Embracing Differences

Monday, May 1, 2017

Two faculty members shared their respective career paths and experiences as academic scientists of diverse backgrounds during an April 19 event hosted by Scientists 4 Diversity (S4D), an event attended by UCSF students, postdocs, and employees.

The talk, entitled “Professionalism vs. Individualism,” delved into the challenges that scientists of underrepresented backgrounds face when establishing careers as principal investigators.

Saul Villeda, PhD, has been faculty at UCSF for nearly five years in the Department of Anatomy, and his lab at the Broad Center focuses on the mechanisms underpinning brain aging.

Villeda grew up in East Los Angeles to Guatemalan immigrant parents.

He encouraged the crowd to rethink a potentially negative perspective.

“Don’t feel like being a person of color is a hindrance or a disadvantage. It is a positive, and you bring a unique perspective that is very much needed in the sciences,” said Villeda.

He had no expectation of attending college and did not even apply until outraged teachers and counselors insisted.

His parents had worked as custodians and as he recalled, “They didn’t want me to become the person who told them they missed a spot, and that was a really big deal in my family.”

After being invited to join a biology lab in college, he fell in love with science and was hired at UCSF after receiving his PhD in Neuroscience at Stanford, leaping over the typical step of postdoctoral fellowship.

Still, at every institution heattended since high school, someone in a restroom invariably asked him to replace the tissue paper.

“I’m not surprised anymore. It doesn’t shock me, but I try to use it as an educational moment,” Villeda said. “I ask, ‘I’m really curious, why did you feel like you could say that?’ It makes them instantly take pause.”

Daniel Hart, PhD, has been faculty at UCSF for five years as well. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and his lab at the CVRI studies cardiovascular development.

Hart is Nigerian, but moved around often during his childhood as his parents were both diplomats. The demands of Hart’s upbringing were clear to him from a young age.

“The expectation was to go to college, be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Anything else is a failure.”

And so Hart pursued his interest in biological sciences and began his education in the UK.

“In one class of 60 students, I was one of three people of color,” Hart recalled.

With a hunger to prove himself, and having been inspired by his time at Scotland’s Roslin Institute overlapping with the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, Hart strove to have a career in academic science. He went on to receive Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in the UK before moving to Massachusetts for a postdoctoral fellowship and eventually being recruited at UCSF, where he now proudly runs a lab on a philosophy of openness.

“Some innate aspect of my own personality comes through, and I like to think that that influences the people in my lab — we like to share our reagents, we like to share our time,” said Hart.

Attendee Jonathan Asfaha, a fourth-year Tetrad student, said he came away with the realization that individualism is key.

“The big takeaway from the talk was that my perspective as a student of color matters. It is just as important as a student that comes from a prestigious scientific lineage,” Asfaha said.

Event co-organizer Beatriz Osuna said she found the talk partly inspiring, partly disturbing.

“Overall, it was inspiring to hear Dan and Saul speak about how they’ve embraced their ‘otherness’ and have used that to their advantage. But it was actually quite shocking to hear that even in the current stage of their careers, they are still burdened with educating some faculty peers about implicit biases and why and how they are harmful,” she said.

“Hearing Saul and Dan candidly speak about the challenges and triumphs they have faced throughout their careers in the academic setting was encouraging, but also slightly terrifying.”

The session was one of a series of coffee talks designed to provide an open forum for which attendees can discuss issues related to diversity in science. “S4D decided to put on these coffee talks because there are very few opportunities for students to discuss diversity in an informal setting” said Florentine Rutaganira, a S4D member and CCB graduate currently completing an interim postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF.

“For diversity initiatives to go forward, we need to have discussions that include scientists at all levels. When I was a graduate student at UCSF, there were very few diverse faculty and I think we are just now starting to see the fruit of diversity initiatives.”

The idea for the event came from conversations among S4D members, including Osuna, a fourth-year Tetrad student who said she believes the topic to be timely and important.

“A lot of us people of color have been raised with different values, interests, mannerisms, ways of speaking, etc.,” she said.

“Sometimes these ‘individualistic’ attributes are not valued or are negatively perceived in the academic realm. Thus, we wanted to engage in a conversation with faculty that are underrepresented minorities to hear about how they’ve navigated these issues.”

Kwadwo “Kojo” Opoku-Nsiah, a fourth-year Tetrad student and president of S4D, provided an example of the potential disconnect between individualism and professionalism.

“Anecdotally, there are some labmates who don’t acknowledge you when you walk in. That’s taboo in my culture,” said Opoku-Nsiah. “If you’re at a party, you shake everybody’s hand from left and right. You acknowledge everybody. Saying goodbye is the same process.”

Some attendees said assumptions about ethnicity and scientific merit had occasionally led to negative interactions.

Villeda emphasized that he loved being a PI, and that his cultural background helped shape everything from his lab environment to his presentation style.

“I’m an LA kid, so I’m bubbly, I’m loud, I’m Latino. That just comes with the territory. I say ‘like’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘cool’. There are certain things that are stuck with me and I couldn’t change it even if I tried.”

Villeda highlighted the opportunities that brought him here, including the UCSF SRTP and NIH MARC-USTAR programs. He hoped to encourage future trainees to take advantage of these programs, and help increase their popularity among peers. Hopefully, academics would then associate these programs with capability, success, and unique perspective when seeking applicants for faculty or graduate programs.

There is still some work to do to improve diversity in science. Hart said he is dismayed with the mindsets he observed at SACNAS, a national diversity in STEM conference, where young, underrepresented students convene.

“What pained me was the number of students who thought it wasn’t worth their time applying to UCSF,” said Hart.

Both Villeda and Hart encouraged trainees to apply for fellowship for underrepresented scientists, correcting perceptions that “diversity fellowships” were seen as lesser in faculty searches.

“Own that you are different. Use it as a positive,” Villeda said.

“Don’t wear it as an anchor.” Hart said.

One final theme that S4D and both Villeda and Hart emphasized was community building.

“I would encourage students to not feel ostracized. Be a part of something. I come across individuals who feel cut off and think their experiences are unique to them, but they find this is not true when they share with other people,” Hart said.

“Find a community. Do not do it alone. It’s too hard,” Villeda added. “Also, try to find good mentors along the way. They don’t have to look like you. They just need to understand how to listen to you and think things through with you.” Villeda said, recalling the blond, Swiss graduate advisor who gave him some of the best advice he’s ever received.