A student and her mentor sit across from each other at a table.

Students in the Civic Biology Fellowship do internships with organizations that support equity-based projects involving underrepresented communities. Above, Ada Yu, A26, meets with Chloe Yang, project manager of the ADAPT (Addressing Disparities in Asian Populations through Translational Research) Coalition at the start of Yu's internship. ADAPT is part of Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute. Photo: Jenna Schad

The Human Element: For Student Scientists, Learning to Place Biology in Social Context

A year-long undergraduate course encourages deep conversations about connecting with community

Last fall, 14 undergraduate biology majors gathered for three hours every Friday to grapple with the issues that have shaped their field over the centuries. Not so much the hypotheses and the lab work, but the human factors at play: the feelings, the interactions, and the biases—things rarely discussed as students study hard to become good scientists.

As the inaugural fellows in the year-long Civic Biology Fellowship program, they faced tough questions, learned new skills, and formed close bonds with the goal of making their field more equitable, welcoming, and better poised to collaborate with the communities it serves.

The course, taught by a team of faculty from several Tufts schools, was born of conversations among the biology department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee members, including Lauren Crowe, a lecturer in the Department of Biology. After it was formed in 2020, the committee wondered “if there was room in the curriculum to incorporate aspects of society and its relationship to biology,” Crowe says. 

Crowe reached out to longtime colleague, School of Dental Medicine Professor Jonathan Garlick, who is founding director of the Tufts Initiative in Civic Science and Dialogue Center. In addition to his lab-based work on stem cells and his research on health equity, Garlick focuses on civic science, which aims to strengthen connections between scientists and the public by making science more inclusive, diverse, and worthy of public trust. Those ideas are also reinforced in his role as director of science communications at Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute. But Garlick’s previous civic science courses attracted mostly humanities students, Crowe says. “And we really wanted to bring in biology students.”

They wondered how to excite biology students about community engagement; how to help them understand that their work affects the communities around them. They wanted to teach the students not to do harm by excluding underrepresented populations in their research. 

"Scientists are generally trained to value academic knowledge over the experiential and cultural knowledge of community partners,” Crowe says. “When biologists undervalue the lived experiences of those most affected by the research, they diminish their voices and exclude them as valid experts.” And many times, biologists’ research approaches reinforce their privilege.

The Right Time

The pandemic-era timing felt right to Garlick, who had researched the growing polarization around—and less public faith in—scientific knowledge, as well as the broader awareness of the health inequities that impact communities of color.

Ultimately, Crowe and Garlick envisioned a one-year fellowship for second-, third-, and fourth-year biology majors. The first semester would feature classroom lectures, readings, case studies, and discussions. It would continue in an abridged form the second semester, augmented by an in-person internship in community organizations that support equity-based work with underrepresented minority groups, Garlick says. 

Their idea received funding through the provost’s office. Crowe and Garlick recruited YouTube science communication expert and Friedman School of Nutrition Adjunct Professor Lara Hyde to co-facilitate with them, and put out a call for applications last spring. Fourteen students applied and were accepted into the Civic Biology program. The cohort specializes in a variety of biology topics and represents a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences, including religion, sexual orientation, and economic status. 

Inclusive Narratives

The 14 fellows discussed topics such as de-colonizing science: placing historically marginalized populations at the center of biologists’ work, to shift the focus away from exclusively Western approaches to knowledge. Facilitators aimed to broaden fellows’ views by teaching them the social and historical contexts of research, and to introduce the spectrum of people who have contributed to our knowledge of biology—with the aim of including indigenous knowledge and creating more inclusive narratives.

They also talked about inclusive science communication and how diversity benefits science; and how white supremacy culture—the widespread ideology baked into society that whiteness holds value and that reinforces a racial hierarchy of power and control—has affected the field of biology.

During one class, Garlick and guest speaker Linda Hudson, assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, asked the fellows how they would approach research involving a Native American community. In this case study, students were told, “You are not a person who is Native American-identified and the institution you are affiliated with has a history of missteps in clinical and research practice with the Native American community.”  They considered how best to take tissue samples from the people in the community and how to conduct a survey as they built trust with Native American parents and children. 

"A lot of us were really stuck with this question,” says Fellow Ayesha Lobo, A 24, a dual-degree student who is majoring in biology through the School of Arts and Sciences, and fine arts through the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “It’s hard to say what’s appropriate.”

Though they were stuck, fellows could work through the question together within the carefully crafted safety of their classroom to gain a better understanding of the issues at play.  The faculty followed the practice developed by Garlick known as the "dialogic classroom," where students feel safe enough to discuss uncomfortable topics even while disagreeing.  Fellows made classroom agreements and drafted multiple codes of conduct for the class, says Lobo. “We spent a lot of time going over safety in the classroom because a lot of the discussion topics were pretty intense.” 

Big Questions 

That process led to a closeness among the fellows, says Basil Hand, A25. “Being vulnerable was part of the class,” they say. “I feel close with the people in this course in a way that I’ve never felt in a STEM course.” Fellow Alice Rizkallah, A26, has a diverse group of friends, but grew particularly close with the Civic Biology class, whose discussions were unusually candid. Through them, she learned how deeply someone’s upbringing shapes their perceptions, including perceptions of science. 

Guest speakers talked about their work, identities, and the interplay between the two; their stories came up repeatedly throughout the semester’s discussions. Carl Baty, executive director and cofounder of the nonprofit Rounding the Bases, spoke about “the power of connection,” Lobo says, as he talked about living with racism. “Carl’s testimony in the classroom has come up again and again,” Crowe says. Students had weekly readings and reflection prompts such as, “What is your role as a scientist?” and “What does it mean to be worthy of trust?” 

Asking such big questions helps prepare students by teaching them cultural humility, inclusive communication, and other skills—which, in turn, equips them for “complex leadership roles, competitive job markets, and building inclusive and diverse research teams in science laboratories,” Garlick says. “And by doing that, they could help individuals who feel disconnected from or distrustful of science, and help them feel more connected, trusting, and engaged.” Crowe adds: “More than anything, these are trust-building skills, relationship skills, storytelling skills.”

‘Do No Harm’

Students say the co-facilitators also taught these skills by example. Crowe, Garlick, and Hyde—who are white—addressed their own position, privilege, and power in relation to white supremacy culture. Garlick explained that he feels “accountable as a scientist to do no harm, either intentionally or unintentionally, and that requires training.” Facilitators encouraged a stance of humility, and of understanding “the importance of being quiet and listening,” Hyde says. 

Hand, Rizkallah, and Lobo say the fellowship has already shifted their ideas about biology and its place in society. “I think it’s really important to integrate cultural humility into science, because a lot of us are pre-med or pre-dental,” Lobo says. “We’re going to be working with a lot of diverse patients.”

They agree that the fellowship’s tenets and approaches should be required learning for Tufts biology students. “I think this class is so necessary,” Rizkallah says. “I have learned so much about the importance of being worthy of trust. It won’t be a coworker’s job or a patient’s job to trust me later in life just because I’m a medical professional.”

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