Indigenous diversity in science research

GlycoNet Investigator Dr. Jöerg Bohlmann and his mentee Olivia Baptiste bring inclusiveness to the forefront

GlycoNet Investigator Dr. Jöerg Bohlmann and his mentee Olivia Baptiste. (Photo: supplied)

By Ali Chou

As a member of Soda Creek Indian Band in British Columbia, Olivia Baptiste grew up as an athlete. She learned about science in high school, but never pictured herself to set foot inside a research laboratory. It wasn’t until 2015 that an opportunity ignited her passion for science research.

In grade ten, Baptiste participated in the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program, where she explored living on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus for a week while shadowing a scientist from the Faculty of Forestry. Throughout the week, Baptiste completed mini projects using wood products and learned to identify different types of trees from a lab field trip. Since then, she was determined to pursue research.  

Baptiste, now a second-year undergraduate student at the UBC, is conducting research within a GlycoNet project with Network Investigator Dr. Jöerg Bohlmann from the Michael Smith Laboratories. Her project, in collaboration with a postdoctoral fellow at the Withers Lab, focuses on the production of a carbohydrate-decorated plant metabolite, which serves as a drug candidate to treat diabetes.

From forestry to carbohydrate biochemistry, Baptiste’s journey into research may seem smooth. However, coming from an Indigenous origin and as a first-generation university student in her family, she recalls several roadblocks when she first thought about pursuing research.

The underlying challenge

“Growing up, there hasn’t been much encouragement nor awareness for scientific research in my community,” says Baptiste. “At the university, I started noticing the lack of diversity in science. I haven’t met many Indigenous students in research, and it was intimidating to step into research on my own without a role model to look up to.”

In 2016, Indigenous people amount to 4.9 per cent of the Canadian population. Among all Indigenous population, only 7 per cent pursued post-secondary degree in science and technology. Beyond post-secondary education, even fewer were employed in professional, scientific, and technical services. The historical reasons for this are complex, and the present reality is heavily underrepresented Indigenous people in science.

More diversity in science

As Baptiste’s mentor, Bohlmann is aware of the underrepresentation of Indigenous students and the need for increasing diversity in science. From a researcher’s perspective, he stresses that this issue, if not properly addressed, may limit the scientific community to drive innovation.

“Scientific research generates knowledge that improves our society,” says Bohlmann. “But when we exclude contributions from certain parts of the community, it pushes us further away from improving society because none of the fractions can assume the voices of others completely.”

Mentoring with listening ear and guiding hand

The two main reasons why Indigenous students are a minority in science are inadequate awareness and difficulty in identifying role models. For Baptiste, working together with Bohlmann has been rewarding, and his mentorship impacted positively her overall experience in research. With support and guidance, Baptiste’s confidence has boosted significantly. “As a minority group member, I wouldn’t be able to commit to research if I didn’t have my mentor (Bohlmann) alongside,” says Baptiste.

In addition to fostering mentoring relationship with his mentee, Bohlmann acknowledges diversity and supports various opportunities for Indigenous students. Baptiste initially came to the Bohlmann lab through the UBC Indigenous Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program, and subsequently received the NSERC USRA award to spend four months in the Bohlmann lab. For the past four years, the Bohlmann lab has been engaging Indigenous youth in learning about science through mentorship programs and outreach activities. Every year, two Indigenous high school students spend a week in the life of a scientist in the Bohlmann Lab to dig deeper into the biochemistry of forest trees and medicinal plants.

“Early exposure to laboratory research will help high school students explore the option of post-secondary education, as well as creates awareness of possible career directions,” explains Bohlmann.

Embracing diversity with an open mind

Encouraging more diversity in science starts from promoting awareness to the public. At the same time, it is important that the science community bears an open mind to embrace diverse culture.

“A common mistake for scientists is that we may assume there is only one way of generating knowledge—through modern scientific method,” says Bohlmann. “We forget that some of the present power of science builds upon a foundation of traditional knowledge.”

While some people perceive Western practice and traditional knowledge as two non-converging schools of thoughts, Baptiste and Bohlmann say that the synergy of both knowledge systems will add immerse value to advancing science and society. Like collaborative projects, the integration of one knowledge with another brings together varied skill sets, diverse techniques of discovery, and individuals with unique problem-solving capabilities.

Cultural diversity is a boon for science. For collaborations to succeed, the scientific community needs to embrace diversity and make the most of cultural differences. It is not only about unlocking the excitement from the minority groups, but also about forming connections across lines of difference.

Baptiste, when reflecting on her path into research, admits that it was bumpy. It took her a long way to find confidence in pursuing research because she was intimidated by the underrepresentation of Indigenous students in science. Now, as a biology major, her passion and perseverance have made her a role model. Back in the Soda Creek Indian Band, Baptiste continues to share her stories with her community members, hoping to make connections and inspire more Indigenous youth in learning about science research.

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