This semester, Brandeis Pre-Health Advising launched several initiatives that incorporated student contributions and institutional collaboration in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work for the department. These initiatives included releasing an anti-racism statement in addition to an amendable Black Action Plan (both of which were based on student feedback) and forming a discussion group on social justice in healthcare in collaboration with the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students.

In an op-ed published in EdSurge, a nonprofit membership organization for educators dedicated to providing independent news and research, Sana Shaikh, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program manager at the education company Curriculum Associates, identifies critical ways educators and institutions must address DEI work. These include being clear about the progress, goals and strategic metrics involved in DEI work, incorporating student voices into decisions and honoring the knowledge and expertise of Black, Indigenous and people of color in the development of school-wide DEI initiatives. “We wanted to commit to equity, but we had to ask ourselves if we were really doing the hard work it takes to achieve it,” she said.

In a Dec. 3 Zoom interview with the Justice, MAPS Co-President Mariuxi Diaz-Rodriguez ’22 described the success of the discussion group initiative. “It’s a unique initiative,” she said. “There aren’t many things on campus like it, where BIPOC students can just come together to talk about these issues of race that relate to current events and what’s happening around the country with health and medicine.” According to its website, MAPS “aims to provide underrepresented pre-med students with knowledge, skills and experience … through workshops and community building.” Diaz-Rodriguez explained that when the pandemic hit last year MAPS faced difficulties with visibility among the student body and had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Pre-Health Advising, in partnership with MAPS, has held monthly discussion group meetings at the Intercultural Center since September, which will continue through the spring 2022 semester. At these meetings, members form groups and talk about social justice and equity issues in healthcare. Discussions are based on selected episodes from a podcast series called “Antiracism in Medicine.” Students listen to the podcast independently and discuss the selected episodes at the monthly meetings with MAPS leaders and the rest of their small group. For Diaz-Rodriguez, the podcast format proved to be a perfect platform for facilitating student discussion: “The podcast is more effective in that the series we are listening to in particular, provides a lot of guest speakers, different perspectives and covers a wide variety of topics,” she said. “And the fact that it’s a podcast is super convenient and accessible because, at the end of the day, we’re college students — nobody has time to read a 100 page paper or watch a two-hour movie.”

The group’s listening material and discussions were centered around police violence related to health, inequities in health care created or exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as issues surrounding “race-based medicine” and how to dismantle it. Diaz-Rodriguez defined “race-based medicine” as the practice of healthcare professionals taking into consideration a patient’s race, which can range from structurally correcting clinical algorithms to make note of race to acknowledging the impact of race on a patient’s health to evaluate possible treatments in a clinical study.

While the events that MAPS hosts are primarily intended for minority students, the podcast discussion group is open to any Brandeis student who wants to participate. Diaz-Rodriguez explained that the DEI initiative has caused MAPS to rethink and expand their definition of “minority” beyond race to include members of the LGBTQ+ community. “When I was a [first-year] the advice and mentorship that I got from older students [in MAPS] was essential for me. Just letting these minority students know, ‘Yes, STEM is hard, but you have a goal and we’ve all been through it and these are the tools that you can take in order to succeed’ — that has been the part that is the most rewarding for me,” Diaz-Rodriguez said.

While MAPS’ collaborations with pre-health administration and DEI initiatives had a successful turnout and featured growing cooperation between students and faculty, some campus organizations remain unsatisfied with the University’s commitment to DEI. One of these groups is the Anti-Racism Alliance in the Sciences. ARAS is an activist “collective of current and former Brandeis students working to promote a culture of inclusive excellence and advance structural changes toward diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), justice and healthy workspaces” in the STEM departments at Brandeis.

“We have tried to work with the Science Division to organize an interdepartmental seminar series but have been frustrated by a tepid response from most Division faculty and leadership,” said ARAS representatives Fox Baudelaire ’20 and Ph.D. candidates Rabia Anjum and Anna Henkin in a Dec. 5 email to the Justice. While they commended the work that student-led groups like MAPS have done “to increase access to opportunities to students of underrepresented backgrounds,” they wrote in their email that the Science Division and the University as a whole have not adequately prioritized the institutional advancement of anti-racist work and the development of DEI infrastructure.

According to ARAS, the biggest risk that comes with a lack of engagement with DEI is the continued belief in the myth of meritocracy (the idea that underrepresentation in science is connected not to larger inequalities or systemic dysfunction, but to a lack of ability or intelligence in individuals who do not find success). ARAS representatives say that because of this false narrative, systemic injustices in the medical field persist in a “cycle of denial and self-justification.”

Within the sciences in particular, they said there are “unique  structural problems and cultural attitudes that need tailored solutions for the discipline as a whole,” as minorities face egregious struggles in the field. ARAS stated in their email that the bottlenecks that threaten progress in DEI in the STEM fields can consist of: beliefs about the face of STEM (i.e. what kind of person comes to mind when one thinks of a scientist), implicit bias, hiring and admission practices, the absence of role models, lack of an affirming and inclusive climate and work culture, lack of educational opportunities and mentorship, inequitable and non-inclusive teaching practices, power imbalances, academic bullying, the myth of meritocracy in science and overt racism and discrimination.

With regards to power imbalances, ARAS points out that Brandeis currently has no policy for addressing academic bullying in the Division of Science or in other departments. They explained that a “hierarchy while working in a lab consists of the principal investigator (PI) in a position of unregulated control and authority over the trainees (postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students) … where rigor is still commonly cast as an excuse for hostility, retaliation and academic bullying.” They explain that at Brandeis this presents the most noteworthy challenge in the advancement of DEI work.  

According to the ARAS representatives, educating students and faculty in DEI and including direct student collaboration remains imperative. But they believe that to stimulate meaningful change in academia at Brandeis, future DEI initiatives supported by the University must actively combat systems of power, which are the root of institutional inequities.

Both organizations agree that while the events of 2020 seem to have exacerbated racism and inequities in healthcare and other fields of science, they have also led to more media attention and widespread public advocacy. “The COVID-19 pandemic was able to bring to light a lot of issues that were already in place. … The disproportionate inequalities that Black and Brown communities faced related to their health and socioeconomic status was further evidence of issues within the system,” said Diaz-Rodriguez. “But I think younger generations are demanding a call to action … There’s a new momentum [in the advocacy] for BIPOC [communities],” she said.

Special thanks to Kate Stutz, pre-health director, and Joanna Da Cunha, program administrator of pre-health advising for their assistance in providing contacts and coordinating interviews.