachment, or imposter syndrome, is often reinforced by course content seemingly unrelated to people from diverse cultural backgrounds. In order to help our students succeed, we as instructors need to be able to create an environment that not only evokes a feeling of acceptance but also belonging.”

To help diversify course content, the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Committee of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology was awarded a Faculty Development Fund grant entitled “Coloring Science” from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. The aim of the grant is to increase the diversity of scientific role models presented to students in large enrollment biology classes at U-M.

“The initial focus of this effort is on scientists of color, though in future iterations we would like to expand it to cover other underrepresented groups, such as scientists with disabilities and first-generation researchers,” said Vincent Denef, who is on the DEIJ committee, with the following others, who were on the committee when the grant was awarded: EEB faculty Nyeema Harris, Jo Kurdziel; EEB graduate students Kristel Sánchez and Chatura Vaidya; and staff Nathan Sadowsky. Johnson has since joined the committee as well as Shane Dubay, Michigan Fellow.

EEB graduate students Johnson and Nikesh Dahal are developing a collection of PowerPoint slides, each highlighting the work of a scientist of color related to key concepts taught in target biology classes. These slides are available to add to existing lectures by faculty and graduate student instructors teaching lectures, labs and discussions. They are creating at least 150 slides that will profile 50-60 historical and contemporary BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scientists. 

A couple of the scientists Dahal and Johnson are highlighting are:

Jane Hinton (1919 – 2003) was a second-generation scientist. She was one of the first African-American women, with Alfreda Webb, to obtain a veterinary medicine degree in the United States. Hinton, in collaboration with John Mueller, took a methodical approach to determine which ingredients helped in bacterial growth and co-developed Mueller-Hinton agar, a growth medium used to isolate bacteria. M-H agar is still used as a gold standard growth medium for antibiotic resistance tests.

Ernest Everett Just (1883 – 1941) was an African-American biologist and educator who pioneered many areas on the physiology of development, including fertilization, hydration, cell division and dehydration in living cells. Just is credited with being the first to infer the existence of what are now known as blocks to polyspermy, a phenomenon wherein additional sperm are blocked from entry into the egg (a fast block), after fertilization.

“The Coloring Science initiative is an important step in cultivating a culture of belonging for everyone in the classroom,” said Johnson. “By educating students on scientists of color who are often overlooked and/or intentionally forgotten from the textbooks, our goal is to help students from underrepresented backgrounds feel a greater sense of connection to the content and hopefully inspire increased diversity in the next generation of scientists.”

“In sciences (compared to humanities or social sciences) we have done a really bad job of representing and celebrating the stories of people from historically oppressed groups,” added Dahal. “What that means is that people from historically oppressed groups are excluded from the scientific pursuit and continue to be excluded and feel alienated. The irony here is that the scientific pursuit gains its legitimacy by stating the role it plays in improving the human condition but the ways in which past and present human conditions interact with the scientific pursuit are often overlooked. It was important for me to work on this project because it pertains to an ethical issue that I deeply care about and feel obligated to act on​.”

“By presenting scientific role models which can reflect the diversity we see in our students, we will be moving in the right direction to help make the university a place where everyone feels a part of the academic community,” Johnson continued. “Through this initiative we also hope to diminish any limiting beliefs on career paths based on false narratives about race or ethnicity.”

To increase exposure and use of the materials, as well as input from other biology teachers and researchers, they are working with Project Biodiversify, a resource with corresponding goals. Alumnus Ash Zemenick, who received a bachelor’s of science from U-M EEB in 2011 and went on to earn a doctorate from the University of California at Davis, started the initiative in August 2018 with co-founder Marjorie Weber. Weber is an assistant professor of plant biology at Michigan State University. Zemenick is a postdoc in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and directs Project Biodiversify.  

Zemenick shared their inspiration for launching Project Biodiversify, “Even though diversity is a core concept in biology, science and biological arguments have been used to disenfranchise people with different backgrounds and identities – reducing the diversity of people science serves or who can do science. This is because biology helps inform what is considered natural or unnatural, normal or pathologized in humans. Unfortunately, this means that science and biology has been (and in some cases still is) weaponized in the past to disenfranchise and marginalize people with particular backgrounds and identities (like BIPOC, women, and people in the LGBTQIA+ community). The role models and language, definitions and examples that are most often used in introductory biology courses are inaccurate, outdated and not inclusive to many students. We were inspired to start Project Biodiversify to begin to chip away at these inequities and inaccuracies by helping educators update their teaching materials and methods.”

The overarching goal of Project Biodiversify is to help biology instructors promote diversity, equity and inclusion in biology courses. The new slides will be added to the repository of teaching slides featuring curriculum-relevant research done by biologists from marginalized groups and identities. A new section will be added to the search menu for slides submitted from UM EEB’s Coloring Science initiative.  

"The co-instructors of the large Genetics course, Bio305 (myself and Drs. Monica Dus and Hilary Archbold) are thrilled to have material available from the Coloring Science project,” said EEB Professor Regina Baucom. “We just switched textbooks, and realized that even in the new genetics text there were few examples of BIPOC scientists. Coloring Science provided us the push and support we needed to make our material more balanced with respect to who is doing the science for our fall class. We are so appreciative of the students and faculty on our DEIJ committee who were awarded the grant, along with the awesome Project Biodiversify. Biologists support and appreciate diversity!"

“We must realize in order to have an ethically just academia we need to address the structural problems that exist in it,” Dahal said. “I think that efforts like Coloring Science are important but they are the bare minimum of what we should be doing.”

Read more:  Guest post to Small Pond Science: Help us to diversify and humanize biology courses

Educators can access the slides to incorporate into their courses in this Google folder.  

The first of three slides on the groundbreaking work of Ernest Everett Just, in the historical scientists collection. There is a contemporary scientists collection as well as a number of various subject collections.