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Lonely in the lab: U of T STEM’s Black representation problem

A Temerty medicine research trainee’s perspective — and calls to action for the faculty
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MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY
MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY

As Black History Month comes to a close, STEM faculties and departments across North America are making their annual effort to reach out to their Black students and staff for the first time all year, soliciting quotes, headshots, and creative work for display on official social media platforms and websites. 

Sadly, these displays we see every February on our Instagram and Twitter feeds portray an extremely false sense of diversity and representation in our faculties, and the reality is much grimmer than you might expect.

I have been involved in U of T’s medicine research community as a trainee for the better part of three years now at the undergraduate and graduate level, mostly in the Department of Biochemistry. I have had the opportunity to work in three labs and interact with folks from many major research institutes in Toronto, and my experiences have confirmed what we are so often told — increasing representation in STEM environments requires much more than a social media blitz once a year.

Undergraduates: where it all begins

In order to explore the representation problem, we first have to look into the journey one needs to take in order to join the research community at the University of Toronto and the many barriers preventing folks from equitable access to a career as a scientist. 

Often, the first step is finding research opportunities as an undergraduate student. This can take the form of a summer studentship, a research course, or a thesis project completed during the school year. For example, you could compete for one of eight summer research scholarships given out by the Faculty of Medicine over the summer. Students in these programs are expected to work full time for stipends that, when put into an hourly rate, are nearly half the provincially mandated minimum wage of $14.25 an hour. 

Competitive research grants may help, but there are more students than grants, and the grants are not always enough in the first place. For example, the popular Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Undergraduate Student Research Award only increases pay to slightly over 82 per cent of Ontario’s minimum wage.

Underpaying undergraduate students is often justified by the idea that an opportunity to do research is a privilege, and that students should be grateful if a lab is willing to take them in and spend its time training them. 

I once brought up the issue of summer pay to an administrator, sharing my concern and disappointment at how meagre the stipends the university provided are relative to comparable institutions in the region. I was told that I should be passionate enough about the research to do the work for free, and that any stipend I receive should be viewed as an extra benefit — the main benefit being the research experience itself, of course. 

Unfortunately for me and many others, however, summer employment is not something that is just done for ‘extra benefit’ or for résumé building. It is how we save up for tuition and help alleviate the financial burden at home. By forcing students who are interested in science to take a paycheck that’s less than the minimum wage for the honour of doing summer research, institutions like U of T are indirectly selecting against the marginalized and underrepresented people it claims to care about. 

Having participated in two summer studentships, I can say that the outcome of this recruitment strategy in summer cohorts seems to be a massive overrepresentation of students who can afford to go without pay — and that is neither inclusive nor equitable.

Graduate students: the problems continue

The financial sacrifices required of trainee scientists only increase during graduate training. After your grades and underpaid research experiences as an undergraduate student have been carefully vetted, you may get the honour of continuing your scientific journey at the graduate level. Now, before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you are prepared to be underpaid yet again. 

Science departments in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine pay graduate students roughly $20,000 to $22,000 a year in stipends. Prior to the institution of faculty-wide stipends for graduate students, some departments could’ve paid even less. 

Perhaps the university does not treat being a full-time student as a job — but if you treat it like one, you can see how poorly paid it really is. If you do the math, graduate students are only being paid around $10.50 an hour, which is well below the provincial minimum wage. Grown adults living in the second most expensive city in the country are expected to pay rent, purchase food, and otherwise survive on what is less than the Ontario poverty line of roughly $26,000 while also working 40 or more hours a week. 

In addition to one’s “living allowance,” tuition costs for the Temerty Faculty of Medicine are also paid to students in monthly installments, although they are due back by the end of the year. Charging someone tuition and paying them money to cover that very same tuition is the oddest practice, one equal parts predatory and ridiculous. 

It’s ridiculous because it would be so much simpler to just not charge students tuition in the first place. It’s predatory because it’s paid in monthly installments as if it were part of a wage, and at the same time, it is expected that students will save this money to pay it back as a lump sum at the end of the year. This creates the illusion of a living wage, while also annually adding undue stress to low-income students when the money is due. 

After reading all this you may be inclined to exclaim, “Oh, poor graduate students!” The ‘poor graduate student’ trope is a common one — ironic because it’s usually not remotely true. In order to afford being poor, many graduate students have to come from families with considerable means, and have layers upon layers of financial safety nets protecting them from having to worry about true financial burden or whether or not graduate school will ruin them. 

Students who do not fall into this category are either accruing debt to afford the graduate student lifestyle — which is a modest one — working side jobs, or living at home with family. In my case, it’s all of the above. A low-income person cannot afford to be merely a graduate student scientist in Toronto. 

This city is diverse, but is its university?

Data from the 2016 census shows that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status in Canada are closely correlated, with well-to-do folks being mostly non-racialized and less well-to-do folks being mostly racialized. It is unsurprising, then, that the structural barriers in STEM academia seem to be reflected in the racial makeup of our laboratories — at least, according to my own experience.

It’s sad to say that, throughout my years working in U of T labs, I can genuinely count on my hands the number of Black graduate students, postdoctoral students, and faculty I have come across in the Termerty Faculty of Medicine. When talking to some friends, I found out that they’ve felt the same, each of them knowing only a couple in their own departments. Scanning the faculty page of my department, the Department of Biochemistry, I can find few racialized faculty members.

The numbers get even worse when you look at the big picture. The university’s 2019 Report on Employment Equity revealed that only 2.9 per cent of faculty and 6.7 per cent of staff identified as Black. Yet, according to the 2016 census, Black people make up nine per cent of the city’s population and 3.5 per cent of the nation. These numbers are extremely worrying and indicative of how little effort has been put in to make the university, including its science departments, inclusive and accessible. 

Actions over words

Now that we’ve dived into the affairs here at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, let me share what it’s like to be a trainee in an environment where almost no one looks like you.

The first feeling is a common one to many: impostor syndrome. But it’s not your regular impostor syndrome by any means; it has teeth. Feeling like you don’t belong or are less qualified than your peers is a sentiment that comes and goes based on your accomplishments of the day. However, seeing that you don’t belong — not by how you are treated, but by the absence of folks who look like you — while feeling like you don’t belong is a more permanent and everlasting feeling.

This discourages Black students from pursuing careers as scientists. Impostor syndrome and a lack of access to mentors who share your life experience is a deadly combination. This has sprung up periodically for me in the past, but recently, I have been able to find a community of Black scientists on Twitter who have been able to fill the void created by the U of T research machine. 

Since connecting with the Black scientific community on Twitter, my drive to pursue a research career has been revived. Many Black senior scientists and trainees have made and continue to make a tremendous effort mentoring the next generation of scientists. Some have created a Slack community for Black trainees to connect them with Black faculty and postdoctoral mentors worldwide. 

Seeing tweets and posts about Black postdoctoral students getting tenure-track positions and starting labs has invigorated my dream to head my own lab one day and emboldened me to not give up. My positive experience meeting these folks has also let me know that the issue of underrepresentation is most certainly not something that I have to accept, and that the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the broader campus can and must do better.

Another common sentiment, at least for me, is feeling unvalued by the institution as a whole. If the university truly wanted more Black students, postdoctoral students, and faculty, surely the faculty would have done something to fix the issue. 

While the faculty loves to mention how they are striving for inclusivity, creating committees on equity issues left and right, I am reminded of a quote US President Joe Biden attributes to his father: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” 

The Temerty Faculty of Medicine, with its immense resources, should put more financial might behind solving the issue in a real way. From speaking to my friends and looking at university-wide statistics, it seems like there is a stark contrast between the values the university publicly shares and the lack of Black representation in its science departments. It seems like the talk of equity, diversity, and inclusion of Black scientists is just that — talk.

What can be done?

The first step is to admit that there is a problem. By this, I do not mean admitting that Black scientists are underrepresented — we already know that. The real problem that departments and faculty members must admit to having is best captured in an article and admission from biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote:

“I like to think of myself as a progressive who has made a persistent effort to promote diversity in science. But of the 50 graduate students and postdocs I have trained, none are Black. I have volunteered in diversity efforts at my university and elsewhere, I have sat on diversity panels, and I have reviewed diversity fellowships. But none of the many faculty search committees that I have served on made an offer to a Black candidate.

In my opinion, Eisen’s situation mirrors that of many faculty and staff here at U of T and in the broader scientific community. People may hold liberal ideals or claim to care about diversity and inclusion, but their actions are divorced from their words, as evidenced by the lack of Black trainees in their labs and Black colleagues in their departments. This is an item directly within their control through their participation in hiring committees. They could also simply accept Black students and postdoctoral students into their labs.

To use Eisen’s example, researchers need to make an effort to train Black students in their own labs. The problem is claiming to want to increase representation instead of hiring and training actual Black scientists and students. 

The university creates committees, hosts equity workshops with questionable efficacy, and requires diversity statements from new hires. These are well-meaning practices, but they assume that the applicants themselves cannot serve as the solution.

The next step in promoting diversity is equally as important as the first, and that is to remove the unnecessary financial barriers associated with training to become a scientist. Some institutions across North America have started initiatives to address this issue, notably the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which awards generous fellowships to underrepresented doctoral and postdoctoral trainees. 

In the same vein, U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine must come up with equitable solutions, including paying graduate students a livable stipend without requiring additional financial support from family and ensuring that summer undergraduate researchers are compensated well enough such that their pursuit does not require a financial sacrifice. This institution should use its tremendous resources to ensure its scientific training is open and accessible to all.