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Vol. LXII, No. 24
November 26, 2010
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Speakers Urge Renewed Commitment to Diversity

On the front page...

Workplaces, especially federal ones, strive for diversity but can often fall short. This is true at NIH, but the agency isn’t alone. Members of the NIH leadership and guests from other parts of the government shared their insights recently at the annual “A Time for Diversity” event at the Natcher Bldg.

Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, opened the event by reminding attendees why it is so critical to keep diversity top-of-mind in carrying out the NIH mission.

“Diversity is vital in labs, offices and hospital rooms, but also in the way we communicate our science to others,” he said. “We could easily take it for granted if we did not stop to recognize its value. Through commitment and consistency to diversity we can accomplish anything. We must acknowledge and embrace our differences, as natural as these differences are, and incorporate different perspectives into our work.”

Continued...

  Bismarck Myrick  
  Bismarck Myrick  

Guest speaker Bismarck Myrick, director of the EEO function at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, urged people to rethink what it means to be diverse and to approach the concept with openness instead of trepidation.

“Diversity for most people is punitive in the workplace,” he said. “People will say they have diversity ‘issues.’ It’s never ‘diversity’ with a smile.”

He recounted the time he boarded an elevator at work that contained several high-level administrators. Since Myrick is known as the equal opportunity and diversity specialist in his organization, one administrator quipped, “What did I do?”

“I think a lot of people are on guard about the issue, but that feeling becomes a barrier to the message,” he said.

Those barriers can be dangerous, Myrick added. The Patent and Trademark Office employs many people with science and engineering degrees because they have the skill and knowledge needed to analyze the thousands of patent applications the agency receives every year. However, Myrick worries that the diversity of the workforce may suffer if certain education statistics continue in the direction they’re headed.

At “The Face of Diversity,” an assembly of information booths by several employee and affinity groups showing how diversity at NIH is practiced, are BIG members Laurrita Spriggs (r) of NIAMS, Samuel McFadden (second from r) of NIA and Chris Jones (c) of OD at the BIG booth. Dr. Belinda Seto, deputy director of NIBIB, addresses the diversity assembly.

Top, l:
At “The Face of Diversity,” an assembly of information booths by several employee and affinity groups showing how diversity at NIH is practiced, are BIG members Laurrita Spriggs (r) of NIAMS, Samuel McFadden (second from r) of NIA and Chris Jones (c) of OD at the BIG booth.

Top, r:
Dr. Belinda Seto, deputy director of NIBIB, addresses the diversity assembly.

An admitted fan of stats, he noted that while African Americans are 23 percent of the U.S. population in the 18 to 24 age group, they account for only 16 percent of students either holding or pursuing science and engineering degrees.

“We’ve dropped to fifth in the world in the area of innovation,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the numbers we are seeing and the lagging interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. We need people with the expertise and the technical competence. We can’t afford to have arbitrary barriers to diversity at our agencies.”

CIT Deputy Director Al Whitley (l) and NICHD Deputy Executive Officer Dexter Collins, who chairs the NIH Diversity Council, take a stroll through an “Art of Diversity” display.

CIT Deputy Director Al Whitley (l) and NICHD Deputy Executive Officer Dexter Collins, who chairs the NIH Diversity Council, take a stroll through an “Art of Diversity” display.

One way to combat these trends is through leadership, offered speaker Terry Dickerson, civil rights director for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Leaders show their priorities by how they spend their time,” she said.

She’s seen that sort of leadership first-hand. She used to work for Adm. Thad Allen, who managed the government’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Within the first days of the spill, Dickerson came across a situation that she wanted to address through a message to the whole Coast Guard, but needed Allen’s approval. She emailed him about the matter, expecting it would be days before she’d hear back. Instead, she got a reply right away, urging her to move forward.

“That said a lot, that he wanted to enable me to act on this,” she said. “That brand of leadership is what’s needed if you’re going to be proactive.”

Dickerson said that same sense of empowerment is encouraged throughout her agency via senior-to-junior mentoring relationships.

Guest speaker Terry Dickerson, civil rights director for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Guest speaker Terry Dickerson, civil rights director for the U.S. Coast Guard

The concept of mentoring is a big one for NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg, particularly in his position as an institute leader, but also as chair of NIH’s diversity task force.

Berg knows that increasing the level of diversity in NIH’s labs and offices starts with students and whether or not they choose to work in the sciences. He pores over studies about why some students who say they are interested in science and technology end up going into those careers and why some change their minds.

“We find that those students with research experience in their academic careers tend to maintain their interest, while in those students with an absence of research experience, their interest in science declines,” he told the audience.

These findings tell Berg that more student opportunities, particularly for youngsters in danger of losing interest in the field—many of whom are minorities—are critical.

“We seek racial and ethnic but also gender diversity here at NIH,” Berg said. “We must work to increase the number of under-represented minorities in the scientific workforce.”

Throughout the day, many other prominent NIH’ers stepped forward to offer remarks about why diversity is important at NIH. Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, and Dr. John Ruffin, director of the newly minted National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, discussed NIH’s efforts to address and improve the low percentages of minorities at NIH facilities and what bringing those figures up to par could mean for the breadth of biomedical science. A leadership panel composed of NIH executives talked about what works in their ICs and how lessons learned in one place might easily apply to another office or operating division.

But speakers weren’t the only ones sharing their impressions of diversity in the workplace. As if making visual statements on the topic, a pair of demonstrations by members of the Aikido Club and students from the NIH Taekwondo School, as well as a flowing and intricate Indian dance by Pallavi Das, showcased the value of what other cultures and ethnicities can offer. A physical assault can be thwarted by a shift in position and a well-timed flick of the wrist. A dozen emotions can be communicated by a head movement and a stomp of the foot. It is these nuances in motion and thinking that add to the richness of life and, NIH officials believe, to the richness of research. NIHRecord Icon


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