Human diversity is complex. It originates from factors such as biology, psychology, economics, and history that influence every facet of human experience—from health and work to education and environment—in ways that may confer advantages or disadvantages on people’s lives. Research on the science of human diversity is just as complex, residing in different departments, schools, and colleges and across disciplines. Bringing the players together from across campus and encouraging interdisciplinary efforts is the intent of the UMass Amherst Institute of Diversity Sciences.
Nilanjana "Buju" Dasgupta
“Our goal is to break down disciplinary silos and foster a new kind of intellectual environment where people come together who study similar topics in human diversity but from very different angles,” says Nilanjana "Buju" Dasgupta, the institute’s director. “We want to cultivate integrative, multidisciplinary, innovative directions for future scholarship and teaching. Multidisciplinary approaches are critical in solving problems—often complex and seemingly intractable ones—associated with group disparities out there in the world.”
A primary role of the institute is to play matchmaker, bringing together researchers and practitioners whose expertise and interests are mutually complementary. “Often,” says Dasgupta, “the faculty we bring together have never met one another because they work in different parts of campus or perhaps even at another campus in the Five College consortium. What they have in common is an interest in solving the same complex problem and a need for collaborators with complementary expertise.”
Consider, for example, disparities associated with health or learning. Solving these complex problems requires multidisciplinary experts and practitioners to band together. Once researchers are connected, the institute provides incentives to make the match work. A first round of seed funding, awarded last spring to six different teams, encourages new multidisciplinary collaborations that can later be leveraged to seek larger grants.
“The long game,” Dasgupta explains, “is to advance each project to the next stage of seeking competitive external funding, provide mentored research experience for the next generation of students interested in the science of human diversity, and promote research that has social impact.”
The institute’s mission is close to Dasgupta’s heart. Her own research focuses on unconscious or implicit bias with emphasis on the ways in which changes in social contexts correspondingly change implicit attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
“As individual scientists, each of us tries to make a small dent in the problem from our own disciplinary angle,” says Dasgupta. “Just imagine how much more effective we’ll be when we pool our expertise and attack the problem from multiple angles in coordination.”