issue Spring 2021

Building a Diverse Community that Strengthens and Serves All

By Max Loh, PhD '21

Through the Microscope is a reoccurring Helix column that poses an issue to our community of experts.

We asked Max Loh to address how sectors such as higher education and biomedical research can help create a future in which we prioritize health and wellness and the strengthening of all communities to better meet the next generational challenge.

The series of events in 2020 has had a significant negative impact, built from the culmination of social isolation, burdens on the healthcare system, political turmoil and the heightened awareness of racial injustice. Higher educational sectors and specifically RFU must adapt to address the new challenges to optimally shape generations of physicians and scientists.

While isolation effectively prevents COVID-19 contraction, quarantines and distancing practices have long-term effects on mental health. The prevalence of anxiety and depression in students has spiked during the pandemic — and is particularly severe in economically disadvantaged and underrepresented students. Though RFU provides free counseling, meeting the increased demand for mental health services requires a larger, more diverse set of resources. Before we emerge from the pandemic, RFU should expand current programs to help all students seeking aid.

RFU student, staff and faculty demographics do not reflect the proportions of U.S. racial groups. The disproportionate output of RFU healthcare professionals poses a risk to underserved communities, as patients benefit from being treated by physicians of the same race. To prioritize health and wellness of all, RFU must foster a new diverse community. Actions can include: 1) reorganizing admission criteria to prioritize students from diverse cultural backgrounds; 2) granting diversity and inclusion offices authoritative power to make institutional changes; and 3) requiring diversity statements from job applicants.

In the past year, more institutions have begun to address the weight of racial discrimination and inequality. As a result, newly established diversity task forces asked underrepresented workers to participate. Contributors led discussions, taught their colleagues and supported other underrepresented members. This additional labor was done while underrepresented members were processing the ongoing issues themselves and attending to their occupational responsibilities.

These diversity groups are beneficial but bear the question, “Are we further burdening our underrepresented workers?” Emotional labor is also requested in common workspaces. Being my laboratory’s only trainee of color, colleagues often seek my perspective for questions surrounding diversity. Diversity is a core value of RFU; we must practice what we preach and show that work in diversity is valuable. Moving forward, RFU should reward and compensate the workers contributing to these efforts, making their invisible labor visible.

These presented issues are not unique to RFU, and the suggested strategies are not novel. However, there is hope if RFU commits to long-term efforts that address the ongoing problems, the university can build the foundation of a future that strengthens and serves all.

Max Loh, a cellular and molecular pharmacology PhD candidate in the Center for Neurobiology of Stress Resilience and Psychiatric Disorders, is a past president of RFU’s Graduate Student Association (GSA). A member of the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies’ Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, she contributed to the school’s Statement on Racial Inequality and Injustice.

Opinions expressed in "Through the Microscope" columns are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent those of Rosalind Franklin University.