Engineers at Duke University pride themselves on devising solutions to some of society’s most pressing issues. In the spirit of this goal, students, staff and faculty in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering created the BME Committee for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (DEIA) to develop new ways to support and mentor those who are under-represented within Duke’s biomedical engineering community.
Intended to work in partnership with Duke Engineering’s centralized Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community (DEIC) Committee, and Karis Boyd-Sinkler, the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Duke BME’s DEIA committee will explore ways in which the department can be more inclusive and welcoming. When the committee was first formed in the summer of 2020, they identified key areas to focus on for improvement: recruitment, mentorship, inclusion and community outreach.
“It all starts with recruiting the best and most qualified people to be members of our department but doing it in a way that is inclusive to all,” says Tatiana Segura, the chair of the DEIA committee. “Mentorship is all about getting people the support they need to succeed at work and in life. We hope to create a more inclusive department by promoting community engagement through small and large events. Outreach is where it all starts, and we hope to work within BME and Pratt to engage our local communities to help make a difference.”
The team created numerous initiatives to help support and recruit talent at all levels of the department. Current Duke BME faculty and students are required to attend mandatory implicit bias training to help identify areas where biases were affecting their actions. New faculty candidates will be asked to provide a statement that explains how they will contribute to the department’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
The committee organized an informational session for BME PhD students in the March Forum where Tatiana Segura, the chair of the committee, and Ashutosh Chilkoti, the chair of Duke BME, discussed the updated faculty hiring processes.
The department has developed a new PhD education initiative that adds an extra level of holistic applicant review for PhD applicants that don’t have the topmost grade point averages. They have also made a ‘GRE Optional’ status for graduate applications, with the understanding that the test is often an expensive application requirement.
In addition to these efforts, the committee has organized a PhD virtual information session scheduled for November, which will include a faculty panel and Q&A. The team will work with Pratt Communications to advertise broadly both inside and outside of Duke. As a future effort to help diversify graduate student recruitment, the committee plans to work with the BME master’s and PhD program coordinators to organize attendance at a broader range of conferences and recruitment events.
“Diversity remains the bedrock for cultivating an innovative research community. Our efforts to build equitable processes to attract and support voices of all backgrounds remains top of mind,” says Danielle Giles, the PhD program coordinator and a member of the committee. “Our students are the problem solvers that organizations seek out to solve the most pressing issues of the day. Which is why we are committed to recruiting a diverse group – one that is equally committed to taking on the biggest challenges as they are to affecting the required changes needed in their local communities.”
The committee recognized that mentorship plays a major role in determining someone’s experience within Duke BME––and that this was an area where the department had the most room to grow.
The DEIA committee's first effort in this area was organizing “Coffee Chats.” In these monthly events, small groups of students and post-doctoral fellows can sign up to meet with a faculty member or senior postdoc who will serve as mentors. Over coffee or similar drinks, the groups will meet with their mentors and discuss a topic ranging from research advice to questions about how to balance work schedules with family life.
The committee also developed numerous peer mentoring initiatives for post-doctoral fellows and PhD students, like writing group events. During these meetings, new postdocs and late-stage PhD students are invited to join small writing groups led by veteran postdocs. These groups will provide structured writing time, while also building a peer mentoring pipeline where participants can receive feedback on manuscripts and grant, fellowship and job applications.
“While our department asserts values of inclusivity, we know that many members of our community have historically lacked opportunities to take part in and shape our culture,” says Rachel Katz, the student chair of the committee. “We wanted to organize numerous social events that help support a more inclusive and welcoming departmental culture.”
One of these initiatives includes virtual movie nights, where participants will watch and discuss a movie that deals with race, gender, orientation or any other underrepresented identity in STEM. Past movies have included “Hidden Figures,” “Disclosure” and “13th.”
“We believe that our commitment to equity and anti-racism should go beyond the walls of Duke BME,” says Segura. “In order to foster a diverse and inclusive environment, there must be enough people from backgrounds traditionally excluded from STEM who get to the point where they are able to apply to join our department.”
Beyond these areas of focus, the team also put together an anonymous, department-wide survey designed to help the committee better understand Duke BME’s culture and identify additional areas for growth regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. This survey will be sent out once a year, and the committee members will use it to gauge departmental culture, obtain feedback on the committee’s work and inform new initiatives.
“This tool will help us see where our efforts have been successful and where they haven’t had an impact,” says Kay Palopoli, a PhD student involved in the committee. “Diversity helps strengthen research departments, and we want to make sure that our efforts are supporting our students, staff and faculty so our community can be a safe and welcoming space for all individuals.”