A case study completed as part of a BILT Education Development Project in 2022/23 by Celine Petitjean and Dave Lawson.
One of the most impactful aspects of learning science at undergraduate level is not just about the key theory and empirical findings in a subject, but about the researchers who developed these and how they went about doing so. These examples can be inspiring for students pursuing a scientific career but could also be discouraging if there is a lack of relevant role models – which has the potential to negatively impact course engagement and student’s sense of belonging.
A recent study quantified the gender and ethnicity of examples used in biology textbooks and found most scientists featured are white men. Here, we propose to take a similar approach to quantify the demographics (gender, ethnicity, location) of scientists featured in undergraduate teaching in the School of Biological Sciences curriculum via recommended reading, used as examples in lectures or other means of inclusion in taught content.
This work was undertaken by three undergraduate students, Keisha Santoso (Year 1), Lisa Inneh (Year 2) and Kamara Venner (Year 3), supervised by Drs Celine Petitjean and David Lawson. The student partners audited teaching content from a selection of units in their respective years, recorded when researchers and studies were identified and researched the demographics of these researchers looking at their institutional profiles, before collating and analysing this data.
By quantifying the demographics of featured researchers, we aimed to identify potential inequalities in our teaching, and deepen our understanding of where our curriculum can improve representation.
After assessing the data collected across the units in the first three undergraduate years, it is apparent that Biology is a field of science that is still dominated by the work of white male scientists (Figs. 1 and 2: showing findings from Year 1 units). Most of the researchers involved or referenced across the units are based in the Global North institutions, with very little being based in the Global South (Fig. 2).
Figure 1. Demographics of researchers for the mandatory Year 1 Biology (C100) units for the academic year 2022-23. The units include Key Concepts for Biologists (KC), Life Processes Part A and B (LPA and LPB), and Diversity of Life Part A and B (DOLA and DOLB). Ethnic groups that are not common among most of the units were denoted under ‘Other’, and this includes researchers from Arab, Black, ethnically Jewish, and Turkish minority groups. ‘Unknown’ refers to cases where it was not possible to determine a researcher’s ethnic background.
Figure 2 Distribution of genders of researchers for the mandatory Year 1 Biology (C100) units for the academic year 2022-23. The units include Key Concepts for Biologists (KC), Life Processes Part A and B (LPA and LPB), and Diversity of Life Part A and B (DOLA and DOLB. ‘Unknown’ refers to cases where it was not possible to determine a researcher’s gender.
Figure 3. Distribution of the primary locations of researchers for the mandatory Year 1 Biology (C100) units for the academic year 2022-23. The units include Key Concepts for Biologists (KC), Life Processes Part A and B (LPA and LPB), and Diversity of Life Part A and B (DOLA and DOLB. ‘Unknown’ refers to cases where it was not possible to determine a researcher’s gender.
Due to the nature of certain units (for instance, the Key Concepts for Biologists unit) there is simply not many opportunities to involve the work of modern scientists. In the aforementioned unit, certain subtopics (such as Creationism and Evolution), focused on notable historical figures in Biology, some of which held harmful ideologies that were used to justify racism. The remaining content of the unit is skills focussed, without mention of specific scientific research.
It is important to note that while these results are reflective of inequalities in researchers highlighted in teaching, it may also be the case that these findings reflect broader inequalities in research publication, or in given academic fields. For instance, there is an underrepresentation of ethnically minoritized groups in environmental professions. However, in instances where there in inequality in an academic field itself, there are opportunities to showcase diversity, and explicitly address underrepresentation.
Here we demonstrate that the School of Biological Sciences curriculum could vastly improve its representation of featured researcher genders, ethnicities and locations. These findings will be collated into a single report to be shared with teaching staff in the school of biological sciences, to encourage diversification of featured researchers.
In this coming academic year (2023-2024), we will be continuing our ongoing Student Decolonisation Partners project, whereby two student partners will collaborate to improve student experience, in particular international student experience, though the following actions:
- Explore opportunities to incorporate international/Global South role models, research groups and practices to be highlighted in the Biology undergraduate course to improve representation, diversity, and therefore, the student experience.
- Bring attention and awareness of decolonisation within the School and provide a space for students to discuss and raise concerns.
- Participate in the global effort to decolonise curricula at different levels (School, Faculty, University).
Point 1 will directly follow from the current project, as the highlighting of international/Global South role models can be strategically targeted to those units which were identified as having lower diversity in featured researchers.
Dr Celine Petitjean (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr David Lawson (email@example.com)