New checklist aims to tackle racism in conservation science in higher ed

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  • A new perspective piece published in Nature Ecology and Evolution outlines the history of racism in ecology, evolution and conservation biology (EECB) while also providing an actionable checklist for departments to create an anti-racist environment.
  • Written by faculty, staff and students, the checklist is a comprehensive guide to help scientists if they don’t know where to start when creating a more inclusive space.
  • It outlines changes that can be made in the classroom, research labs and departments to boost the representation of non-white students in EECB, which is lower than in other scientific fields.
  • More departments in ecology, evolution and conservation are thinking and talking about how to create an anti-racist space.

Nearing the end of her undergraduate studies in ecology, Drea Darby sat frustrated at her desk, searching for jobs in conservation. She had envisioned a career out in the field, but the positions didn’t pay well, if at all. Many jobs were in remote locations, jogging her memory about her own fieldwork experiences. People frequently interrupted her out in the field, questioning why she was there. But they never asked her white colleagues the same questions.

The barriers Darby faced caused her to reimagine her career trajectory. Today, she’s a graduate student at Cornell University, working in a lab setting.

Many ecology, evolution and conservation biology (EECB) departments are starting to think and talk about anti-racism, but some don’t know what to do or where to start, leading to inaction. A new perspective piece in Nature Ecology and Evolution outlines the history of colonial attitudes, racism and white supremacy in EECB, and gives a checklist to help dismantle white supremacy in classrooms, research labs and departments.

Drea Darby, a graduate student at Cornell University, checks out flies in the lab for her research. She studies the microbes found in the gut of Drosophila melanogaster. Image courtesy of Kathy Denning.

“Ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation have problematic histories with race, racism, colonialism, eugenics … weaved into the history of the discipline, and that’s really important to acknowledge,” says Melissa Cronin, lead author and graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “You know these manifest today in many ways.”

Representation of non-white students is especially low in EECB compared to other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), according to a survey in the piece. Darby herself recalled being the only Black student in her ecology program.

And this isn’t only an issue in the United States. A study in Australia showed that STEM programs had low enrollment rates for Indigenous groups. Also, in the United Kingdom, less than 1% of university professors in STEM were Black in 2016-2017.

The perspective piece relied on decades of work and empirical evidence from scientific literature. Scientists have published many papers on anti-racism in lab settings, curricula and hiring — important pieces of the puzzle that informed the perspective piece.

“This paper just pulled them all together and provided what I think is a really comprehensive framework for moving forward with actions,” says Bala Chaudhary, an assistant professor in environmental studies at Dartmouth College, who was not involved in the paper but whose own work was cited in it. She adds papers like this perspective piece are now given the venue they deserve in high profile journals.

Students in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, get fieldwork experience in Central California. Image courtesy of the UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

Acknowledging the racist history

Chaudhary reflected on the first week of her own undergraduate ecology class. Like most students, she learned that Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology. At the time, she didn’t know that Haeckel was a eugenicist who promoted racism and social Darwinism. She still thinks back to those lectures and professors and wonders what students in the room did know.

“I think that who we talk about and who we don’t talk about matters … and it matters for who stays in our fields,” she says.

Ecology, evolution and conservation are built on scientific tradition and provide the theories that explain life. In doing so, they contribute much to society.

“But I think those really important legacies are not always examined,” Cronin says.

“It’s really important to have a critical eye when thinking about how we came to these ideas, whose voices were listened to and whose voices were marginalized in the creation of these important disciplines.”

Some still don’t understand or address what racism looks like in EECB. The perspective piece stresses the importance of calling out historic racism. When teaching students, faculty shouldn’t gloss over the negative history and just focus on the solutions, Chaudhary says. People often aren’t aware of what the problematic history is because it’s so ingrained in the field.

Students in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, set up a transect along a creek in Central California. Image courtesy of UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

Sparking actionable change

The checklist gives examples for how to create an anti-racist academic environment at different levels: classroom, lab and department. These include soliciting frequent feedback, decolonizing the syllabus, highlighting ignored voices and unveiling the hidden curriculum, according to the scientists.

The “hidden curriculum” consists of unspoken norms, behaviors and expectations that professors may assume everyone knows. For example, in STEM careers, research experience can play a big role in helping career progression. Yet not every student knows how to network or find opportunities to gain access to careers. Some students may not know how to speak up or ask for help, so providing explicit expectations on how to best communicate can help professors reach all students.

Creating a welcoming space in the lab and field is important to enhance representation of non-white people, says Adriana Romero-Olivares, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University who was not involved in the paper. Before she started in a previous position, her adviser was very open that she was about to move to a town and university that was predominantly white.

“Knowing that you are in a lab where those differences and where that environment is acknowledged somehow really helps,” Romero-Olivares says.

The authors suggest ways that departments can recruit, retain and show that they value faculty and students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, they write, departments should hire individuals they know are committed to anti-racism by requiring diversity statements, checking they are not performative and weighing them heavily in the hiring process. The checklist also suggests that departments should eliminate barriers to student applications like standardized tests. Advance payments for travel and research, as well as creating more paid opportunities, would also help alleviate financial barriers.

Adriana Romero-Olivares, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University, works at one of her field sites to monitor soil microbial communities across seasons. Image courtesy of Jovani Catalan-Dibene.

Seeing other challenges

Often, a lot of the work of creating and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion activities is put on graduate students, Darby says. It can be frustrating for these students when a department or university receives a lot of attention for being inclusive when, in fact, graduate student volunteers are doing a lot of the work. Changing the culture and prioritizing these activities in faculty tenure packets is one way to make this a continued priority for faculty, she says.

Other changes still need to occur at the university level. For instance, Romero-Olivares says, active learning environments that improve the learning experience for students are not always feasible for faculty teaching large lecture classes with little support.

It can be a challenge for faculty to create these environments on top of the research, service and other teaching they already do, Romero-Olivares adds. Increased support via additional teaching assistants can help while also providing more paid opportunities for students.

“I think science is so cool, and I just wanted to be as available to as many people as possible,” Darby says. “I think it’s important for people to know that pieces like this exist and … do the hard work in terms of like dismantling the structures that are in place.”

Citations:

Cronin, M. R., Alonzo, S. H., Adamczak, S. K., Baker, D. N., Beltran, R. S., Borker, A. L., … Zavaleta, E. S. (2021). Anti-racist interventions to transform ecology, evolution and conservation biology departments. Nature Ecology & Evolution 5(9), 1213-1223. doi:10.1038/s41559-021-01522-z

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

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