Sherilynn Black, Ph.D., from Duke University, launched the new NIEHS Diversity Speakers Series with a Feb. 16 seminar. Black is the associate vice provost for faculty advancement at Duke University.
In her talk, “Strategies to Create Momentum Around Diversity in Higher Education,” Black shared the compelling results of her previous role as the founding director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity in Duke’s School of Medicine. Her office pioneered new approaches to welcoming a more diverse group of students to the school.
“There has been an exponential increase in applications from underrepresented individuals since we started these new recruitment practices [in 2011],” Black said, adding that the number of underrepresented students who ultimately enroll and begin studies in the medical school has nearly doubled.
Ericka Reid, Ph.D., directs the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity and chairs the series planning committee. “We were so pleased to have someone of Sherilynn’s caliber and achievements to kick off the series,” Reid said. “Her insights are relevant here at NIEHS, as well as in academia.”
Diversity imperative to progress
Efforts to correct disparities in the numbers of men and women in the sciences led to changes that have not yet extended to race, according to Black. This is despite research that demonstrates diverse teams have greater success at problem solving and innovation.
In a 2008 book, “The Difference,” Scott Page, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, documented the science behind diversity. “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores,” he wrote.
Black pointed out that people too often think of diversity only as a moral imperative. “They don’t think about it as a scientific concept that is intellectually vital for us to advance as a society,” she said.
Recruitment — tip of the iceberg
In her former role, Black established a comprehensive program. It involved multiple offices at the medical school and addressed the entire process — from applying, to success in the program once students enrolled. “It’s not just going out to conferences and saying, You should apply,” she stressed.
For example, partnering with other departments across the university is one key to success. “We could not have had the changes that we’ve had by only having the School of Medicine [involved],” said Black, ticking off student groups, administrative offices, and others who contributed to the new programs. Her office also partners with academic institutions outside of Duke, numbering 18 so far.
- Faculty reach out to potential applicants on topics ranging from their scientific interest to the challenges of being a first-generation college student.
- Department chairs are included in groups that travel to meetings where recruitment takes place.
- Specialized programming with undergraduate students who are considering graduate school.
“Engaging people from different levels and different areas of the educational experience helps students see that we take this seriously,” she said. “And it helps the departments to change the way they’re thinking about admissions.”
Success on campus
Once they arrive on campus, students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences continue to face challenges. Using a data-driven approach, Black’s office designed programs to help students overcome those challenges. Examples include social events, workshops on professional development and academic topics, support for qualifying exams and dissertations, and an annual retreat for students.
The multifaceted approach is working. “Diversity is now a part of the scientific culture at Duke,” she quoted a faculty member as saying. In her new role focusing on faculty advancement, Black will tackle diversity among faculty, looking at success from the stage of postdoctoral positions all the way through denure decisions.