On MCB Chair Sean Eddy’s first day on the job, over 140 MCB community members tuned in for a “town hall” Zoom call to discuss the most pressing issues facing the department.
Many questions raised by the town hall audience concerned the department’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Most MCB faculty, staff, students, and postdocs have been working from home since spring. Budgets remain in a state of flux, faculty and teaching fellows are still learning best practices for teaching online, and only a fraction of MCB’s researchers are authorized to visit labs in person—and then only under carefully controlled conditions.
Eddy admits the semester ahead will be “tough” but is optimistic about the MCB community’s ability to rise to the occasion. He also hopes to address and reduce many of the barriers to diversity and inclusion in MCB.
Eddy has been working with MCB Executive Director Jessica Manning on revised budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. At the town hall, Eddy assured the audience that furloughs and layoffs would be an “absolute last resort” and noted that postdocs who are funded through external fellowships and grants will not be directly affected by the FAS budget.
MCB leadership expects that there will be some budget cuts this year, but the extent of those cuts has not yet been finalized.
Despite these challenges, Eddy encouraged the town hall attendees to be resourceful, saying, “We can make money. We can write more grants…We can grow the resources that we have financially…The one thing that’s a zero-sum game is time, and we need to make sure that we leave ourselves time to do great science.”
Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging
Eddy’s town hall presentation also drew attention to the need for a more equitable and inclusive learning environment.
“We have abundant evidence that science has bias and is not a pure meritocracy,” Eddy said. “We need to listen to our colleagues’ actual experiences…I encourage everybody to follow what’s going on with #ShutDownSTEM and learn about structural racism. Be prepared to have uncomfortable discussions about it.”
Eddy shared results from a survey conducted last fall. The survey found that only 70% of MCB faculty said that they would be comfortable reporting unfair treatment and discrimination. Postdocs and grad students were even less likely to express willingness to speak out. “That’s unacceptable to me,” Eddy told the town hall audience. “People need more of a voice. They need to feel more comfortable speaking up.”
The presentation also featured graphs showing faculty demographics and the relative absence of diverse faculty.
To address issues around structural racism, gender parity, accessibility, and barriers faced by first-generation and other underprivileged students, MCB has launched a Community Task Force on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB), which includes 19 individuals, each representing a different perspective from within the community.
“The task force is currently working on a variety of initiatives in smaller groups, and coming together as a full body every 2 weeks for broader discussion,” says Associate Director for Faculty Services Michelle Cicerano, who is coordinating the effort. “The structure of the task force is set up to be deliberately non-hierarchical, in order to diffuse any power imbalances within the group…All members’ voices are given equal weight, and open feedback is encouraged.”
Cicerano adds, “The working groups are collaborating on action plans such as: rewriting the department’s mission statement with community values at its core; strategies to improve undergraduate engagement; developing plans for workshops, lectures, and open discussions around issues including implicit bias, understanding student identities, and power dynamics within the classroom and the lab; and much more.”
Since becoming MCB Chair, Eddy has prioritized learning more about addressing diversity issues. He is currently working with specialists such as FAS Equity and Inclusion Fellow Benita Wolff and participating in a book club about structural racism.
“The belonging issues are really near and dear to my heart,” Eddy said in a follow-up conversation after the town hall. “I came up through a rural high school without calculus or any of the things that people are expected to have and that set me way back, and so I really sympathize with the kids who come into Harvard as undergrads or grad students who feel like they’re not as prepared as their peers.”
After the hiring freeze lifts, Eddy says that recruiting diverse professors will be a key goal. However, at present, the focus will be on reducing and removing barriers to inclusion that many members of the MCB community already face.
Eddy notes that postdocs and young faculty often face challenges due to raising children. “We have a lot of two job couples, both people being in science, who are already stressed and are now especially stressed because they’re sitting at home with young kids, trying to get their science done,” he said. “We’re not doing enough as a university to provide good childcare options to our faculty, let alone our postdocs or anybody else.”
Postdocs, in particular, also frequently struggle with feeling that they don’t belong in the department, because, unlike undergrads and graduate students, postdocs enter the department without a cohort. Finding ways to foster social connections and belonging among postdocs while maintaining social distancing will be a priority, Eddy says.
Preparing for the Fall
Despite his long-term goals, many of Eddy’s efforts have focused on preparing for the upcoming semester. “We need to keep the three undergraduate concentrations going,” he said. “We need the incoming MCO grad students…to get on board, the ones who are international need to be able to travel here. We need to keep these communities running okay…That’s going to be tough.”
MCB faculty and chair of the Curriculum Committee Rachelle Gaudet says that faculty are developing the fall courses based on strategies that worked well in the spring. “Our faculty are adapting our courses in different ways to suit both the type of course and their teaching style,” Gaudet says. “Recognizing that everyone is living with a lot of uncertainty and unexpected changes, courses are adding flexibility, like recording lectures so students can listen on their own time, or in how assignments are counted. And second, we will be working on ways to create a learning community for each course.”
Eddy agrees that replicating the personal connections that form during in-person classes on campus is a big challenge. He notes that Zoom can be useful for putting a face to a name, but it’s not a full substitute for in-person interactions. Still, MCB plans to continue making extensive use of Zoom this fall.
The Retreat Committee chaired by Craig Hunter, with 11 individuals (comprised of students, postdocs, faculty and staff), including MCB Scientific Director Polina Kehayova and Events Coordinator Camila Ossa are organizing a virtual version of MCB’s annual retreat, called MCB Biopalooza. “The MCB Retreat is such a beloved and essential annual event that we have taken up the challenge to reinvent it in a way that meets the current challenges head-on and introduces new activities, while maintaining the most valued traditions,” Kehayova says. “We see this as an opportunity to try new things, reach more people.”
Kehayova is also organizing the fall’s departmental seminar series, which will feature MCB postdocs and graduate students presenting their research to the community. This approach, which began in the spring, has proved very popular, Kehayova says. There will be at least one departmental seminar per week this fall.
Despite the immediate problems the department faces, Eddy reminded the town hall attendees that MCB has “mythical” status among biology departments.
Largescale, interdisciplinary biophysics has become very widespread, but Eddy sees MCB as filling a valuable role as a home for specialist biologists who can apply high-throughput tools developed at larger, more factory-like labs. “We can build it here at the College, at FAS and MCB, a different complementary type of biology, where individual labs studying their individual problems are able to use these fancy technologies at scale but apply them to their [individual] problems,” he says.
Eddy encourages people in MCB experiment with different strategies, noting that scientists are often perfectionists who hesitate to try things without thoroughly mapping them out beforehand. “In the middle of this crisis, that’s not how we need to behave,” Eddy said. “We need to do things in order to see if they work, and if they don’t work, then…we’ll try new things.”