By Gabrielle Bonifacio, Communications Assistant (Work-Learn), UBC Equity & Inclusion Office
When people think of labs, they envision white coats, thick-framed goggles and papers fraught with complicated scribbles. It is a place for exploration and experimentation; a site of discovery open to everyone in the business of scientific pursuit.
Yet that’s not what PhD student Anne Nguyen experienced in February 2018, when a senior colleague strode over to her puzzling chemistry reaction and made a sexist comment.
Dr. Brent Page, a colleague working on the same reaction, witnessed the incident and was both horrified and concerned. In fact, Page was so troubled by the remark that he checked up on her the day after. But for Nguyen, this was just one of many discriminatory comments she had received over the years.
“That situation happens so often as a scientist, as a student scientist,” Nguyen admits. “I’m just used to it.”
In fact, it was this particular incident which inspired the researchers to undertake the paperwork, organization and networking needed to form UBC Pharmaceutical Sciences’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
The 15-16 person team consists of members from all levels of UBC Pharmaceutical Sciences, each passionate about spreading awareness and creating a safe space in the building for people to learn about and act on issues concerning equity, diversity and inclusion.
Both chairs are quick to credit the team for their enthusiasm, noting that there continues to be visible changes underway – whether it be through using the building’s digital signage to highlight women’s history month to a task force rallying for more gender inclusive bathrooms.
Described as an advocacy committee, they utilize resources from UBC’s Equity & Inclusion Office to educate themselves and offer a space for people to turn to in the event of situations like Nguyen’s. Meetings occur monthly with new workshops and fresh ideas; a symposium highlighting diversity and inclusion in Pharmaceutical Sciences is yet another exciting projects in the works.
The co-chairs don’t shy away from sharing the committee’s origin story or the presence of sexism and discrimination in the lab. After all, it was what prodded Nguyen’s initial reaction to the comment; shock, followed by acceptance and the understandable instinct to let it slide. However, Page’s inquiry into her wellbeing sparked an epiphany.
“Brent reminded me just by him asking if I was okay, that no, it’s not okay,” Nguyen explains, recounting the incident. “Sometimes you need someone to validate that for you because you’ve been in that situation for so long.”
Nguyen hopes the committee will validate anybody’s situation.
“You can and you should stand up for yourself as a woman.”
The full support and interest they have received from the dean and their colleagues has helped, as have the priceless connections they’ve made along the way. Both express gratitude for the beautiful stories shared by members of their community and acknowledge the power that shared dialogue has in facilitating space for personal truths and vulnerability.
Regarding future initiatives, however, Nguyen isn’t focusing on the microscopic so much as she is on the larger picture. In five years, she says she hopes things will have progressed toward a “new normal”.
When asked for his advice, Page is firmly committed to changing the culture.
“Even if you don’t react in the moment…you can always give support, always stand up for what you value and try to make the world a better place.”
A change-making initiative in UBC’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, this EDI committee is one example of people doing just that.