Biology department addresses diversity

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Biology faculty and students collaborated to develop ideas on how to create a more inclusive and welcoming space within the department at a Feb. 16 event titled “Diversity in the Biology Department: A Conversation,” according to Biology Professor Amanda Zellmer. The majority of biology faculty, as well as 15–20 students, met in Sycamore Glen to discuss the role of diversity within the department and the major, Zellmer — who spearheaded the event — said. Rhonda Brown, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, facilitated the conversation.

The catalyst for the event was a letter sent by an unnamed student to the department last semester expressing disappointment in the faculty’s apparent lack of engagement in, and recognition of, the student-led protests and occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center last November.

“Students felt like they were going to class during the occupation, and in some of their science classes, it was just being ignored, not talked about at all,” Zellmer said.

According to Biology Professor Gretchen North, faculty in the department have since been working to increase inclusivity.

“We really had to do some soul-searching and really think about what it is that we are doing right now with attempts to make sure that our curriculum is inclusive and that our classrooms are inclusive,” North said.

At the Feb. 16 event, students and faculty worked together to outline a plan to meet their goals. Communication is the first step in creating a more diverse and inclusive space within the department and is a top priority, according to Zellmer. She added that students and faculty interacting and communicating with one another outside of the classroom will create a more welcoming environment, which will hopefully make students feel more comfortable in the classroom. Events that bring together faculty and students, creating a comfortable space for students through familiarity, could be one way to create such interaction.

The event was a success, according to Zellmer.

“It was a true conversation between everybody, including the students, the faculty and the staff,” Zellmer said. “I felt like it helped both sides realize that we’re all on the same page, and we all want the same goal, but we have not necessarily done a good job of communicating that in the past.”

 

Biology Professor Shana Goffredi suggested the physical structure of the BioScience building hinders faculty from regularly informally interacting with students.

“There is no centralized meeting place for faculty and students outside of the classroom,” Goffredi said. “The classroom is why we are all here, of course, but there is so much more to be done. I hope that we can push for some redesign of the spaces, because even students interacting with other students doesn’t happen.”

Another way the biology department could promote diversity on campus is by hiring faculty of color, according to North and Goffredi. In general, the sciences tend to be male dominated, although Occidental’s biology department faculty identify predominately as female, according to North. As such, the focus should be centered on hiring people of color, who are underrepresented within the department, North said.

Goffredi expressed concern that hiring more faculty of color would not fix the dearth in the field; rather, the initiative might merely relocate the same number of faculty around the country. Instead, Goffredi suggested the administration support the biology department by developing a teaching postdoctoral program, in which young candidates from marginalized identities can receive experience and support that will lead to careers in biology. Goffredi hoped this would expand diversity in the field of biology, as well as within the department at Occidental.

Zellmer emphasized the importance of having faculty of traditionally underrepresented identities in the sciences.

“My first piece of advice would be that they should be scientists,” Zellmer said. “They absolutely belong, we need their voices, we need their opinions, because when you have only the same type of people looking at one problem, we are never going to be able to figure out all of the possible solutions. Whatever we can do to help them feel comfortable there, we want to do that.”