A Culture Shift Within Biomedical Research

A Culture Shift Within Biomedical Research

A Culture Shift Within Biomedical Research

TGen faculty and administration share a passion for ensuring that all employees have a voice

The pandemic may have dominated the headlines for the past two years, but news more cultural in nature spotlighted an increased desire for greater equity across broad swaths of society. Protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans prompted essential dialogue on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the United States.

The discussion around DEI has also made its way into the workplace. 

“This isn’t just a topic that affects one aspect of anyone’s life, it really is quite pervasive. I often say it’s personal and professional,” says Dr. Joseph Mikhael, Professor of Applied Cancer Research and Drug Discovery at TGen and Chief Medical Officer of the International Myeloma Foundation. Dr. Mikhael is also the Chair of TGen’s newly formed DEI Council. “The Council’s goal is to inspire a more informed conversation about DEI at TGen to create avenues for organizational dialogue and learning,” he adds.

The eight-member Council — a diverse group representing nearly all aspects of TGen research and administration — shares a passion for ensuring that all employees have a voice and that TGen becomes an even better place to work. 

Beyond the Initialism

Fully understanding and appreciating DEI’s promise requires an understanding of the three components that form the whole. While most people understand the basic concept of Diversity, perhaps less familiar are the concepts of Equity (which is distinct from Equality) and Inclusion.

Diversity refers to the level of representation and conscious acceptance of identities and ideologies. These two dimensions may include gender, race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, age, religious or political affiliation, and cultural background. A workforce or other community represented by many dimensions is diverse.

In their article Social Equity: Its Legacy, Its Promise, authors Mary Guy and Sean McCandless state that Equity recognizes that everyone has different advantages and disadvantages. Equity is thus a “flexible measure that allows for equivalency while not demanding sameness,” whereas “equality can be converted into a mathematical measure by which equal parts are identical in size or number.” 

In short, equity is experienced by individuals or groups when opportunities are based on their individual advantages and disadvantages rather than on an established norm.

The third concept, Inclusion, aims to ensure that people feel they belong at their organization or within their community. Although essential to a thriving workplace, inclusion can be more nuanced than diversity or equity and thus more difficult to properly implement and track.

When Seema Plaisier, a TGen computational biologist and member of the DEI Council, speaks about DEI as it applies to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — more commonly known as STEM — she highlights the necessity of dedicated mentorship of students from underrepresented communities, an idea inspired by a talk given by Dr. Yeukai Mlambo from Arizona State University’s Teachers College.

“[Underrepresented] students that had a mentor that took them in and talked to them about how things were going and if they had any problems … those were the ones that stuck. The ones that felt like they were an island where everybody was out for themselves … those are the ones that bailed,” says Plaisier.

This intersectionality of diversity, equity, and inclusion highlights how a young scientist from a background uniquely dissimilar to many of their peers may bring different advantages and disadvantages to the table and could require more dedicated mentorship to gain a sense of belonging and acceptance.


Extending our Reach

DEI is a vital component of the Institute’s organizational mindset in terms of supporting its employees, but it doesn’t stop there. TGen researchers amplify this approach by incorporating a similar mindset when establishing a framework for their research objectives.  

This commitment includes supporting populations historically and currently underrepresented in the biomedical field, including people of color, tribal citizens, and those housed in correctional facilities.

As Head of the Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease Unit at TGen, and a member of the DEI Council, Dr. Johanna DiStefano is passionate about including Latinos in her research on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). While she cites that genetic factors may play a role in NAFLD prevalence in the Latino population, she says the problem is not only physiological. 

“The reality is that healthy food is really expensive and many Latinos [relative to white citizens] in our country don’t have the financial means to support a healthy diet,” says Dr. DiStefano. “Because of this, Latino children have a much higher prevalence of NAFLD than white children. This is a systemic problem, not a consumer problem.” 

By better understanding how NAFLD affects Latinos and by connecting her findings to the issue of food deserts in the southwestern United States, Dr. DiStefano is working to holistically support Latino communities in Arizona.

“We often see the worst impacts of public health issues on areas that are underserved and unaccounted for, and in Arizona we see this issue most distinctly in our tribal communities,” says Dr. David Engelthaler, Director of TGen North, TGen’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division located in Flagstaff.

Engelthaler has worked for years with Arizona tribal communities to develop relationships rooted in the understanding that TGen North is a trusted and respectful partner.

“Because most of the state’s population lives in urban centers,” adds Engelthaler, “resources are allocated disproportionately, leaving many in rural areas without the necessities needed to truly thrive.”

When COVID-19 hit the state, tribal communities were among the first partners on board for testing, and TGen North continues to support these populations through variant detection and whole-genome sequencing technologies. The TGen North team has undertaken similar efforts in correctional facilities throughout the state to curb outbreaks before they become unmanageable.

“Science should not preferentially serve one group to the detriment of another,” says Engelthaler. “However, to make that ideal a reality, an openness and willingness to understand the often-hidden needs of our fellow humans is required.”

Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes for both employees and the people that TGen’s research serves is not without its challenges, but these efforts are essential for achieving TGen’s vision of bridging genomic research with medical advancements that directly impact individuals, their families, and their communities. 

By pursuing translational research in this manner, medicine will become more precise, more equitable, and more personal for everyone.