An unyielding commitment to equity and inclusion has been a through-line of Dr. Sherilynn Black’s career, from her graduate training as a neurobiologist to her current position as Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Duke University. “I always had a desire to contribute to the scientific workforce in a way that was led by my values, and also led by a desire to expand knowledge and to expand people’s ability to understand and have access to science,” noted Black, reflecting on her professional journey, which has combined neuroscience, human behavior, higher education administration, and diversity work.
Black will give a plenary address to NORDP conference attendees entitled Examining Barriers and Identifying Solutions Toward Achieving Equity in STEM. In her remarks, she will explore the ways in which research development professionals can empower themselves and their colleagues to promote equity within their institutional environments and offer practical and easily adoptable steps toward changing systems and structures in academic organizations.
Black’s current work, which has been funded by HHMI, NIH, and Burroughs Wellcome Fund (among others), focuses on developing and measuring the effectiveness of interventions designed to promote diversity in academia. When asked about the ways in which her research interests have evolved she responded, “I was still interested in doing research, but wanted to do it in a way that really touched on the areas that were very important to me. I ended up transitioning from basic neuroscience to social neuroscience and then started focusing on race and equity more specifically.” As for how her research has informed her work as an administrator, Black points out, “My work is to design interventions. I study large scale datasets and look at the ways to design interventions to shift human behaviors towards equity. So, for me, the research that I do ties in very closely with a lot of the administrative roles I’ve held.”
While the connection between Black’s neurobiology background and her current research might not seem intuitive at first blush, the connection is clear to her. “To me, as a scientist, thinking about academia as an ecosystem is no different than thinking about a biological structure. Using statistical models has helped me learn how variables interact with one another. If you change one element of a model, how will it affect the downstream indicators of the rest of the model?” And Black is a strong proponent of applying the same rigorous scientific approach to her current work that she brought to the bench as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, noting,” I think a lot of times when it comes to work on diversity and equity topics people go off of their gut, or they see a successful initiative somewhere else, and they try to apply it locally without any contextual knowledge or evidence that it will be effective. They are not informed by the literature or by scholarly expertise. I like to use data to inform the practices that I develop for interventions. And I really do think that’s a big part of why they’ve been successful – because they’re evidence-based methodologies that are focused extensively on understanding the contextual knowledge, understanding the affective parts of motivation and behavior, and understanding the desired outcomes.”
Black views research development professionals and other academic staff as vital changemakers within their institutions when it comes to promoting a culture of inclusivity noting, “Research development professionals are critical for this work, because they are the ones who can create the culture, tone, and climate of training and work environments. Often times, students cycle in and out, and faculty may come and go, but staff play a critical role because they are often the longitudinal forces creating the culture that others cycle through.”
As Black is well aware, the hierarchy that can exist within academic institutions and companies alike can make changing the culture a challenging endeavor. “Ultimately, hierarchy can lead to a strong desire to cling to different norms for self-preservation. Anything that disrupts positionality or disrupts power structures can lead to challenges when you’re thinking about equity.” But despite these challenges, she notes the imperative for institutional change, stating “If the culture and climate is not one that allows all individuals to thrive, we will continue to see underrepresentation and attrition, or we will bring in scientists who have to assimilate to the current inequitable environment to survive. This means that we’re actually losing the benefit of the diversity that we sought to recruit in in the first place. Science will not be the best that it can be, and we won’t be as strong or as innovative of a field.”
Above all else, Black hopes that plenary attendees will come away with a sense of empowerment to step up at their own institutions. “I think that the more we create spaces where people feel that they have the agency and the right to speak up on what’s right and wrong, and the more that we all agree to subscribe to the norm that every person has the right to thrive and excel. That includes all students, faculty and staff. I think this will help more scientists to feel like they have the power to speak up when they see something going on.”