Global statements on diversity: Sarah Masters

Scientists around the world answer the same three questions...

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By Sarah Masters, Associate Professor, University of Canterbury. 

In your opinion, which scientific questions will set the trends in the coming decade, and which science problems would you like to tackle?

At a recent talk I attended, the presenter took the audience through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), what each meant and the aims of them, and then asked the audience to indicate which ones they thought chemistry and chemists could contribute to. Answer? Pretty much all of them! However, trying to address these goals in small isolated groups is unlikely to work as to achieve the goals will require interdisciplinary teams working together.

Often chemists rely on engineers to action their ideas, chemists work with environmental scientists towards solutions for clean water and sustainable crops, medicinal chemists work with other medical professions to develop vaccines, something that is certainly at the forefront of our thinking in COVID-19 times.

Whilst it is important to work collaboratively for the greater good of humanity, competition is also important to drive the ideas forward to tangible outcomes. Research and development resources are awarded to innovative ideas, and we should work to develop a culture where all researchers have an equitable opportunity to compete for those resources.

Therefore, it will not just be the actual science that determines whether we are able to achieve the SDGs, but also the working culture within science and engineering. How we work together to create a platform where all can compete and work collaboratively and/or competitively towards the SDGs will critically shape that opportunity.

How do you experience diverse leadership, diversity in your lab, publication and peer-review, promotion and career progression, in your host country? What are the impediments for creating inclusive, equitable research labs, departments and practices?

I am fortunate to have experienced a range of leadership styles and backgrounds in my career. Heads of School and Deans/Pro-Vice Chancellors of College/Faculty have been diverse and this has enabled me to have a broad perspective on what it takes to be a great leader. I am also fortunate to have had a doctoral advisor who strongly believed in the value of nurturing the next generation of academics coming through the system, instilling strong values of inclusivity and equity within his research group. Many students from the group have gone on to academic careers and are positive leaders in their academic units, thus demonstrating the power of constructive mentorship.

In my research group I have mentored a truly international cohort, with students from as far afield as France, Spain and Nigeria, as well as those from closer to home in New Zealand. The students have had different ages, religious beliefs, skin colour, gender identity and sexual orientation. We all work together on the goals of the research group and the more established second and third year doctoral students mentor those coming into the group. I make it clear from the start that there are no “ism’s” within my group, no ageism, racism, sexism or any other ism’s.

We have to work together within the group and with our collaborators from all over the world to succeed, and it is important to create a workplace where all feel valued, where there are no barriers to progress (other than the science itself!), and where the research team works together. I am always conscious to indicate that students in my research group work WITH me, not FOR me, towards their thesis. I strongly encourage prospective students to talk to current students to ensure that the culture of the group is one that will suit them and to find out what I am like to work for. It is also important to be there for students when times get tough, the second year doctoral slump sets in or things just don’t seem to be working. Motivating the students back to their productive best is important and a “we’re in this together” attitude is far more productive than the rather archaic view of “sink or swim”.

Not all group leaders take the same attitude and this is part of the culture within research that needs to be developed and improved. The main impediment to creating inclusive, equitable research labs, academic units and practices are mainly the attitudes of the people involved in developing these. Ideally people in positions of influence will have a positive mind-set and be strong leaders who demonstrate a positive working environment and create a strong inclusive culture. With strong leadership and effective management, a working environment can change from being toxic to being effective in a relatively short space of time.

What is your message to the next generation of scientists, and what are your tips for their success?

My message for the next generation of scientists would be to take every opportunity that comes your way! Seek to develop your CV and make it stand out from others. By the end of a doctoral degree we can safely say that graduates can critically analyse large data sets, work independently and in teams, are literate and numerically literate, can give strong oral presentations and write effectively. So, what is going to make YOUR CV stand out from the crowd?

If you are looking for a future in research and development, how have you sought to develop your leadership skills? How many students in your group have you mentored and how specifically has your involvement influenced their success? How have you overcome challenges in the research environment and turned this into a positive outcome?

For a career in academia, as well as the above what have you done to develop your own research ideas? What projects have you worked on independently of your doctoral advisor? How have you sought to develop your teaching skills and demonstrated effectiveness in teaching?

Regardless of what career path you wish to take I would also advise paying close attention to the myriad different leadership styles that you see in your day to day interactions around your research laboratory and beyond. What styles are effective and what styles are ineffective or even destructive? Look at the good styles and traits and aim to model those, and be determined not to adopt those traits or styles that are not positive. Aim to be a compassionate, constructive, citizen who contributes positively to science and to the culture of science.

Finally, be resilient. Throughout your career you will come up against many hurdles or barriers to progress or success regardless of who you are and where you work. Having the staying power to overcome these barriers will be critical to your success and also will provide a positive influence for those looking to you for leadership and guidance in times of hardship or personal/professional challenges. Ultimately, be the role model you always wanted to look up to!

Sarah Masters

Academic, University of Canterbury

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