Supporting Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Neuroscience

A Conversation with Gentry Patrick and Gene Yeo

More than 300 biomedical researchers came together virtually this summer for CZI’s annual Neurodegeneration Challenge Network meeting. While there was plenty of cutting-edge research on the agenda, there was also critical dialogue about the field itself, including a conversation about fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in science with Gentry Patrick and Gene Yeo, who are both professors at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego). Patrick is a Professor of Neurobiology who is spearheading an effort to increase diversity in STEM fields called PATHways to STEM (PATHS), and Yeo is a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine who recently launched the Diversity and Science Lecture (DASL) series to celebrate the achievements of underrepresented graduate students and postdocs.

“Science and STEM fields are not immune from the forces of systemic racism, prejudice and lack of inclusion. We have a duty to look at our own communities and figure out what we as a network and as independent labs can do to support DEI in neuroscience research,” said CZI Science Program Officer Katja Brose, who facilitated the conversation.

The Neurodegeneration Challenge Network is a collaborative research network that brings together scientists, physicians, and engineers to understand the biological roots of neurodegenerative diseases and develop new ways to prevent and treat them. The vision is a community and network that is more than the sum of its parts. By bringing together trainees, early career researchers, and senior scientists from around the world and across research fields, the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network aims to open up new possibilities for understanding neurodegeneration and support the work of talented and motivated people who are moving science forward.

Patrick and Yeo believe that the first steps to action and change are listening and learning. With that in mind, they shared their personal experiences and the work they have each been doing to create more diverse and inclusive communities in science. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Participants listen to Gene and Gentry’s talk at the annual CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network meeting.

Katja Brose: Gentry, can you tell us how your childhood experiences shaped who you are today?

Gentry Patrick: I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in Compton, California. My mom had me when she was 16 years old, and I didn’t know much about science or how to pursue a scientific career. When I look back now, as a full professor, it’s hard to figure out how that happened. But when I dig into it, I know the most important things along my career path were to fall in love with science, find my STEM identity, and realize that I could excel at science — and ultimately, that I might be able to impact other people’s lives through access, mentorship, and advocacy.

While I was training to be a scientist, three passionate women neuroscientists — Erin O’Shea, then Li-Huei Tsai, and my postdoc advisor Erin Schuman — were powerhouse supervisors and champions for my career. They weren’t just mentors — they were advocates. Their advocacy was really important, because even though I was a smart kid, there are lots of smart kids from my community who didn’t end up where I did. Having these amazing mentors and advocates really made a difference. Sure, some of my success was serendipity, but that was paired with finding my community and taking the opportunities that came with it. Mentorship and community drive success, especially for young scientists who are finding their STEM identities.

Brose: You mentioned there were a lot of smart kids in your community. How do you take luck out of the equation and create a world where more capable, hardworking kids can achieve similar opportunities?

Patrick: Like I said, I’m not an anomaly. There are a lot of young kids who can contribute to the world of science, including neuroscience and neurodegeneration research. It’s a matter of providing them the space. If you think about someone like me, coming from the inner city where no one in my family had gone to college and science was an unknown, one interaction with a scientist isn’t going to be enough to propel that person to a full career in science. They’re going to need multiple interactions — and not just interactions, but also help defining how science is important to their self-identity and to their career.

Brose: Gene, you also have a successful career in science. How has your background influenced your work?

Gene Yeo at the CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network meeting in February 2019.

Gene Yeo: First, let me add a comment about the idea of serendipity or luck. Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” In a sense, there’s an ability to build structures that create more opportunities for luck.

I was born in Singapore. When I was growing up, it was a developing country of two million people. There were no bathrooms in my parents’ homes. Fast-forward to today when every kid in Singapore has an iPad or computer. How did it happen? Some people tell us it’s luck. But that’s not true. Echoing Pasteur, I think structures can be developed to minimize risk and favor more opportunities.

I’ll give you an example. After Singapore became independent in 1965, one of its biggest problems was housing. How do you house a multitude of people who came together from all over the world? The government decided to fund housing publicly, but they designed it so that every housing block had the same ratio of people from different ethnic groups. The government wanted to minimize enclaves where only Chinese or Indian families or Malays lived, because then you don’t learn from one another or build racial and religious tolerance.

In Singapore, men also have to do military service. We all go through basic boot camp, no matter your race, religion, or economic status. In a way, it levels the playing field and creates opportunities for individuals to meet one another across societal barriers. And you make friends that you would never have met if everybody continued on the career path that your economic background enabled you to. Those friendships are critical for maintaining a common vision for how you succeed together.

Those are the lessons that reverberated with me when I was growing up and that made me think about how to create equity. And I think they can help us as we build our own labs.

Brose: That’s a good segue to the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives you are both working on, and how what you’ve learned could be applied to other institutions. Gentry, let’s start with your work on the PATHways to STEM (PATHS), an expansion of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which helps to inspire, recruit, and retain underrepresented students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields. How did you come to develop this program at UC San Diego?

Patrick: Around 2015, I was working in my lab and got stuck in a bit of a rut. I wanted to do more. I wanted to impact the community, both locally and across the country. I started to think about what I could do to begin to change the way we bring in and train underserved students in STEM fields. I looked at my life and experience, and out of that, I extracted the three pillars of the PATHS program: access, mentorship, and advocacy.

For me, it really was about access, and with that access, I began to grow my self-identity and make use of the mentorship that was in and around me. I found the common threads that allowed me to take advantage of that community.

At PATHS, the students get a four-year scholarship and personalized academic support. We build a family unit, so there are graduate advocates and academic coaches for math, physics, biology, and writing. We take a holistic approach for personal, academic, financial, and community-based support — and I will say, it is working.

Brose: Where is PATHS today and how have recent events, including George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests against police brutality, influenced your thinking about the program?

Patrick: We have two PATHS cohorts at UC San Diego right now — rising juniors and rising sophomores. They are doing extremely well, breaking out of the mold or out of what’s typically expected for students from the fourth and fifth quintile or from underserved populations. Typically, you hear stories like, “I went to college and I had a really rough first year, two, or three, and then I figured it out and I climbed back.” But that’s not what we want for these students. We want them to achieve academic success early on and to help them understand where they’re going to go and how to get there and find that story for themselves.

We don’t have all the answers. However, I believe that the current U.S. reckoning with racial injustice is not a moment. It is not a movement. It is really an awakening from which we can begin to create a community that drives success for everyone.

Brose: Gene, how are you bringing conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion to a broader community at UC San Diego, including people who may have only been peripherally attentive to these issues in the past?

Yeo: One thing we quickly initiated is the Diversity and Science Lecture (DASL) series. It provides a forum for the community to teach each other about these issues and share our own experiences. Very early on, we decided that students and trainees should be empowered. We want to hear from the students and trainees about their science as well as their personal experiences growing up, including the challenges they have faced. The goal is to raise awareness and help others surmount similar barriers in the future.

So far, the students and postdocs organizing it are doing an amazing job. They came up with the principles of being instructive, gracious, and joyful: instructive, by focusing on the science but also by using the science to introduce concepts of diversity, inclusion, and equity; gracious, to make sure that in these sessions and panel discussions, people are gracious; and, lastly, joyful, as a model of celebrating contributions and mentorship.

UC San Diego, the Scripps Institute, the Salk Institute and Sanford Burnham Conrad Prebys are contributing speakers, and we’re thinking of expanding this beyond science but also to the humanities.

There are many initiatives underway, but DASL is an example of how we have tried to harness what initially were very hostile emotions into something positive and creative.

Patrick: I just want to add that that simple title — “Diversity and Science Lectures” — actually means a lot because most people don’t consider academic excellence and diversity as going hand-in-hand. So when we showcase that, when we lean in and seek to understand other people, then we find those common threads that bring us together.

We’re doing a similar thing in biology that we call Connections, where a faculty member and a graduate student or postdoc share their stories in science. Storytelling is something that allows people to see each other through their entire career trajectory, from a kid with a paper route to becoming a famous scientist. That’s the type of thing that breaks down the barriers and allows us to find our humanity in all of this craziness right now.

Gentry Patrick is a Professor of Neurobiology in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies the role of protein degradation in synaptic plasticity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of PATHways to STEM (PATHS), an expansion of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program. With CZI support, UC San Diego and the University of California, Berkeley are implementing aspects of the nationally recognized Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

Gene Yeo is a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a Co-director of the Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Graduate Program, also at UC San Diego, where he helped launch the Diversity and Science Lecture (DASL) series. His research focuses on RNA biology, neurobiology and RNA therapeutics and is partly funded by a NDCN Collaborative Science Award to investigate the role of nucleocytoplasmic transport in neurodegenerative diseases.

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