Diversity Course

Crucial Lessons for Scientists

Participants stood silently in a circle, stepping forward in response to prompts that ranged from lighthearted statements about musical tastes—”I like rock and roll music”—to more serious ones—”I have more than five friends of a different racial or ethnic background,” “I or someone I care about is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered,” or “My parents paid for my college tuition.”

There was palpable relief when many people stepped into the circle together and discomfort when one or only a few stepped in or were left behind. At the end of the exercise, everyone shared feelings about the experience. Someone pointed out how many things people have in common; another commented on how difficult it can be to acknowledge differences; and the group agreed that some prompts made them feel uneasy especially because the exercise seemed so public.

This “Difference Circle” exercise was part of a 12-week NIH course “Building the World We Dream About: Diversity in a Multicultural Society.” The course, which was offered by the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), created a safe environment for people from different backgrounds to talk openly and explore their own attitudes and subtle biases; understand the meaning of diversity in the lives of individuals, groups, communities, society, and the scientific community; and consider the consequences of social exclusion and oppression, including health disparities and other inequities.

group photo


The group here represents some of the NIHers who have participated in OITE’s 12-week diversity course, which is designed to create a safe environment for people from different backgrounds to talk openly and explore their own attitudes and subtle biases; understand the meaning of diversity; and consider the consequences of social exclusion and oppression. Michael Sheridan (front row, center), from The Catholic University of America, is the instructor.

Underrepresented minorities (black or African American; Hispanic; American Indian and Alaskan native; Pacific Islanders; and others) are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, yet the percentage of biomedical scientists from those groups fails to mirror the diversity of the population.

NIH and other organizations have long known that building a diverse scientific workforce is important: Teams made up of scientists from different backgrounds—compared with homogenous groups—are better equipped to expand the range of research questions, interact more effectively with colleagues around the world, and address the needs of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in order to reduce health inequities. But achieving that diversity has been difficult.

OITE Director Sharon Milgram developed the course based on discussions she had had with trainees about how being different—whether it had to do with gender and gender identity, ethnic background, sexual orientation, race, religion, immigrant status, socioeconomic status, or disability—made some of them feel uncomfortable at NIH. And Milgram herself, as well as other principal investigators (PIs), wanted to learn how to make their trainees feel more welcome.

“Hundreds of students and fellows have been trained in my lab, with a large portion coming from different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, underrepresented minorities, women, and low-income families,” said one NIH scientist. “I felt the need to enhance my understanding of diversity so that I can be a better leader to my trainees.”

In 2009, Milgram charged OITE Leadership and Professional Development Coach Julie Gold with finding a suitable instructor for a diversity course. Gold found Michael Sheridan, an associate professor in the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.). Sheridan has been teaching courses in diversity and social justice around the world for nearly 20 years. She began teaching the NIH course in 2011.

Sheridan “is superb in her ability to foster group [and] team dynamics and interaction,” said course participant Patricia Cole, director of OITE’s Intramural Loan Repayment Program. She “challenges you to do personal reflections, which reinforce the course material.”

“This course really opened my eyes to areas that I had been oblivious to,” said Sheila Caldwell, a program director for the Native American Research Centers for Health in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “We don’t intentionally discriminate, but our ignorance or lack of cultural understanding leads us to be less understanding and less patient. Seeing things through another’s eyes . . . can provide us with a personal perspective.”

“It was interesting to see how everyone, even the most conscientious and accepting individuals, have some biases,” said Philip Wang, deputy director of OITE’s Graduate Partnerships Program.

The course not only helped participants to become more self-aware, but has also propelled many to make changes in the way they interact with others.

“I can now talk with young people about what my biases are and what I struggle with,” said Rita Devine, an assistant director for science administration in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “That gives them the green light to ask me why and to also challenge some of their own perceptions about me or others.”

“Personal experiences with those close to me like a deaf housemate, gay friends, and elderly parents (who are also immigrants) have helped me learn not to be so judgmental,” said Jameela Khan, a former postdoctoral fellow in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I try putting myself in their shoes and that is when it hits home the most.”    

Course participants were also encouraged to make personal commitments to change that would have positive effects both within NIH and in the broader community. For example, Michelle Bennett, deputy scientific director in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, was concerned that some women in lower socioeconomic groups were having an especially hard time finding jobs. She decided to create a leadership program for these women in Washington, D.C., “to help them build self-awareness and skills to increase their effectiveness and become competitive for new positions or the next step on their career ladder,” she said. They are applying what they are learning to their professional lives.

Several participants were sensitized to the difficulties that NIHers with disabilities face. OITE’s Wang and Philip Ryan (who were former NIH graduate students and postdocs) spearheaded the purchase of scooters as a small pilot program for trainees with mobility issues to get around campus. Another student alerted custodial staff to the empty, five-gallon water jugs that blocked drinking fountains and doorways, making them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. The jugs were removed.

NCI postdoc Christiane Kuschal, along with another postdoc, started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Fellows and Friends Group to help LGBT trainees connect and build community. (To join the LISTERV, go to https://list.nih.gov/cgi-bin/wa.exe?SUBED1=NIH-LGBT-FF&A=1.)

In fact, the 12-week diversity course has been so successful that elements of it have been incorporated into several other OITE programs including a workplace dynamics management series; a mentoring course for fellows who have summer students; Scientists Teaching Science; and the NIH Academy (for postbacs interested in health disparities). In addition, OITE is developing plans for a monthly diversity discussion group.

One powerful message from the course is reflected in a poem that Sheridan shared with the class: Antoinette Sedillo Lopez’s “On Privilege.” The poem’s final line, “You only notice privilege when you don’t have it,” struck a chord with the class. By learning about the dynamics and consequences of both privilege and oppression, reviewing current research findings, and sharing and listening to one another’s stories, participants deepened their understanding of health disparities and other inequities that determine life opportunities for many.

“The hope is that each participant will become an ally for diversity and social justice,” said Milgram. “They will be more open to discussing difference and more aware of what they can do to be a part of making the NIH and scientific communities more welcoming and inclusive.”