P04: The Importance of Understanding Human Behavior: Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias in the Academy and in Business

Lydia Villa-Komaroff—Cytonome/ST

Stereotype threat and implicit bias in the academy and in business

In some respects, the corporate world and the academic world are very much alike, said plenary speaker Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who was the third Mexican-American woman to earn a doctorate in the United States in cell biology. Any institution has an identity that transcends the people who constitute that institution at any given time. Also, the interests of the institution and the interests of the individual can sometimes be at odds in both academia and the corporate world.


But the corporate and academic worlds also are very different, she added. (Video:  Day3AMV-K1 CORPORATE & ACADEMIC WORLDS)  A chief executive officer runs the company. When a CEO says “we will do this,” “this” begins. In a university, the president, the provost, and the leadership set a tone and they have an important role in defining the culture of the institution. But when a president, dean or department chair says “we’re going to do something,” that is usually when the conversation begins.


In addition, projects in the corporate world are determined by the bottom line. If a project is not going to contribute to the bottom line, it is not going to continue. Projects in academia are determined by the interests of the investigator and the availability of funding. (Video: Day3AMV-K2 PROJECT FUNDING) Also, projects in academia are subject to a number of rules and regulations, such as those covering animal care, human safety, and students in the laboratory, and in the face of limited institutional resources more and more of these are added to the responsibilities of the individual investigator.

These differences are an important consideration in helping students decide what they want to do after they graduate. Academia is of course close to the hearts of faculty members, Villa-Komaroff acknowledged, but there is not enough room in the academic world for all of the students being produced. “If that’s the only aim we have for our students, then we will be in deep trouble.” (Video: Day3AMV-K4 NON-ACADEMIC OPPORTUNITIES)


Villa-Komaroff argued that well-trained students can do just about anything. “The PhD needs to be thought about as a degree of opportunity, not a degree of limitation.” The path from basic research to a product is a complex network, not a linear progression, and students can work at any point in this network (Powell, 2005). The life sciences ecosystem includes biotech companies, universities, private research institutions, government, pharmaceutical companies, venture capital, and many other entities, and scientists can work on anything from biotechnology to finance. “As you work with your students, they need to be aware of this and to know the skills that they bring to these endeavors.” (Video: Day3AMV-K7 SKILLS FOR MARKETS)


The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which is a quasi-public institution in the State of Massachusetts, exemplifies many of these features of the life sciences ecosystem. The center originated in a small 2005 grant from the Boston Foundation to found the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative, with an organizing committee that included the leaders of all Boston area’s major universities, teaching hospitals, life-science companies, and venture capital firms. This committee helped promote the passage of legislation in 2007 that established a 10-year $1 billion investment to strengthen the state’s leadership in the life sciences. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) was given a broad mandate to encourage basic research, development, and commercialization in the biosciences; ensure the preparation of a skilled workforce to meet the needs of the state’s bioscience industry cluster; and build stronger collaboration between the sectors of the local and international life sciences community.  (Video: Day3AMV-K11 INTERNSHIPS)  As chief executive officer, the board selected Susan Windham-Bannister, a woman of color who had a PhD in public health but had spent much of her career in marketing. She recruited a small but very talented and extraordinarily hardworking team of people with a variety of skills, including a talented scientific advisory board to review proposals.


The center identified its subject matter as biotech, pharma, medtech, diagnostics, and bioinformatics. Its mission was innovation-driven economic development and job creation throughout the state. Among its programs were:

  • Creation of novel infrastructure and consortia to accelerate the pace of innovation
  • Grants for translational research and industry-academic partnerships
  • Investments in entrepreneurship and early-stage companies
  • Grants for translational research and industry-academic partnerships
  • Public-private funding partnerships to leverage investments
  • Workforce development programs
  • International collaborations

These programs often involved working across institutions, Villa-Komaroff noted. For example, it helped educate people about what they needed to do to take the next step in a project. In one case, the center helped the University of Massachusetts, Boston, to increase the amount of research done there through a partnership with the Dana-Farber Cancer Center. In another, companies can find partners in any country in the world and forge joint projects.

As of June 2014, the company had invested more than $500 million in projects, with about $1.5 billion in additional funding received as a result of these investments. One thing this investment has bought is equipment for community colleges, high schools, and middle schools, allowing students to be introduced to the technologies used in the life sciences. As Villa-Komaroff pointed out, many students enter into jobs in the life sciences directly from high school or a community college (Figure 1-3). She also pointed out that people with PhDs make up only about one in six of the employees in the Massachusetts Life Sciences Cluster (Figure 1-4). “It’s not necessary to have a PhD in order to get a very well paying job in this field,” she said.

The center has played a minor direct role in attracting big pharma and medtech to Massachusetts, but it has played a major role in encouraging the development of small, innovative firms. In turn, the proliferation of these small firms has attracted a number of global companies to Massachusetts, including Pfizer, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, Abbott Labs, Bristol-Myers Squib, and Merck (Bluestone and Clayton-Matthews, 2013). “These big companies want to be in touch with these little companies, because that’s where their new [innovations] are coming from.” This process also builds and strengthens the life sciences ecosystem, creating employment opportunities for students with a wide range of educational backgrounds.

Thinking Systems

The question remains, said Villa-Komaroff, which students are able to take advantage of these opportunities. Even before college, many students are lost to these opportunities. “Children decide extraordinarily early, before they are aware of it, what they can do. They look at the world, and if they see no one that looks like them, they close that door.” Villa-Komaroff said that one reason she became a scientist is because of Star Trek, where the diverse crew demonstrated that color made no difference. The show “provided an example that allowed to me to conceive of the possibility.”


(Video: Day3AMV-K16 PROTECTING STUDENTS OF COLOR) People respond to such cues in part because of what are called heuristics — relatively hard-wired, simple, efficient rules that humans use to make decisions. Though scientists in the “hard” sciences have been resistant to the notion, psychologists and other social scientists have long recognized that humans make systematic errors in judgment. As Kahneman (2011) says in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong.” As he points out, two systems of thinking have evolved in humans. (Video:  Day3AMV-K17 RECOGNIZING INJUSTICE, NOT FIXING IT) The first, which he calls system 1, operates automatically and quickly, requires little or no effort, has no voluntary control, and runs all the time. The second, system 2, allocates attention to effortful mental activities, is orderly and deliberative, normally operates in a comfortable and low-effort mode, and generally accepts system 1 suggestions.


            The operations of system 1 help produce the implicit biases people have. For example, people of color and women often feel alone, she said. They feel that they are not good enough and that they are at fault. “The implicit biases of others — my own fear of failure in a field in which I was not recognized as belonging — has profound effects on all of us; it has profound effects on our students.” This is not just a problem of white males, she said. It is a problem all people share. When Villa-Komaroff was visiting her mother-in-law in California, she was asked when her mother in law had hired her as a maid — “because as a Hispanic woman in California obviously I was a maid.”Similarly, in science, even women and people of color judge CVs for men and women differently. (Video:  Day3AMV-K18 SCIENTISTS ARE HUMAN & FALLIBLE)


Finding workarounds for bias is hard, but it is happening. People can be educated about “how and why they make the instant judgments that they do,” said Villa-Komaroff. Some of the characteristics of system 1 can be used to promote change. For example, one approach is to build familiarity and then consensus by raising an issue repeatedly. “Try to set up a situation where a person comes around over time.” Both confrontation and persuasion are needed. “It’s hard work. It takes a lot of time.”

Students and other young people also can have an enormous effect, she observe. For example, postdoc associations can help raise these issues and maintain their visibility. Similarly, gathering of people with similar concerns, such as those created by the Understanding Interventions conferences, create “a nucleus of people who care about the issues and are willing to find other ways to engage.” Participants in such groups can in turn speak to other groups and spread the message.

“We need to convince our colleagues that this must be paid attention to . . . We need to help convince out colleagues that this is rigorous, that this is a human problem. . . . When chemistry departments start hiring women and people of color because the chairman recognizes that we must deal with inherent bias, that is a good thing. We need to expand those efforts throughout the enterprise. We don’t have to become experts in psychology, but we do need to become translators of those findings and we need to talk about them in a nonjudgmental way.” (Video: Day3AMV-K24 LIMITING DIVERSITY)


S01: Are We Measuring and Interpreting What We Value about Programs?

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