Bethany Kolisniak and Olivia Ireland (pictured), provided by Jonathan Van Elslander

“There’s not as many women here as I expected there to be.” That was one of the first impressions Bethany Kolisniak, now a third year student in Microbiology, had when she got to her first science courses at UBC. Coming from an all-girls high school, the overly white and male atmosphere in Science was a shock. Olivia Ireland, a third year student in Biochemistry, echoes a similar reaction: “In high school, most of my teachers were women. Then going here, most of them were men. There’s a systemic difference.”

This feeling, of not quite feeling represented in their new worlds of science, persisted as they moved through their degrees. Most of their professors have been men. They felt like a minority within their class labs. And they saw that even well-established scientists who weren’t white and/or male, felt stymied and overwhelmed by the lack of diversity in their field. But those experiences are also representative of a broader problem: across academia and science, diversity is sorely lacking

All these ideas and struggles were crystalized for the pair in Biology 200 – Cell Biology, when their professor, Dr. Robin Young, encouraged them to take their class project, on the social context of science, further. Bethany and Olivia’s project focused particularly on the role of women in research and education, and through their work, they found that their experience was not unique: a noticeable lack of diversity, and associated negative effects on people of color, women, Indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ people, persists in scientific fields, and academia in general, across the country.

Bethany and Olivia’s investigation into diversity highlighted an enormous gap in the world of science. To have more diverse viewpoints at the table “just makes the science itself better,” Bethany stated. Known more officially as “The Diversity Innovation Paradox,” research shows consistently that more diverse viewpoints breed innovation. Groups of scientists from broader socioeconomic, racial, sexual, and gender backgrounds ask more interesting questions, find more innovative solutions, and approach more impactful social issues in their work. Olivia reiterates this thought based on her time here at UBCO: “The more perspectives you have at table, the more ideas, the more collaboration you have… [garners] new ideas, new perspectives, that can be used to solve not just research questions, but the world’s greatest issues.” But beyond more analytical ideas like innovation and applied efficacy, Bethany iterated, “on some level, it’s just the right thing to do.”

With encouragement from Dr. Young, their class project quickly became much more. Together they started Sciversify UBCO, a conference which they held online from September 21 to 23. They brought in established researchers and rising scientists alike, such as keynote speaker Dr. Deborah McGregor, an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice at York University in Ontario. Dr. McGregor’s work focuses on how Indigenous knowledge systems are overlooked by the established scientific canon, and what both science and society is missing when they do not place value on these points of view. Her work often touches on some of the “world’s greatest issues” Olivia has talked about, such as investigating how Indigenous knowledge systems can be applied to finding solutions for ongoing issues such as the Climate Crisis.

Sciversify also featured a panel of scientists: Zina Aburegeba, a high school science teacher with a MSc. In Genetics and Neurobiology, Meaghan Efford, PhD candidate in Oceans and Fisheries at Simon Fraser University, Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, Associate Professor in the Dept. of Physical Therapy at UBC, and Chonnettia Jones, VP Research at Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research–who discussed their own experiences navigating the world of academic and science, and what can be done to make these spaces more welcoming. 

Finally, Sciversify provided a workshop for Professors, researchers, administrators, and students, which helped participants understand what exactly can be done about the lack of diversity in science. 

Olivia highlighted the workshop in particular, when asked about what can be done to improve representation in science. One of the answers, in a word, is collaboration. Professors should look to mentor and encourage people from underrepresented backgrounds. Though they say there are well-known barriers to diversity in the professional hiring process, Bethany emphasized, “it’s one thing to get in the door… it doesn’t mean a whole lot if there’s nobody to help you once you get in.” When universities do hire from diverse backgrounds, they have trouble retaining those same people

Through Sciversify, Bethany and Olivia have heard from many people that feel like they are not fully welcomed into science. And perhaps the best way for those in positions of power to improve that situation is to look for collaboration and to make spaces more welcoming. “Reverse mentorship,” meaning professors looking for advice from their students, can help build an atmosphere that’s more welcoming to students. Professors should be consistently asking themselves, “What can I learn from these younger people coming in?” Bethany added. Moreover, research shows that educators need to be more cognizant of both their own backgrounds and their students’ backgrounds to better communicate scientific knowledge. 

Through their experience and investigation into diversity over the last year, Bethany and Olivia find encouragement that things are improving, but stress that improvements are happening “very, very, very slowly. Slower than they should be.” Recent research in Canada shows that major universities, even in large, diverse cities are lagging, and in particular that a strong lack of diversity in the highest ranks of education results in skewed decision making. A 2020 paper from researchers at SFU found that racialized people hit a ceiling in the middle ranks at several major universities, and that while there may have been improvement over recent decades for white women, progress is stagnating for other groups.

The situation at UBCO isn’t much different. A 2018 report from UBCO found that students from a range of backgrounds experienced discrimination, both at the school and in the broader Okanagan community, and that the campus culture “fostered alienating and individualistic values.” Bethany and Olivia shared that many of the people they interact with have spoken of similar feelings of loneliness and a lack of representation around the school.

But they do have advice for students. While the student body waits, and in the case of many like Sciversify UBCO, advocates, for better actions promoting diversity from the school, students can help by looking out for each other. Olivia emphasized that “student to student mentorship” and having a strong support system from your peers can help with loneliness and alienation. Progress may be slow but looking for solidarity among fellow students will help someone navigate the perils of a university that does not always accept them. Bethany stressed, “Form alliances … Have these conversations and know that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. Know that you deserve to be here.”

The Sciversify conference ran from September 21 to 23, 2021, and featured an exciting range of speakers and a great reception from participants. Bethany and Olivia say there is interest to take this further, and they are already looking for what they could do to continue Sciversify UBCO in years to come. Check them out on Instagram.