Creating a Diversity in Science Course

By Cynthia F. Wright, Ph.D.

For many years the Medical University of South Carolina has been offering a course called “Diversity in Science” to students in our graduate program. This course was conceived as part of our Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) Program funded by an NIH training grant (R25 GM072643) and is offered to all first year doctoral students. In the course we discuss issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity in science careers, but also seek to expand students’ definitions of diversity beyond themes of self-identification to encompass the notion of cognitive diversity. The latter aspect focuses on the diversity of knowledge, training, and perspective that is present in any group of people and that can be leveraged to solve complex problems. Additional topics discussed in the course include health disparities, cultural awareness, and strategies for succeeding in a scientific career. As the course has evolved, I have identified an array of speakers and references related to these various aspects of diversity that could be useful to the community at large. These resources are mentioned in the text and literature references below.

Much of the foundation behind the idea of cognitive diversity is built on the work of Scott Page, Ph.D., who wrote “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies”. Through videos and selected reading the class becomes familiar with the work of Dr. Page and others on cognitive diversity. Class discussions are then based on using these ideas to create collaborations and research teams to solve problems in science. Recently I used a case study found in the Burroughs Wellcome Fund booklet “Thriving in an Era of Team Science” to lead the class in a discussion of the challenges and opportunities inherent in setting up research collaborations between scientists.

Another important topic for which a variety of resources are available concerns health disparities. The unnatural causes website contains access to videos and articles related to socioeconomic inequalities in health. We have used the videos as a springboard to discussions about societal structures that impact health and the influence of environmental and genetic factors on disease. In addition, we have hosted a number of invited speakers who have discussed health disparities in the context of research on various diseases, healthcare reform, and personalized medicine.

Finally, we have used the diversity of our own faculty and postdoctoral fellows to engage students in panel discussions on obstacles encountered in science careers and how to overcome them. These personal stories and advice help students to face the challenges of biases that they may encounter and to understand that even successful careers have had diversions and setbacks. We have also used panel discussions to raise awareness of cultural diversity. Recently, we convened postdoctoral scholars from different countries to compare and contrast conducting science in the U.S. to their home country. Students gained an awareness of different funding climates, resources, and hierarchical structures in various countries around the world.


Bias in science
Ginther DK, Schaffer WT, Schnell J, Masimore B, Liu F, Haak LL, and Kington R. Race, ethnicity and NIH research awards. Science 333:1015-1019 (2011)

Tanner KD. Learning to see inequity in science. CBE-Life Sciences Education 8:265-270 (2009)

Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, and Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 109:16474-16479 (2012)

Cognitive Diversity
Lehrer J. The neuroscience of screwing up. Wired 18:80-121 (2010)

Hong L and Page SE. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 101:16385-16389 (2004)

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies by Scott E. Page. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey (2007)

Woolley AW, Chabris CF, Pentland A, Hashmi N, and Malone TW. Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330:686-688 (2010)

Health Disparities
Video clips: Unnatural Causes Is Inequality Making Us Sick (2008)

Adler NE and Rehkopf DH. U.S. disparities in health: descriptions, causes, and mechanisms. Ann Rev Public Health 29:235-252 (2008)

Wilkinson R and Marmot M. The Social Determinants of Health. The Solid Facts. 2nd Edition. The Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organization: Copenhagen, Denmark (2003)

Institute of Medicine. Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. Executive Summary – pages 1–27 (2002)

Duster T. Race and reification in science. Science 307:1050-1051 (2005)

Cultural Differences
Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures by Brooks Peterson. Intercultural Press, Boston, MA (2004)

Wang X, Xu S, Peng L, Wang Z, Wang C, Zhang C, and Wang X. Exploring scientists’ working timetable: Do scientists often work overtime? J. of Informetrics 6: 655-660 (2012)

Cynthia Wright, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology as well as Associate Dean for Admissions and Career Development in the College of Graduate Studies at the Medical University of South Carolina. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: Medical University of South Carolina
The citation for this article is:
C.F. Wright (2012) Creating a Diversity in Science Course.
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Published 12-Dec-2012