I am a white cis-gendered woman who grew up in a middle-class household. I am the first person in my family to receive a PhD. I have experienced sexism and sexual harassment in academic settings, and because I am a mother, my chances of staying in academia are half those of my colleagues who do not have children or who are fathers. Moreover, COVID-19 has exacerbated this inequity (both personally and at a population level). However, all other parts of my identity grant me privileges that others do not have. For example, being a white mother meant that I was less likely to be harmed during childbirth. English is my first language, which is the language most commonly used in academic settings. Both of my parents have degrees from universities which meant that when I got to college, I had meta-knowledge about how universities work. I am a documented citizen, which means that I do not worry about being deported. More generally, my social class and cultural background make me comfortable in academia --a largely white, upper-middle-class space. I worked throughout college to help with bills, but the tuition in 2004 at a public university was affordable for my family, so I did not have debt when I graduated. In turn, when I decided to switch career paths, I could afford to volunteer as a research assistant in a lab while supporting myself with a part-time job as a teacher. Without this freedom, I would have never been able to get the experience as a research assistant that I needed to apply to PhD programs.
When I think about how to promote equity and inclusion, I think both about the disadvantages I face and the advantages I have. My goal is to ensure those who do not have these advantages are able to succeed, feel empowered, and feel supported. I have been fortunate enough to have supportive mentors, who are mothers themselves. Not only have these mentors helped me navigate situations where sexism arose, but they have also helped me figure out ways to be successful as an academic mother. As the principal investigator of my own lab and as an instructor, I will use these experiences to guide my mentorship and teaching, emulating the support I have received from these mentors while expanding the ways in which I make my lab an empowering place for people who face different structural barriers than I do. To do this, I continually ask myself three questions: (1) What is my privilege in this situation? (2) What is my power in this situation? And (3) What biases might I have in this situation?
Promoting Diversity and Equity as a Mentor
One privilege that I had was the ability to volunteer as a research assistant. As the P.I. of the lab, I have the power to make sure those without this privilege are able to get research experience. The Sarnecka Cognitive Development Lab (where I was a graduate student) had an NSF REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) supplement grant to pay Spanish speaking Latinx students as research assistants. During graduate school, I mentored around 10-12 undergraduate research assistants per year, roughly half of whom were Latinx students. When the REU expired, I prioritized obtaining funding through campus-specific means. Twelve of my research assistants (8 were Latina/Chicana-American, one was an international student from Brazil, and one was gender nonconforming) received UROP (Undergraduate research opportunity program) and SURP (Summer Undergraduate research program) awards totaling around $12,000. These programs gave students summer stipends to work as research assistants, and money during the school year for materials to conduct independent research projects. As a postdoctoral scholar, I have continued to prioritize paying research assistants, most of my research assistants have obtained funding through MIT and Harvard specific resources.
When hiring research assistants and when recruiting Ph.D. students, I will continue to hire those who face structural barriers in academia including first-generation students, BIPOC students, gender non-conforming students, and those who have fewer financial resources. I will make contact and support campus-specific groups such as Black Student Unions, De Colores, etc. I will also utilize outside resources such as SPARK (https://scied.ucar.edu/soars/sparks) to recruit for positions in my lab, as well as historically Black colleges. I also hope to join or start programs where labs can partner with local community colleges to give research experience to students at community college who seek to do so.
Hiring BIPOC, first-generation, and economically disadvantaged research assistants is a good first step. But it is not enough. Creating a welcoming space for everyone takes work. As the P.I. of the lab, I have the power to shape the culture to make it a welcoming and empowering space (as opposed to asking underrepresented students to change themselves to ‘fit in’). My goal is to create a lab that is a community in which the members are directly involved in decisions that affect them. Emulating the saxlab, one way I plan to do this is to have a lab handbook that gets modified and updated yearly in a collaborative process. As a start, this handbook will have sections that include ground rules for communication, how to handle conflicts, and will outline unacceptable behaviors. As a political organizer for immigrant and worker rights, I was on the committee which wrote our bylaws and our harassment policy. I also served on Harvard Psychology’s Department Climate Committee for one semester and as a liaison for the saxelab for community of practice. In both cases, the committees asked for input from the communities that would be affected by these policies. As a faculty member I will continue this work.
Another way I plan to establish a sense of community is to utilize scaffolded mentoring, in which the P.I. mentors everyone, but postdocs mentor graduate students and undergraduates, graduate students mentor undergraduates, and more senior undergraduates’ mentor new research assistants in the lab. In lab meetings, researchers at all levels will share their day to day activities and challenges (e.g. grants; schoolwork, etc, experimental design, rejections). I have experienced how useful it can be when higher-ranking individuals share struggles and challenges. This allows scholars of all levels to obtain meta-knowledge about academia and it adds to a feeling of community. For example, hearing about graduate students and postdocs own struggles in academia has led research assistants to open up about their struggles in courses. This led to study groups (e.g. for the GRE) between research assistants and peer support. Several of the first-generation Latina research assistants in the Sarnecka Lab shared that the lab was a place where they made lasting friendships, felt at home on campus, and could ask questions about otherwise opaque parts of academia. I currently emulate this model with my mentees at MIT and Harvard. I lead and organize two small discussion groups of research assistants. In these discussion groups, mentors answer questions about hidden curriculum, talk about scientific papers, and have had several discussions about diversity and inclusion, including discussions about specific barriers that mentees of different backgrounds face.
To keep myself accountable, I will also provide ample opportunities for feedback. As a graduate student and postdoc, I have made clear to my mentees that I am learning to be a better mentor, and that their feedback is essential in this process.
Besides asking about privilege, power, and bias, I also firmly believe that learning to create empowering spaces is a lifelong process. I will continue to attend workshops and will encourage my mentees to attend workshops. Moreover, I hope to create a lab in which ‘calling in’ (which focuses on specific behaviors instead of shame) is normalized. I will create opportunities to give lab members tools to address problematic behavior and attitudes, rather than expect that everyone already has these tools.
Promoting Diversity in The Classroom
The ways in which I plan to promote diversity and equity in the classroom mirrors my plans for my lab. My aim as an instructor is to create a supportive environment that conscientiously fights against barriers that disproportionately affect students from diverse backgrounds and students with disabilities. One privilege I had when I was a student is that I felt comfortable in college classrooms. As an instructor, I have the power to shift the culture of the classroom, so everyone feels comfortable and empowered. I will continue my practice of using small collaborative teams throughout the course, to mitigate some of the traditional hierarchical structure of classrooms. My guiding principle is to remember that students have whole lives outside school. For example, some are dealing with trauma, some have disabilities, some have family obligations, some are dealing with hatred in their community. On the first day of lecture, I have students write on a notecard one fact they’d like me to know about them, what they hope to get out of the course, what has worked well for them in the past courses, and what hasn’t. This helps me get a better sense of who the students are. My goal is to create spaces in which students can bring their ‘whole selves’ to the classroom, instead of changing who they are to fit in. For example, in trainings I have attended on making teaching equitable, I learned to make the participation portion of grades flexible. This helps students with differing obligations out of the classroom get credit for participation, but not always by requiring that they are physically or virtually present in class. I make all my lectures captioned by default and I make a point to describe important images on the screen. My courses will also give students tools to navigate the largely white upper-class space that is the university. For example, we will collaboratively come up with ground rules for communication in the beginning of each course, we will talk about meta-knowledge about effective learning strategies in college, how to navigate college spaces etc. Students will also learn about resources available at the university to help them succeed. I have attended several pedagogical trainings geared toward making the classroom work for a diverse student body, and as a faculty member, I will continue to do so.
Another place that I have power is choosing what scholars to include in my syllabi (e.g. by using cleanBib) as well as what I choose to cover in my classes. I plan to cover studies that represent diverse populations and that address social justice and equity. In past courses, I have covered ways Psychological Science can inform our understanding of topics such as systematic racism and transphobia, and ways in which we have failed to address these types of topics. For graduate seminars, I plan to apply for small grants to pay outside speakers who are from diverse backgrounds. Each speaker will talk briefly about their academic and personal history, and students will be able to ask them questions about setbacks, their work, and their successes. To keep myself accountable, students will give anonymous feedback throughout my courses. Students will be asked specifically to comment on whether the course is succeeding and failing in creating an empowering environment.
Promoting Equity in Scientific Practices
One privilege I have as a white academic from the United States is that the populations that are represented in research reflect my own identity. As the lead researcher on projects, I have power to change who is studied. One of my goals in my research moving forward is to expand the subject pool of my research. One tool that has already increased the diversity of participants in my studies is the use of large-scale online testing. Even when the pandemic is over, I will continue to use online testing as it is an effective tool to make participating in research available to more people. I am also committed to expanding the populations I study by actively reaching out to communities that are understudied. For example, I plan to partner with parent groups in neighboring communities, low-income preschools, and daycare centers. When doing so, I will actively work with these communities to avoid exploitation. In other words, I will ask leaders in these communities what we can provide as researchers.
I am also eager to learn more about community involved research. I plan to attend workshops on the topic. In future work, I am interested in engaging in community-involved research, where the population that is being studied is involved with coming up with the most relevant and interesting research questions themselves. As a political organizer, I have hands on experience with this type of work and am eager to apply these skills as a researcher. One lesson that I learned as an organizer is that it takes time to establish trust in relationships, this is something I am committed to doing in this type of work.
Like most ideas in science, none of these ideas about how to create supportive, empowering, and equitable spaces are my own. They are the result of people telling their stories, creating resources, and organizing workshops. I owe many of these ideas to conversations that I have had with colleagues, mentors, and former and current mentees who have different backgrounds than I do and who have faced different barriers than I have. I will continue to take advantage of both formal workshops, as well as these informal avenues of learning. For example, I sought the input of former Chicana mentees on this document (and paid them for their time). I consider a commitment to equity and diversity to be a life-time process that takes work, commitment, and continual updating and reevaluation. Academia as a whole as well as Psychology as a field has work to do in making our climate, our science, and our teaching equitable, diverse and representative. I am optimistic that our field is committed to improving and I am committed to working with others to reshape these spaces to be truly inclusive for everyone.
Workshops and programs, I have participated in
Attended Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching of 1st Generation College Students
Attended Academics for black survival and Wellness Anti-Racism Training
Attended: Diversity: A Workshop and Forum of Ideas
Was a mentor for PPREP (Prospective Ph.D. & RA Event in Psychology) mentorship program