A Beginner’s Guide to Hosting a Diversity Seminar Series

Last summer, I attended a “Women in STEM” breakout session at a conference to learn about gender equity and network with fellow women in science. When I walked in, I was surprised to see three men in the room. Three seemed like a high number. This was a “Women in STEM” session after all — weren’t only women supposed to attend?

Then I started hearing stories from my peers — stories of women experiencing harassment and discrimination in the lab and the clinic. My impression of the situation drastically changed. I wished that, not just more men, but more attendees in general (hey, even the whole conference) were in the room listening to those stories. These stories are sadly representative of experiences women face at most institutions, according to the 2018 NASEM report.

From the moment I left the “Women in STEM” breakout session, it became my goal to provide an environment at my institution, wherever that may be, to educate the community on bias, share untold stories, and work towards a more diverse and inclusive STEM environment.

At this time, I had just moved to Boston, excited to be starting my first full-time research technician position in my dream lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During my first meeting with my principal investigator, she apologetically announced that the lab would be moving across the country to the Salk Institute in seven months. To some, this meant months of uncertainty and chaos. To me, it meant that if I wanted to make a meaningful impact on the MIT community, I better get started – and quickly.

So in January 2019, I founded a seminar series called Students Advocating for Increased Diversity (SAID) in STEM, where I raised awareness about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within the community, while highlighting the achievements of individuals belonging to marginalized groups including white women, people of color, and LGBTQ leaders in the STEM fields. The series included two journal clubs and six guest lecturers, and attracted 59 participants over seven seminars. Participants ranged from middle schoolers to graduate students and tenured faculty, all of whom enjoyed the series and felt empowered to advocate for a more diverse STEM community.

In this Sister post, I will guide you through how to host a seminar series like SAID in STEM at your institution. I will draw upon the lessons I learned creating my own series to provide a structured outline for you to follow, with of course, room for creativity. This is an opportunity for you to learn how to advocate for EDI at your institution and become a community leader.

Getting Motivated

Before you can begin such an initiative, I want to address one of the key components to making change in your community: to identify what motivates you to do this. This may seem trivial, but nevertheless, it is important.

My motivation to begin SAID in STEM was the “Women in STEM” breakout session I mentioned earlier. Think back to your motivator each time you invite a speaker, post a flyer, stay up late at night preparing, or stand up in front of your participants. The impact on both you and your community will be much greater.

Setting Goals

When you consider goals for your initiative, consider the following questions: How will you ensure that your seminar series makes a difference in the community? How will you measure your impact?

The answer here is to define your goals. Effective advocacy requires setting specific goals that are both measurable and attainable. These may include:

Goal 1: Educate the community about implicit bias and stereotypes through reviewing journal articles, displaying facts and figures, and having participants take the Implicit Attitudes Test.

Measurement: Quantitatively record the number of participants that took the Implicit Attitudes Test at your seminar, qualitatively ask participants to rate how much they learned, and qualitatively asked them what they learned.

Goal 2: Highlight the achievements of individuals belonging to marginalized groups through guest lectures and media exposure.

Measurement: Quantitatively record attendance at each session, qualitatively record overall satisfaction for each guest lecture, and qualitatively ask what participants liked and did not like about the guest lectures.

Deciding on a Structure

Once your goals are defined, you can more easily decide on a seminar series structure with which to achieve those goals. I will suggest a structure based on feedback from my seminar series, but obviously many structures can be effective.

Mackenzie (left) introducing Dr. Kay Tye’s Guest Lecture.

Journal Clubs

To achieve the first goal, an effective seminar style is “Journal Club” style. For those who have not participated in a journal club, this includes a participant or leader choosing a research paper/journal article, summarizing the methods and key findings, and then guiding an open discussion about the article with the group.

Not sure which article to choose? The STRIDE program at the University of Michigan has a great page with many articles on bias, stereotypes, stereotype threat, diversity, the dearth of women and minorities in STEM, and many more. These articles are used to train faculty on hiring committees and are great resources for primary literature pertaining to EDI in STEM.

Which articles did I use for SAID in STEM? I presented “Does Gender Matter?” by Dr. Ben Barres.  In this Nature article, Dr. Barres refutes the hypothesis that the dearth of women in STEM is due to a gender difference in innate ability, but is instead due to societal gender biases. The second article I presented was by Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta, titled “Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: STEMing the Tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers.” This article dissects the “leaky pipeline” metaphor in academia, highlighting critical points in a woman’s career trajectory where pipeline attrition is greatest and why.

Guest Lectures

To achieve the second goal, an ideal way of both sharing stories and attracting participants is through guest lectures. Reach out to a broad range of potential speakers from a variety of backgrounds and career stages to raise awareness of the variety of experiences people have in STEM.

Before each guest lecture, it is useful to lead a short opening highlighting recent events in the media that relate to diversity in STEM (e.g. Donna Strickland receives a Nobel Prize – and then her Wikipedia page was created). This reminds the group that EDI in STEM is an ongoing matter. Follow this newsflash with a succinct but unique speaker introduction. If you have trouble finding information on your speaker, ask for their CV (and perhaps consider making their Wikipedia page following Farah Qaiser’s guide)!

Structuring journal clubs and guest lectures into a series could look like this.

Planning

After solidifying a general seminar series structure, you can begin planning the finer details, a process which often provides the opportunity to develop valuable career connections with peers, mentors, faculty, and community members in general. Below are some steps for you to follow in the planning process:

Duration: How long do you want the series to run? How often do you want it to occur? The sample plan above has seven sessions, but you could add another journal club or reduce the number of speakers to fit your institution’s needs. I suggest that the series should last the duration of a school semester, term, or quarter to concatenate the learning/exposure into a defined and digestible time frame.

Frequency: For frequency, I suggest one to two times per month. I tried to hold my seminar every week, but this can be stressful and time-consuming on your part, and may be hard for your attendees to commit to. Overall, once per month or once every three weeks will make each seminar more meaningful, attract a higher turnout, and give you more time to plan and prepare.

Day and time: Choosing a day and time is one of the hardest parts. Sadly, there is no one time that will meet everyone’s needs. Common choices are lunch seminars (starting anytime between 11am and 12pm) or afternoon seminars (starting anytime between 4pm and 6pm). Lunch seminars draw crowds if there is free food but, especially in academia, experiments or meetings might be running over and can impact attendance at short lunch seminars. Evening seminars allow for a longer discussion and a more relaxed environment, but will understandably conflict with daycare pick-up and family time. This may limit which faculty or which speakers can attend. I tried to consistently host my seminar on Thursdays at 5:30 PM. This timing can work well if you tell people far ahead of time so that they can make alternate arrangements if necessary.

Dr. Edmund Bertschinger (formerly the MIT Institute Community and Equity Officer) standing next to post-doctoral researcher Dr. Rozzeta Binti Dolah.

Speakers:

  • How to Choose: Personally, I think the best part of planning a seminar series is choosing guest speakers. This is where you get to make invaluable connections with incredible scientists, physicians, mentors, and role models. Usually, this is the step in event planning where bias comes into play. At conferences or in department seminar series, speakers are predominantly male or white. With a diversity seminar series, we are making an additional effort for this not to be the case (see the sample schedule above) as homogeneity is not representative of society nor representative of the efforts that go into making discoveries in STEM. 500 Women Scientists has a great resource for finding female speakers if you need connections. You can also reach out to student or department-led diversity and inclusion committees at your institution for speaker suggestions and connections.
  • How to Contact: If possible, I suggest contacting speakers by email three to four months before the seminar begins. Start the email with an introduction of who you are and what your seminar series is about. Be sure to include in the email why they would be a perfect fit for this seminar series based on their research, career experiences, past conference attendances, etc. Show them that you have rigorously planned by offering a few possible dates and outlining briefly how your seminar series will be structured. Do not expect a response from everyone, but do send a follow up email a couple of weeks later in case the first email gets lost in a busy inbox.

Partner with local or institutional groups: While it can be done alone, starting a seminar series can be made easier by partnering with clubs, organizations, faculty, students, and community members whose values align with the goals of your seminar series. Collaborating will expand your reach, ease some of the work burden by delegating tasks, and have a greater impact than one person or one group alone. When contacting potential collaborators, outline your ideas and the seminar series structure with clarity to show that you have been planning and know how to incorporate this group’s expertise.

Funding: The type of seminar series that I am proposing should not be too costly. The main costs you will incur are food, advertising, and speaker thank you gifts (assuming your speaker pool is local). There are a few $1000 grants that you can apply for through organizations such as ACSB and ASBMB. Informal Science is a great funding resource with links to many other organizations that offer grant funding for EDI initiatives. Collaborating with a student group, department, or organization may ease the search for funding if they already have institutional funds.

Location: Location often depends on the size of the audience and the type of presentation that is occurring. For both journal clubs and guest speaker lectures, encourage participants to sit closer to the speaker to increase engagement. Since results from my seminar series showed that a group size of 45 made people feel less comfortable speaking up and asking questions, I would recommend finding a room that fits around 30 people and aiming for a group size around 20-25.

Food:

  • Choice: Food is one of the most important aspects of a seminar series. Food will often be the catalyst for people to attend. Make sure you choose food that addresses a range of dietary concerns. Be sure to have drinks as well.
  • Timing: Set out the food prior to participants arriving. Having food at the beginning will increase the likelihood that attendees arrive on time.

Advertise: Advertise often and early! Common modes of advertisement include posters (see ours as an example), emailing listservs of student groups, adding your seminar series to department calendars and/or departmental TV screens, and even handing out printed reminders to classes. Social media such as Instagram and Twitter can be useful for reminders. Create a Facebook event page as well so that people can check the event details even if you do not have a website yet. Send out email/social media reminders one week before, a few days before, and the day of the event to remind people to attend.

Communicating with speakers: In the weeks leading up to the seminar, stay in touch with your speakers to advise them on how to structure their lecture. Speakers have to appeal to their audience to make an impact. Make sure your speakers know the age range of the audience, the general interests or education levels of the audience, and what you hope the audience will take away from the talk. There were two guest lecture structures that worked well for SAID in STEM. For the first structure, the speaker began their talk with a synopsis of their scientific or medical specialty (10-15 minutes) and followed with a discussion of the unique career barriers, challenges, or experiences they faced. The second structure was more of a story line of the speaker’s career with research and/or medicine intermingled with personal experiences of bias and discrimination in STEM.

Below is a checklist of key things to remember at specific points during the seminar series.

Conclusion

Founding and leading a seminar series is not an easy endeavor, but it is a rewarding one. You meet incredible people, hear incredible stories, and make an impact on your community that hopefully persists long past the last seminar series.

Again, do not forget why you are motivated to advocate. Keep this in the back of your mind as you are preparing.

Lastly, have fun! Get crafty with designing your posters, make each session enjoyable for the participants, and know that regardless of how many participants show up, you are affecting positive change in the STEM community one story at a time.

For more information or for any general questions, please email me at mackenzie.lemieux@gmail.com or visit http://saidinstem.com/.

Mackenzie Lemieux
Mackenzie Lemieux

Mackenzie Lemieux is a research technician working in the lab of Dr. Kay Tye at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She is a graduate of Cornell University and an aspiring physician-scientist currently applying for her MD-PhD in neuroscience/neuroimmunology. One fact most people know about Mackenzie is that her favorite cells are microglia. When not in lab or leading SAID in STEM, Mackenzie runs, bikes, and volunteers at local hospitals.

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