Nilanjana Dasgupta Assists National Academics with Study on Dismantling Exclusion in STEM

Nilanjana DasguptaNilanjana Dasgupta, provost professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Institute of Diversity Sciences at UMass Amherst, has spent the last year working with The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to identify and circulate the best principles and practices for organizations to use in advancing antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences, technology, engineering, math and medicine, both within and beyond higher education. The results of Dasgupta and her colleagues’ work was recently published as a consensus study, freely available from the National Academies.

The study highlights that it’s not enough for STEMM organizations (the second “M” in STEM is for “medicine”) to simply increase numeric representation of underrepresented groups; instead, the culture within these organizations needs to be overhauled.

“What makes our National Academies consensus study special is that it is grounded in the historical legacy of racism, alive today in segregated housing and unevenly funded public K-12 education, which plays a huge role in shaping who is equipped to enter STEM pathways in higher education,” says Dasgupta. “The report traces an arc from individual experiences of racism, through dynamics in STEMM work teams and in larger STEMM organizations, the actions of gatekeepers who perpetuate racism, and finally to how organizational leaders can be changemakers. The report uses existing social science research to identify key takeaways and recommendations and highlight gaps in current knowledge in order to set the research agenda for the future. This report is for university leaders, STEM employers, research funding agencies and anyone who wants to be a changemaker in their local sphere.”

“The concepts of antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion are not goals for which a simple checklist will indicate success,” says Gilda Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering, professor of biomedical and chemical engineering, AAAS president, and co-chair of the National Academies committee that wrote the report. “Rather, the goal is to create environments that focus on inclusive excellence, where all participants have access to educational and professional opportunities, feel included, and have the resources to actualize their full potential. STEMM organizations will require ongoing leadership, resources and commitment to ensure that these values become part of an intentionally maintained organizational culture.” 

To assist in cultivating welcoming cultures, the committee has developed a series of eight practices, with concrete steps, ranging from pragmatic recommendations to collecting better data on demographics to more systemic change steps for promoting an accessible and supportive culture.

Dasgupta has emerged as a leader in the effort to open STEM’s doors to all students, both at UMass and on the national stage.

“We all have a role to play in this effort,” she says. “For some of us it’s in paying attention to the culture within our research labs and classrooms, actively recruiting minoritized students as undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs and supporting them so they thrive. It involves increasing our awareness of barriers that some of our students face that we may not have faced and advocating to remove them. For others of us the work involves changing the culture within departments, universities, employment organizations and funding priorities. The work is multilayered. The path forward is circuitous and messy, but essential.”