Expert Panel: Inclusion and Diversity in Life Sciences and Precision Medicine

May 17, 2022

By: Brittany Wade 

May 17, 2022 | For the second year, the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo hosted a panel to discuss diversity, inclusion, and precision medicine. Moderator Kevin Ileka, Bristol Myers Squibb Co., joined guests Adrian Coles, Bristol Myers Squibb; Ari Berman, BioTeam; Lori Lennon, Thinkubator Media; and Victoria Parker, NOBCChE in this discussion of diversity in STEM culture. 

Before each panelist made their introductions, Ileka asked them about the significance of diversity. The panel agreed that diversity is the impetus for innovation. Varied experiences and perspectives allow companies to solve problems with a multifaceted and often more effective approach. 

Ileka then asked about how diversity should be demonstrated practically. Adrian Coles, Bristol Myers Squibb, pointed out that inclusive cultures cannot exist unless policies and procedures enforce them. Victoria Parker, NOBCChE, agreed that actionable items make it easier for corporations to be more inclusive, and she stressed the importance of focusing on retention and diversity in teams. 

Lori Lennon, Thinkubator Media, asserted that STEM culture must make a concerted effort to welcome individuals from varied backgrounds. She also emphasized discussing inclusion to convey its relevance to everyone, not just those already invested. 

Ari Berman, BioTeam, expressed hope of diversity becoming a normal facet of STEM culture. He acknowledged that more work is needed but that operating collaboratively with people of all backgrounds and experiences should be the goal. We have to talk about it, he said, because, in talking about it, we challenge biases. 

Talent Acquisition and Retention 

As experienced leaders in biotech startups, Ileka asked Lennon and Berman about their talent acquisition and retention challenges. Lennon explained that most opportunities are presented to people in existing relationships with those already established in the industry. When you start recruiting folks, she said, think about where the recruitment is happening, the results, and how you can get more people involved. Also, check job descriptions to make sure the language is inclusive.  

She pointed out the logistical challenges that mothers face as under-represented employees in STEM and primary caregivers at home. She highlighted the need for flexible spaces where anyone willing and able to work can do so. Berman suggested educating often overlooked communities about varied job options. 

Regarding a larger biopharma perspective, Parker recommended adopting an integrated approach to recruitment by visiting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other lesser-known universities to expand the traditional candidate pool.

Coles echoed Parker’s sentiments and placed a strong focus on delineating the activities of talent scouting and talent acquisition. Prioritize the company’s cultural needs, he said, just as highly as you prioritize the technical requirements. You can access strong talent in every critical area, but if your company does not have policies to help convert that talent from a candidate to a team member, all that work is for naught. He explained that having diverse interview panels, recruiting various candidates, and removing names and gender from application materials minimizes bias in talent selection. 

Establishing a Culture of Inclusion 

The panel agrees that establishing a culture of belonging is necessary but challenging. Lennon pointed out that women and people of color are often asked to solve the problem of creating an inclusive culture, “and not only solve the problem, but do it for free.” While leaning on the marginalized perspective is essential, she also believes in valuing team members’ time and experiences. Reducing workloads or awarding stipends to those who choose to contribute are tangible ways of demonstrating value. Parker suggested organizations make inclusion a shared responsibility across leadership and staff.  

Coles encouraged companies to examine team members with the same jobs and performance outcomes to determine if they share the same trajectory within the company. He points to data as a trusted resource and recommends using it to inform performance and talent management processes. Objectivity and transparency regarding evaluation and advancement procedures are essential. 

Many panelists believe that inclusivity begins with creating a safe space. “The organization has to become somewhere where people feel safe to speak up,” adds Berman. “There have to be people who represent everyone at all layers of the organization.” 

Research and Precision Medicine 

As to how diversity contributes to a robust research environment, Coles purported that equity, inclusion, and belonging can be weaponized against homogenous thinking. He said, companies who do not bring diverse points of view, ethics, and experiences create team members who think the same way. Innovation is rare with an elevated level of group thinking. Healthy environments promote psychological safety, and the best ideas eventually rise to the top. 

Berman agreed that the best science happens when dogma is broken, and things are seen from an unexpected point of view. Lennon discussed the need for female involvement in research on disorders like endometriosis that have gone ignored. Parker pointed out that diversity and inclusion keep companies on the front lines of innovative thinking and flexibility in achieving new goals. 

All panelists agreed that precision medicine could not exist without diversity. By definition, precision medicine is specialized to the individual with the idea that diseases do not present the same in every patient. Therefore, for this kind of medicine to be effective, patient groups and sample sizes must reflect the general population. Parker added that voices go unheard when diversity and inclusion are ignored. Then, trust levels decline, and patients are less likely to seek care. 

Finally, all panelists agreed that diversity and inclusion are multifaceted issues without an easy or quick solution. However, the consensus is that continued conversations coupled with intention and action will transform organizations from the inside out.