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NIH’s Hannah Valantine shares insights on workplace diversity

In 2014, Hannah Valantine, MD, left Stanford for a newly created position at the National Institutes of Health: chief officer of scientific workforce diversity. On Thursday, she returned to a packed Berg Hall to discuss workforce diversity as part of the Dean's Lecture Series.

The series was created by Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, to promote discussion and leadership on scientific and medical diversity. "I know that working through these issues together can be complicated, emotional and deeply personal, but I consider it our duty to create a more diverse and inclusive workplaces," Minor said in his introduction.

A former senior associate dean for diversity and faculty development at the School of Medicine, Valantine is uniquely positioned to offer a "candid perspective" on the state of scientific diversity nationally, and at Stanford, Minor said.

Remaining candid wasn't a problem for Valantine, who said she wants to drop the oft-used "pipeline" metaphor. "The assumption has been if you fill up the pipeline somehow at the end you will get the faculty you want," she said. But it doesn't work that way. She urged listeners to instead picture a series of short, unconnected pipes. "We lose people in the gaps. We need to be thinking about this in terms of a system," she said.

That means boosting mentorship and support for undergraduates, but also reaching out to postdocs and junior faculty members, Valantine said. It means developing a cohort of potential faculty members and allowing them to experience your campus and to meet potential colleagues. And, it means preparing students and trainees for careers in industry and the public sector, as well as for academia, she said.

Valantine leads a transplantation genomics lab at the NIH in addition to her diversity-promotion duties — there, she's built a diverse team. Similarly, Valantine said her diversity colleagues are using the NIH itself to test methods to train, recruit and retain diverse researchers. The goal is to refine evidence-based strategies that can then be scaled up, she said.

For example, Valantine is a co-author of a recent study that showed that an educational training session can help reduce implicit bias, such as a bias that men are generally leaders, or that more feminine women are teachers, not scientists. "There is evidence that giving people tools to overcome these unconscious biases can ameliorate the behavior, although it may not change the bias," Valantine said.

Valantine pointed to the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Initiative (BUILD) as one way to institute nationwide change. That program allows underfunded undergraduate institutions to partner with top research institutions to allow students to participate in research and to foster a supportive culture.

She also envisions a series of regional scientific workforce diversity "hubs," which would bring together interdisciplinary academic, private and public sector representatives to provide opportunities and implement programs.

Throughout her address, Valantine cited studies from law, finance, music and health care that have illuminated different aspects of diversity. Now is the time to extend that work to science and develop a base of evidence to support techniques that promote scientific workforce diversity, she said.

Ultimately, she said, the goal is diverse, equitable representative in all fields.

Valantine's talk was met with enthusiastic applause, including a high compliment from audience member and neurobiologist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, who called it "the best talk on diversity I've ever heard."

Previously: NIH selects Hannah Valantine as first chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, Hannah Valantine: Leading the way in diversifying medicine and To boost diversity in academia, "true grit" is needed
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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