Is diversity essential to science?

By Amanda Marie James, Emory University, USA

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Dr Amanda Marie James

‘Diversity’ is a buzzword. It is used in every facet of our life both professionally and personally, but what does it really mean? And an even better question: Is it important to science? Well, diversity is defined as “the state of being composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities, variation”. A pretty simple and straightforward definition, but the bigger question, “is diversity important to science?” isn’t as straightforward. Let’s dive in.

As a research scientist, diversity or variation has been both a blessing and a curse. It has provided me with an easy explanation when my results were not precise: “Oh, the sample set was too diverse, next experiment I will select for only one specific type of cell.” Conversely, diversity has also plays out as a curse: “…. Error Report: inconclusive results, sample was not pure.” But during the last few years of my career as a matriculate from my postdoctoral studies, to becoming an independent research scientist and science educator and now as a hybrid of a research scientist/science and diversity advocate, DIVERSITY is part of my everyday life both in the lab and in academia in general.

Labor of Love- Science Edition Amanda Marie James
Science in action! (Credit A.M. James)

You may be wondering how does diversity play such a major role in my career? Well, I am trained as a clinical translational scientist, but I also have a vested interest in the studies of health disparities. I believe it is vital to study samples from a diverse pool and think it is a necessity to characterize both the qualities that are similar while also embracing and examining the phenotypical and genotypical qualities which are markedly different.  My current work is using uniquely identified variations of known microRNA sequences (isomiRs) as biomarkers for cardiovascular disease (CVD) severity. Moreover, I am distinguishing these biomarkers’ predictability based on racial and socioeconomic differences. Essentially, I am using variant microRNAs as biomarkers of CVD severity in diverse populations.  The rationale of my work is based on the hypothesis that epigenetic factors, such as lifestyle and environment (both which are greatly associated with race and socioeconomic status), can alter microRNA profiles. Therefore, to effectively use microRNAs as biomarkers, the diversity within the sample pool needs to be assessed and addressed. Even more so, the use of microRNA biomarker profiles identified based on a patient’s age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status will yield a more precise and reliable prediction. Allowing for faster, more personalized and thus more efficient patient care and drug development/therapy.  Diversity is the personalization of biomedical science research. Diversity is not just important for my work, it is essential to my scientific research and the advancement of biomedical science in general.

So, you were probably thinking when you begin reading this article that I was going to focus on the fact that I am of Cape Verdean descent, and that I graduated from an all-women’s liberal arts Historical Black College and therefore my mere existence in science is diversity. And while all of that is true, diversity and my advocacy for it in science is more complex. Currently, I am the Assistant Director of the NIH-R25-funded IMSD program at Emory University. The funding source’s goal is to nurture underrepresented students to become competitive applicants to, and successful graduates from, high-caliber PhD programs in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. However, Emory IMSD aims to be a community on campus that is welcoming and accessible to all students who seek mentorship and guidance related to their professional, personal, and career development as a STEM student and researcher. Why is it important to welcome all students? Well just like in my laboratory research, there are some pros and cons, some blessings and curses, but nonetheless, diversity is needed.

Educational studies have documented the advantages of having students from diverse backgrounds in a learning environment. Giving opportunities, like the ones offered by Emory’s IMSD program, to students who have low socioeconomic status or are from underrepresented groups based on disabilities, race, and gender, allows academia to foster specialization of both skills and talents while also facilitating ingenious problem solving while balancing biases. The creativity, the versatility in skills and techniques, and the scope of morals and values manifest into an excellence never achieved without the dynamics of diversity. Just stop and think: every major medical and scientific breakthrough arose when someone diverged from the status quo by either being different themselves or thinking differently. Identifying, examining, evaluating, including and then celebrating differences in science equals diversity. So, the next time someone asked you if diversity is essential to science… the answer is YES!

Amanda Marie James was the recipient of the 2016 American Physiological Society Cardiovascular Section Clinical Science Young Investigator Award, sponsored by Portland Press. The award was given for her work on “Circulating microRNA and isomiR profiles in patients with varying cardiovascular disease severity: using isomiRs as potential biomarkers and therapeutic targets”, and was presented at the 2016 Experimental Biology meeting, held in San Diego, USA.


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