An ongoing conversation on diversity in science

Stories from the front line of research on inclusivity in STEM

An ongoing conversation on diversity in science

The Gairdner/L’Oréal-UNESCO Forum on Diversity and Excellence in Science took place at the MaRS Centre on September 30.

The conference was hosted in part by the Gairdner Foundation, which aims to recognize “international excellence in fundamental research that impacts human health.”

“Many groups are underrepresented in research, including women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and socially disadvantaged populations,” said Dr. Janet Rossant, a professor at U of T’s Departments of Molecular Genetics and Obstetrics & Gynaecology, in an interview with The Varsity. Rossant is also the president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation, and chief of research emeritus at the SickKids Research Institute.

“This is an ongoing conversation and ongoing discussion that we have to have across many aspects of our lives today.”

Stories from the front line

A panel discussion named “Diversity in STEMM- Stories from the Frontline” included Dr. Eugenia Duodu, Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, and Dr. Janet Smylie, and was moderated by Dr. Imogen Coe.

“We need to be having those conversations about those kinds of uncomfortable things in order to move forward,” said Coe, a professor at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science, and an advocate for equity in STEM.

Smylie is a professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and also serves as the director of the Well Living House, which focuses on bettering health outcomes for Indigenous children and families.

Her talk focused on the importance of a balance of power, specifically highlighting the importance of finding an individual balance in one’s life.

Duodu received her PhD in chemistry from U of T and is the chief executive officer of Visions of Science, a charitable organization which uses STEM as a way to empower youth from low-income areas in Toronto.

She spoke about a time where she was not invited to a competition that her colleagues were invited to. “It was really interesting that there was this kind of assumption that this is not something that I would [want to] be a part of,” she said.

Karim is the associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, a research centre focused on studying HIV. She is also a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Centre.

She discussed how her activism work tied into the medical work she was doing. “That anti-apartheid activism era in my life gave me an opportunity to respect all forms of knowledge,” she said.

She further elaborated that it enabled her “to understand, even in communities where literacy levels are low and people may not have degrees, [that] they have important knowledge that could be tapped into.”

Afternoon STEM talks

The afternoon session included eight talks about STEM topics with L’Oréal-UNESCO scientists Dr. Eugenia Kumacheva, Dr. Vanessa D’Costa, Dr. Janet Rossant, Dr. Nausheen Sadiq, Dr. Victoria Arbour, Dr. Molly Shoichet, Dr. Kate (Hyun) Lee, and Karim.

The concept of arsenic in rice was discussed in Sadiq’s talk, who is a research chemist at Brooks Applied Labs and a L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science fellow. The reasoning behind this, Sadiq said, is that “in Canada, there is no set limit for arsenic in food.”

A focus of Sadiq’s PhD research was on arsenic levels in rice. A type of rice she looked at was rice cereal, which is often eaten by babies, which has relatively high amounts of arsenic.

“If you take [one thing] away from today, from me speaking,” said Sadiq jokingly, “it’s please wash your rice.”

Theatre Review: A Perfect Bowl of Phở

From U of T’s Drama Festival to Factory Theatre, Nguyen’s play doesn’t miss a beat

Theatre Review: <i>A Perfect Bowl of Phở</i>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Halfway through fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s production of A Perfect Bowl of Ph, actress Kenley Ferris-Ku appears onstage as a waitress in war-era Vietnam. She delivers a monologue that is informative and sincere, telling of how she served ph to American soldiers by day and hid Vit Cng soldiers in the attic by night. It is a monologue about the Tet offensive and the legacy of the restaurant that hid those soldiers. It is also a monologue about ph itself. For this reason, it serves as a good entry point to the show, and it is as near to perfect as this ‘ph show’ gets. Ferris-Ku’s performance is confident and firm, and playwright Nam Nguyen’s dialogue is no less powerful.

The scene is also unlike anything else you’ll see in a show filled with meta-theatrical gags, lightning-fast rap numbers, and dialogue that jackhammers at the fourth wall.

Ph is not so much a distinct narrative as it is a variety show honouring the eponymous dish, with every cast member skillfully juggling several roles, occasionally even trading places with one another. Tying it all together is the arc of the playwright himself, played — mostly — by a wry and witty Kenzie Tsang, as he works out the show from its inception to the final product.

The audience is made to feel like what it is seeing is a work in progress, which isn’t entirely false. First showcased at U of T’s 2017 Drama Festival, fu-GEN’s production is the third iteration of the show — each one markedly different from the last. Questions of what the show is even about and whether it’s getting its message across are discussed openly onstage.

Yet, rather than bringing in new dimensions, these moments can read as overly didactic lessons on dramaturgy and do more to bar the audience from engaging fully and critically with the show. As someone who knows admittedly very little about Vietnam, I think the show would benefit from more scenes like Ferris-Ku’s, and fewer tangents into self-doubt.

In a show that does a brilliant job of being simultaneously entertaining and educational on the subjects of Vietnamese culture and history, Ph triumphs when it is sure of itself.

Watch as an extremely outgoing little girl (Meghan Aguirre) unleashes a lyrical torrent about bringing ph to school for World Cultures Day and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Watch as a white devil of a trendy ph chef (Brendan Rush) tears off his shirt to squeeze lime juice over the pentagram on his chest and you’ll be peeing yourself with laughter. Watch — or more accurately, read — an unflinching experiment in exposition as a gruesome story of Vietnamese refugees set adrift is projected onto an otherwise motionless stage and you will marvel at the risks that this show is willing to take with its material.

Despite its occasional missteps, there is no denying that A Perfect Bowl of Ph is a compelling piece of experimental theatre that you don’t want to miss. This latest iteration is the strongest yet — a good sign for the future if it’s as much of a work in progress as it claims to be. This show may indeed be well on its way to becoming a perfect bowl of phở.

A Perfect Bowl of Ph and Fine China are playing as a double-bill at the Factory Theatre until February 10.

Theatre review: UC Follies’ Les Frères

The show represents the culture of Haiti through family struggles

Theatre review: UC Follies’ <i>Les Frères</i>

Rating: 4/5 stars

The UC Follies’ ended their 2018 season with the outstanding production, Les Frères (The Brothers). The play was met with resounding cheers and a standing ovation during the opening night on a snowy November Thursday.

Les Frères is a dramatic and cultural story that integrates loss and personal obstacles, but one that follows a Haitian-American family in New York and is performed in English. Written by Sandra A. Daley Sharif, directed by Abigail Whitney, and inspired by Lorainne Hansberry’s Les Blancs, it depicts the struggles of a family and country against the effects of colonialism.

“This play has provided me with the chance to stage a story that mirrors scenes in my life. Scenes that I know so intimately growing up as part of the Haitian diaspora,” Whitney wrote in her director’s note.

The show’s focus is on three brothers who are forced to confront each other after spending years apart. Upon being reunited with each other when their father becomes ill, Christophe (Kato Alexander), Jean Caleb (Kwaku Adu-Poku), and Fedji (David Delisca) must navigate the aftermath of their father’s death, recall their mother’s earlier suicide, and face the tensions between the three of them.

The brothers are of Haitian descent and grew up together in Harlem, New York. However, they have all taken very different paths in life: Christophe is a scholar who now studies at Harvard University and has met Barack Obama, Jean Caleb has his own family and is out saving the world as a doctor, and Fedji is a Jehovah’s Witness who lives nearby in Brooklyn.

Despite the challenges of a small cast size, the actors were able to carry the show with constant dialogue and quick-witted exchanges to keep the audience interested. Rob Candy gave a compelling performance in his role as Mr. Brent Ewens, a family friend, adding energetic and compelling conversations to the poignant storyline.

Alexander, Adu-Poku, and Delisca deliver their lines with the perfect amount of emotion which allows the audience to effectively empathise the pain and trauma of the young men. This is particularly apparent during the scene when the three brothers argue among themselves directly following their father’s death.

Traditional music connected Haitian culture and the sombre mood of the show. especially during intense scenes and discussions Instruments, like a bongo drum and rain stick, were played by Mosa McNeilly to create matching sound effects.

The set design is conventional, detailing the kitchen and living areas of the brothers’ childhood apartment. It is complete with a fully stocked fridge, bookshelves, and a table filled with Christophe’s endless awards and trophies.

While the various scenes of loss are not easy to watch, rare moments of humour and the closeness of family offer some respite. The production is impressive in its adaptation of the original play, enhancing minor moments while keeping the key elements and true message of the story intact.

As a whole, the show succeeded in bringing the story and its significance to life through the drama of the scenes and strong actors onstage. The culture and heritage of Haiti was well represented and accessible for such a diverse Toronto audience.

Research by all, for all

The underrepresentation of women and racialized folks in academia indicates the importance of promoting equity and diversity at U of T

Research by all, for all

It was recently announced that U of T will implement 49 new recommendations from the Equity and Diversity in Research and Innovation Working Group to foster more equity in every stage of research and academia — from ensuring diversity in committees that provide awards and funding to requiring further training in unconscious biases.

This is certainly exciting, especially since the announcement comes with concrete steps to fulfill its vision, which makes this promise feel substantive rather than empty. Assuming that these measures are put into place and followed, real progress is on the horizon.

Sadly, this change is urgently needed in academia. Study after study has shown that the field not only consists of overwhelming numbers of white and male academics, but it is also reluctant to change itself.

For example, in a 2012 study, professors in biology, chemistry, and physics departments at six universities across the US were given identical applications for a lab manager position, with some applicants using female names and others using male names. The male applicants were rated as more “hireable” and competent, and offered a larger starting salary.

In 2016, the Dean of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Trevor Young, revealed some sobering statistics about the racial and socioeconomic makeup of medical students and faculty: Black, Filipino, Latinx, and Indigenous students were “woefully under-represented,” and, in 2013, 75 per cent of the faculty were white.

To even produce these statistics is surprisingly difficult. In 2017, CBC reported that despite the claims of many Canadian universities as pro-diversity, very few actually have any data about the racial demographics of their students. This allows universities to plead ignorance about any kind of discrimination on their part, and allows them to continue a charade of racial blindness.

Many may fight back against these measures as being ‘discriminatory’ toward white men in favour of minorities and underprivileged folks, or suggest that the best solution would simply be to approach hiring, funding, and the like with blindness toward gender and racial considerations. To the former point, it is worth noting that none of the recommendations even suggest or imply discrimination toward white men.

To the latter point, I would say that this is impossible thanks to unconscious biases, which means that even those with the best of intentions still discriminate. In the 2012 study, it is highly unlikely that the faculty involved all held genuine contempt for women, but it is far more likely that they had absorbed societal ideas about men and women in science, and reflected them in hiring practices.

To go beyond the simple fact that more people of diverse backgrounds should have opportunities in academia and research, it should be noted that the type of research that would be conducted with more people who are not white men could be badly needed, or done with a genuine cultural sensitivity that may not be present otherwise.

A person with a particular racial background may have an interest in a research topic that affects them more than it does the dominant race. Someone who is part of an underprivileged community, especially one that has a history of mistreatment in research, may be able to connect with their own community and understand how to conduct research with them better.

Research in every field, from medicine to anthropology, has a tainted history of ignoring the needs and wishes of the communities they encounter, which can lead to dark consequences. Look no further than eugenics as a field, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, or the US Army working closely with anthropologists to finetune their strategy in Afghanistan.

Paula Rochon, Vice-President of Research at Women’s College Hospital, was part of the working group and reported last yearthat, because women were underused as research subjects in a study on dementia, it is unknown how certain dementia medications affect women, despite the fact that most elderly people with dementia are women. More female researchers, in that case, would have been more likely to push for more female subjects.

And we can extrapolate that to a larger scale. If most researchers are white men, with funding being granted by other white men, and the findings are presented to white men with nobody else in the room, the research would suffer by only focusing on certain issues and their effects on certain people.

No matter your personal identity, I hope that advocating for equity and diversity in academia and research is something we can all celebrate. These steps get more people from diverse backgrounds to be a part of every step of the process. This means more opportunities for more people, better research, and positive outcomes for everyone.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.

Physics has a diversity problem

An age-old issue brought back to life following Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Breakthrough Prize award

Physics has a diversity problem

The Breakthrough Prize — a $3 million award bestowed to researchers in Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics — recently recognized astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars.

When Bell Burnell was a researcher at the University of Cambridge in 1967, she noticed a signal that repeated every second or so through a radio telescope. Bell Burnell and her advisor Antony Hewish weren’t sure what to make of it.

These signals turned out to be pulsars, or fast spinning neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation. 

Though Bell Burnell was the first to discover pulsars, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle in 1974.

Bell Burnell’s receipt of the Breakthrough Prize is historically significant, as women have not traditionally blazed through male-dominated fields like physics. When Bell Burnell came to Calgary on September 19, she told CBC News that the prize money would go to supporting underrepresented graduate students in science.

Though attitudes toward women in math and science have changed since the 1960s, there is still progress to be made.

According to U of T’s Professor AW Peet in the Department of Physics, one reason could be that social and cultural aspects cause participation rates in math and science to vary from country to country.

Many Eurocentric countries like Canada, the US, and the UK, have, in fact, lower participation rates of women in math and science compared to countries like Lebanon or Iran.

Eight per cent of the physics faculty in US universities with PhD-granting departments have no representation of women.

The statistics in Toronto aren’t promising either.

Of 14 faculty members who teach subjects relating to physics at UTM, only one is female.

While the University of Toronto has seen a significant improvement in female representation in physics, the number of female graduate and undergraduate students still remains low compared to women in biology or chemistry.

In 2012, 24 per cent of undergraduate students enrolled in Applied Science & Engineering, which includes studies in physics, were female. Of graduate students in the faculty, 26 per cent were female. 

These statistics have improved after five years. In 2017, 33 per cent of undergraduate students enrolled in Applied Science & Engineering programs were female; of graduate students, 27 per cent were female.

In contrast, 65 per cent of students pursuing undergraduate Biological Sciences and 57 per cent of students pursuing graduate studies in Biological Sciences were female in 2017.

These statistics do not account for students who identify as nonbinary, and though they reflect an improvement in female participation in the sciences, particularly physics, they are still worrisome.

Organizations like the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics have brought  delegations from different countries together to compare representation in physics and become more cognizant of representation in physics.

Moreover, in Canada, the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) has taken initiatives to narrow the gap.

One of its initiatives, according to Peet, who is also the former Chair of CAP, is an annual conference for women in physics known as the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

However, if real progress is to be made in the sciences, changes at the institutional level, like promoting women into roles such as Canada Research Chairs, and at societal levels, like providing better support for women on maternity leave, are crucial.

University of Toronto named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers

Initiatives for equity, diversity, family support make university top employer

University of Toronto named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers

For the ninth consecutive year, the University of Toronto has been named among the top employers for diversity in Canada.

Canada’s Best Diversity Employers awards the distinction to Canadian employers that possess “exceptional workplace diversity and inclusiveness programs.” Diversity initiatives in multiple areas are assessed, including women, members of visible minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ people.

Any employer with a head office or principle place of business in Canada is eligible to be considered for the project. Applicants must have at least one initiative in place that falls under the diversity umbrella.

Editors at Mediacorp Canada — a publisher specializing in employment information — evaluated diversity and inclusivity ideas of employers who applied for the competition; the results of which were released in The Globe and Mail.

U of T maintains 13 offices that focus solely on issues of equity and diversity. The president’s statement on diversity and inclusion states, “Diversity, inclusion, respect, and civility are among the University of Toronto’s fundamental values.”

U of T also runs Queer Orientation in association with the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office, the Sexual Diversity Studies Students’ Union, and over two dozen participating campus groups. The orientation is designed to offer prospective and current students the chance to network and take part in activities related to LGBTQ communities.

U of T’s vice president of human resources, Angela Hildyard, hosts a yearly get-together to welcome newly hired female faculty.

A new initiative put forward when applying for this year’s competition was Indigenous Education Week, a week full of activities focusing on Indigenous contributions to education.

U of T was also chosen as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, Canada’s Top Family Friendly Employers, and Greater Toronto’s Top Employers.

Employees with young families are supported by U of T with employee parental leave. The university also provides accessible spaces for  changing diapers and breastfeeding or pumping. It has established a Family Care Office and children of employees here can be eligible for a 100 per cent tuition waiver, if they choose to pursue undergraduate studies at U of T.

Why Are The #OscarsSoWhite?

A member of the Academy weighs in on the controversy surrounding the 88th awards

Why Are The #OscarsSoWhite?

“The Academy has not been deaf to the controversy this year,” a seasoned member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me over email. A relief to hear considering the backlash surrounding the noticeable lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominees, summated by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Upon releasing their nominations for the 88th Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has become the subject of criticism after its list of nominees contained only white actors for the second year in a row. Last year, a meaty catalogue of films — such as Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and The Force Awakens — featured black actors in prominent roles, yet, none of them received nominations. Now, movielovers within and without the industry are questioning whether quality of performance is in fact the only thing the Academy is evaluating.

“All of a sudden, you feel like we’re moving in the wrong direction,” actor George Clooney recently told Variety. President Barack Obama asked, “are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”

The Oscars assume the unique role of praising a group of films that supposedly reflect or embody the zeitgeist of our time. Surely one would expect a wider diversity of talent, stories, and performances to be awarded by a ceremony meant to represent a world as diverse as ours. 

The Varsity recently spoke a veteran of the industry with a career spanning three decades. They spoke on topics such as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, how the Academy will be reshaping moving forward, and how the film industry has changed in the last 30 years.

The Varsity (TV): What would you say of 2016’s film lineup? In your opinion, are the right pictures being recognized?

Academy Member (AM): The ‘right’ pictures? [It’s] hard to qualify that, really. Every year there are fantastic films that never have a prayer of making it into the sights of the Academy members, simply because their advertising and promo campaigns aren’t as visible. That does not mean that the films nominated don’t deserve to be there; they do. These films are top quality on all levels. It is also important to know that all members from all branches nominate for Best Picture, and then each branch nominates in their area: Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, make-up artists nominate make-up artists, etc.

TV: What do you make of the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards?

AM: Diversity is an issue. It starts with what gets written – and more importantly, what gets greenlit – and ends often with very ‘white’ nominations, in part due to the lack of diversity in what films get made. That said, the Academy has not been deaf to the controversy this year. The president of the Academy (an African-American woman) has made some changes to the membership moving forwards. Active voting eligibility for each member will be reassessed every 10 years instead of the lifetime privilege it has been given up until this year.

TV: If you consider the controversy to be a problem, is this a problem within the Academy, or do you think this controversy is relates to a bigger diversity issue within the whole industry?

AM: I think diversity is a problem in the world, not just in the film industry. The film industry is in the unique position of being able to bring the issue to a higher level of visibility, and is able to keep the conversations going.

TV: In what way(s) have you seen the film industry shift from an insider’s perspective since your time in it?

AM: Television and online media are now as valid a creative medium as film is. Film used to be the only star. No longer. The quality and caliber of the content streaming to a laptop or tablet near you is often on par with the best films released today. Theatrical film producers take fewer risks (and there’s a lack of diversity as a result) because of the difficulty in getting people into theaters. Sequels reign supreme because they are pretty safe bets. Most of the interesting, daring, risky projects are happening on the smaller screens. And yet, I still believe in the magic of sharing a great movie experience with an audience in a theater: images thrown onto a gigantic screen, a killer immersive sound system, and of course, all cell phones off.

TV: In your opinion, is the Academy’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy enough? How helpful do you think this will be for diversity in the film industry?

AM: I think it is absolutely a step in the right direction. Is it enough? Probably not. However, the issue is deeper than ‘Oscars So White.’ What is needed just as much as a more diverse Academy membership is more diverse, theatrical content, and opportunities for talented people of all descriptions.

TV: Why are academy members’ voting eligibility now being reassessed every 10 years? Do you think this policy will be beneficial?

AM: I don’t think it will hurt. If the active voting members can accurately represent the array of talent that is currently working [in the film industry], I can’t see how that would hurt. Hollywood is very good at spreading different points of view, and waking people up to these issues. It is high time for diversity in its own ranks to be scrutinized. That said, when being judged, or comparing creative talent, I only want to be nominated based on my talent. I do not want to be nominated because I am a person of color, a woman, plus-sized, gay, or any other minority.

TV: Do you think there’s more that the Academy should be doing to increase diversity in Hollywood?

AM: The Academy honors theatrically released films. Its members can do more by hiring people in all cinematic art forms that do not look like they do. They can green-light stories with roles written for people that are of all sizes, genders, and colors. And the movie going public can support all these efforts by going to see the films embrace these people.