Expanding Potential Credit: Jen Trinh, University of California, Santa Cruz, Women in Science and Engineering.
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Expanding Potential: Fostering an Inclusive STEM Community

Synberc began the Expanding Potential program as a workshop in 2014 centering around women in STEM

Underrepresented groups in STEM face unique challenges when progressing through their career path, and industry is no exception. Diversity of people and thought is key to research success and product development. By cultivating synthetic biology as an inclusive industry from the outset, companies can avoid the problems currently faced by the tech industry. This field is poised to set a standard of change. Therefore, it is necessary for companies to consider and advance practices that best promote inclusion and accessibility for all.

Looking at top tech companies, there is a great disparity between individuals in the general USA population versus those working at the company, especially when looking at males vs females and what are identified as underrepresented minorities groups (the data here looks specifically at latino and black populations). This is most evident when considering Fortune 500 CEO’s: only 5% are female and 83% are white (vs 51% female and 64% white individuals in the USA population).

Companies like Google are now putting a significant amount of funding towards implementing new strategies such as recruiting from more diverse universities, unconscious bias training, and outreach for teachers and students. The outcomes of each strategy needs to be measured and current studies suggest that while programs like unconscious bias training do bring issues to light, it is difficult to change how people feel. However, people do take notice. A recent event on cultivating diversity in tech gave more tangible solutions that individuals can implement including being an ally, not interrupting, and allowing yourself to be your whole self. An important distinction was brought up between the meaning of diversity and inclusion – just because you have a group of diverse individuals does not mean that all of them feel included. Companies must strive for both.

We aim to do our part as well. The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) began the Expanding Potential program as a workshop in 2014 centering around women in STEM. After evaluating feedback from the workshop, we heard our participant concerns and grew the program. Given that, Synberc’s Expanding Potential program aims to change the landscape in two ways: 1) By helping professionals recognize and understand social problems that may hinder progress of underrepresented groups, and 2) By encouraging and supporting programs that change STEM cultures and increase inclusivity.

Our flagship event is the annual Expanding Potential Workshop and the second workshop takes place on January 30-31. The first day tackles phenomena such as implicit bias, stereotype threat, and micro-aggressions. Workshop participants learn and discuss how to address these problems. On the second day, we highlight innovative new programs developed through Expanding Potential seed funding and programs in place that increase diversity and inclusivity and can be easily implemented across many institutions. Attendees will learn about initiatives that increase retention of underrepresented groups in STEM fields by cultivating a welcoming environment and how to adopt these programs at their individual organizations or companies to generate a more inclusive landscape.

The ambitious aims of synthetic biology can only be realized by a community that is as diverse as the communities it endeavors to benefit. Join us in our efforts to create a community where all groups we hope to serve also feel welcome to be a part of the synthetic biology industry!


Shaila Kotadia

STEM Equity Planning Director at UC Berkeley

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