Article by Sajeevan Sujanthan & Rehnuma Islam
Graphic design by Amy Zhang
Pursuing a career in science and medicine is a dream for many individuals in STEM–whether it be in an operating room as a brain surgeon, or carrying out impactful research to mitigate global crises as a Graduate student. However, the deeply rooted biases and systemic barriers that exist in graduate and professional fields hinder opportunities for many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Despite recent efforts from different institutions to increase opportunities for BIPOC students, challenges and barriers have been present for far too long, instilling the idea that science and medicine are an unattainable goal for many individuals.
Employing the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion; we can begin to tackle the pressing issues that impact our community while at the same time, critically addressing the system that tends to fail those in need. There are times in history when society enacts a change; a change of morals, a change for justice, and a change in obligation to give equal footing to those that historically were footnotes on pages. But where do we begin to understand the inequities and discrimination that are ingrained in the very institutions we revere? It starts with a conversation and the willingness to undue and rewrite what was wronged.
An individual that upholds the importance of achieving a more equitable, diverse and inclusive community at the graduate level within the Institute of Medical Science is our very own Dr. Sunit Das. Dr. Das is a neurosurgeon and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital and the Keenan Research Centre, and an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto. Dr. Das is passionate about EDI efforts at IMS because of his personal narrative, and is leading this effort with Ms. Kaki Blackwood (Academic Advisor, Scholarships and Awards) as a co-director for the IMS EDI committee at UofT.
Dr. Das grew up in a mixed cultural background, as he is half Indian and Black. He completed the majority of his education and medical training in the United States, however, he was fortunate enough to not have his background be a barrier against pursuing and climbing the rankings. Nonetheless, at times he felt like an outsider in academia and medicine, due to micro and macro aggression towards him. He believes this stems from people’s stereotypes of what a Doctor and a Professor should look like, which isn’t necessarily someone of color. Early on in his career, Dr. Das understood the importance of equity, “the idea that not everyone gets to play on the same playing field with the same tools or starting points”. He also feels that “these are the issues that, if not corrected, lead to a community that doesn’t reflect our true values and beliefs of being equal and fair”. Dr. Das has taken on this role on the EDI committee with desire to change the community and create equal opportunities for future generations.
The IMS EDI committee involves both the faculty and students, with opportunities for any student with a passion for EDI to get involved. The committee is organized into various core areas: outreach to high school & universities, incorporation of an EDI lens to already established committees and organizations at IMS and at UofT (e.g.. The Summer Student Research Program (SURP)), and EDI inclusion in faculty development & growth. The current working group’s approach to tackling EDI efforts at IMS is split into two avenues. The first, immediate plan, is focused on increasing the opportunity for more funded summer student positions. Summer research programs provide high school and university students an opportunity to get exposed to the research done at IMS. Volunteer positions at labs are a valuable experience for individuals to build their network and CV, however, inadvertently, university systems are currently structured so that these opportunities are made less accessible to people who can’t afford to spend a summer in a position that doesn’t provide a stipend. Therefore, without intent we have structured these positions in a way that limits who could partake and benefit from these opportunities. This is a change that both the UofT and IMS have agreed to support Dr. Das and Ms. Blackwood to carry forward–to expand the reach and “level out the playing field” for all students.
More broadly, the committee’s second plan is to change the culture and begin to speak on issues such as inherent biases, unintended racism, homophobia, and sexism that is present in our community. Dr. Das states that these things do exist, and at times we may find it difficult to accept that we aren’t perfect. For example, a recent survey conducted by his team showed that about 80% of IMS students have faced racism and sexism in the IMS community, from their own mentors and advisors. This survey revealed that discrimination is quite prevalent in this progressive institution, and that actions are needed. The plan that Dr. Das has in mind would create workshops to teach and properly communicate these issues to increase awareness of inherent biases and find solutions to tackle systemic inequalities within IMS. However, Dr. Das explains, “the efforts to improve the community are not going to be easy, and it’s something we all have to actively take part in changing”.
Dr. Das and the EDI committee’s long-term goals include looking critically at the culture and the community as a whole, and recognizing places that we can change in ways that are more welcoming. Certainly, this means looking beyond IMS and viewing UofT as a broader community; comprising all the departments, students, alumni, staff and faculties. Raising awareness of EDI and all forms of oppression, as Ms. Anita Balakrishna eloquently describes, aims “to dismantle and eliminate systems and structures of oppression, whether those structures are educational, – or justice system, or the healthcare system”.
The Temerty Faculty of Medicine first established the office of inclusion and diversity (OID) as part of an Academic Strategic Plan initiated in 20182, to collaboratively advocate for change and the creation and enhancement of equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives across all the departments within the faculty. Ms. Anita Balakrishna has been working at the OID for the past four and a half years under the leadership of Dr. Lisa Robinson, formerly Associate Dean, Inclusion and Diversity (now Vice-Dean, Strategy and Operations). Ms. Balakriskna began her career as a lawyer advocating and supporting people experiencing discrimination or harassment at work, in housing, or while getting a service. She realized her passion was much bigger and obtained a Master’s degree in Adult Education and Community Development to work towards providing more proactive and strategic education in order to initiate organizational change. During her time at the OID, Ms. Balakrishna and her OID colleagues, Shannon Giannitsopoulou and Christina Stevancec, have helped organize events to raise awareness on many topics, such as addressing Islamophobia and Anti-Asian racism, and standing in solidarity with Indigenous land defenders. In addition to many other programs, the OID team has also established an EDI Action Fund to support student led EDI initiates, which helps to coordinate a student-led EDI advisory committee (LEAD), and has helped bring graduate student inequities to the forefront through educational workshops and presentations.
Graduate students are at the heart of future mandates to gear community support and resources towards their needs, as graduate students have been largely neglected within the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Ms. Balakrishna and Dr. Lisa Robinson have helped establish a Diversity Advisory Council, which provides recommendations and shares promising practices on EDI throughout the Faculty. The OID also seeks input regularly from the LEAD committee, whereby graduate students and medical trainees inform the OID on areas of neglect or improvement. Some of the concerns that have been raised by graduate students most recently have included 1) an overwhelming lack of a sense of community in such a large faculty, 2) some members felt subject to discrimination and harassment and 3) the graduate programs disproportionately under-represents certain ethnic groups such as Black, Indigenous or individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. To begin combating these issues, the OID has provided guidance and support to various Faculty departments to encourage the sharing of promising practices in admissions and recruitment as well as the creation of more equity-based scholarships to enhance enrollment to a greater diverse pool of candidates, particularly those most underrepresented. The OID is attempting to create safer spaces for graduate students to obtain help and support and aims to hold people accountable for misconduct.
Science is an unbiased method of observation, but the structures around it are anything but unbiased. In broaching the topic of “Women in STEM”, Ms. Balakrishna highlighted barriers that currently plague the system, such as stereotypes of women in science involving how they should look or behave, not being treated equally to male peers, and questioning of their background and credentials. All of which creates the sense of being an imposter within science. And those that speak out against these hurdles are sometimes made to hang their careers in the balance. Nevertheless, women are speaking out! These inequities are magnified for those women who also identify as racialized, particularly Black and/or Indigenous, and/or whose identities intersect with other axes of oppression (including but not limited to disability, sexuality, gender expression, and minoritized faith group). Therefore, the work is just beginning, and much work is left to be done.
The first step in resolving EDI related inequalities requires acknowledgement. As an individual it is up to us to bring about self-awareness and recognize that we all struggle with our own biases. As Ms. Balakrishna notes, “To think differently about groups of people -that will take exposure and constantly challenging yourself to better understand your own areas of bias and privilege”. For people that consider themselves an ally, in Ms. Balakrishna’s words, being an ally means to “take a stand, to intervene, show support, to empathize”. She also recognizes that power dynamics may limit an individual from taking direct action against injustice; however, an ally can still recognize and do what they can to work in solidarity with those minority communities. Allyship is a practice, not an identity, and it is up to each of us as individuals to ensure that we are doing what we can to break down barriers and address oppression at the systemic level, not just at the individual level.
We highlighted the work of two incredible individuals working to break down barriers preventing equal opportunity for all. We look forward to seeing their work bear fruition, not only for us, but for generations to come.
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 2021. 2021 Innovative Approaches to Research in the Pandemic Context: Competition Overview. [online] Available at: https://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/nfrf-fnfr/special/2021/call-appel-1/competition-concours-eng.aspx [Accessed 31 July 2021].
- Temerty Faculty of Medicine University of Toronto. About the Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. [online] Available at: https://medicine.utoronto.ca/about-office-equity-diversity-inclusion [Accessed 31 July 2021].