New checklist aims to tackle racism in conservation science at university level

  • A new perspective article published in Nature Ecology and Evolution describes the history of racism in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology (EECB) while providing an actionable checklist for departments to create an anti-racist environment.
  • Written by faculty, staff, and students, the checklist is a comprehensive guide to help scientists if they don’t know where to start to create a more inclusive space.
  • It describes changes that can be made in the classroom, research labs, and departments to increase the representation of non-white students in the EECB, which is lower than in other science fields.
  • More and more ecology, evolution and conservation departments are thinking and discussing how to create an anti-racist space.

Towards the end of her undergraduate studies in ecology, Drea Darby sat at her desk in frustration, looking for conservation jobs. She had considered a career in the field, but the positions were not paying well, if at all. Many of the jobs were in remote locations, reminding him of his own experiences working in the field. People frequently interrupted her in the field, wondering why she was there. But they never asked the same questions of his white colleagues.

The obstacles Darby encountered led her to reimagine her career path. Today, she is a graduate student at Cornell University, working in a lab.

Many departments of Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology (EECB) are starting to think and talk about anti-racism, but some don’t know what to do or where to start, leading to inaction. A new piece in perspective in Ecology and evolution of nature describes the history of colonial attitudes, racism and white supremacy in the EECB, and gives a control List to help dismantle white supremacy in classrooms, research labs and departments.

Drea Darby, a graduate student at Cornell University, checks the flies in the lab for her research. She is studying the microbes found in the gut of Drosophila melanogaster. Image courtesy of Kathy Denning.

“Ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation have problematic histories with race, racism, colonialism, eugenics… Santa Cruz. “You know this manifests itself today in several ways. “

The representation of non-white students is particularly low in the EECB compared to other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), according to a survey published in the article. Darby herself remembers being the only black student in her ecology program.

And that’s not just a problem in the United States. A study in Australia showed that STEM programs had low enrollment rates for Aboriginal groups. Also, UK, less than 1% of university STEM professors were black in 2016-2017.

The perspective piece drew on decades of work and empirical evidence from the scientific literature. Scientists have published numerous articles on the fight against racism in laboratory settings, study programs and hiring – important pieces of the puzzle that informed the perspective piece.

“This article brought them all together and provided what I think was a really comprehensive framework for moving forward with actions,” said Bala Chaudhary, assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, who was not involved. in the article but whose own work was cited there. She adds that articles like this perspective article now have the place they deserve in top journals.

Students in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program at the University of California at Santa Cruz gain field experience in Central California. Image courtesy of UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

Recognize the racist story

Chaudhary reflected on the first week of his own undergraduate ecology class. Like most students, she learned that Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology. At the time, she did not know that Haeckel was a eugenicist who promoted racism and Social Darwinism. She thinks about those lectures and teachers again and wonders what the students in the room knew.

“I think the people we talk about and don’t talk about matters… and that matters to whoever stays in our fields,” she says.

Ecology, evolution and conservation are based on scientific tradition and provide the theories that explain life. In doing so, they contribute a lot to society.

“But I think these really important legacies aren’t always looked at,” Cronin says.

“It’s really important to have a critical eye when thinking about how we came to these ideas, how voices were listened to, and how voices were marginalized in the creation of these important disciplines. “

Some still don’t understand or address what racism looks like in the EECB. The perspective article emphasizes the importance of speaking out against historic racism. When teaching students, professors shouldn’t ignore the negative story and focus only on solutions, Chaudhary says. People are often unaware of the nature of the problematic story because it is so ingrained in the field.

Students from the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz established a transect along a stream in central California. Image courtesy of UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

Trigger actionable change

The checklist gives examples of how to create an anti-racist academic environment at different levels: classroom, laboratory and department. These include soliciting frequent comments, decolonizing the program, highlighting ignored voices and exposing hidden curriculum, according to scientists.

The “hidden curriculum” is made up of unspoken norms, behaviors, and expectations that teachers can assume everyone is familiar with. For example, in STEM careers, research experience can play an important role in career progression. Yet not all students know how to network or find career opportunities. Some students may not know how speak or ask for help, so providing explicit expectations about how best to communicate can help teachers reach all students.

Creating a welcoming space in the lab and in the field is important for improving the representation of non-white people, says Adriana Romero-Olivares, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University who did not attend the article. Before starting in a previous position, her advisor was very open that she was about to move to a predominantly white city and university.

“Knowing that you are in a laboratory where these differences and where this environment is recognized really helps in one way or another,” says Romero-Olivares.

The authors suggest ways in which departments can recruit, retain, and show that they value faculty and students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, they write, departments should hire people they know are committed to tackling racism by demanding diversity statements, checking they are not performing, and weighing them heavily in the hiring process. The checklist also suggests that departments should remove barriers to student applications like standardized tests. Advance payments for travel and research, as well as the creation of higher paying opportunities, would also help ease financial barriers.

Adriana Romero-Olivares, assistant professor at New Mexico State University, works at one of her field sites to monitor soil microbial communities throughout the seasons. Image courtesy of Jovani Catalan-Dibene.

See other challenges

Often, much of the work of creating and sustaining diversity, equity and inclusion activities falls on graduate students, says Darby. It can be frustrating for these students when a department or university receives a lot of attention to be inclusive when in fact graduate student volunteers do a lot of the work. Changing the culture and prioritizing these activities in faculty tenure records is one way to make them an ongoing priority for faculty, she says.

Further changes are yet to occur at the university level. For example, says Romero-Olivares, active learning environments that enhance the learning experience for students are not always achievable for professors who teach large lectures with little support.

It can be a challenge for professors to create these environments in addition to the research, service and other teaching that they are already doing, Romero-Olivares adds. Increased support through additional teaching assistants can help while providing more paid opportunities for students.

“I think science is so cool, and I just wanted to be as available to as many people as possible,” says Darby. “I think it’s important for people to know that parts like this exist and… do the hard work in terms of dismantling the structures that are in place.”


Cronin, MR, Alonzo, SH, Adamczak, SK, Baker, DN, Beltran, RS, Borker, AL,… Zavaleta, ES (2021). Anti-racist interventions to transform the departments of ecology, evolution and conservation biology. Nature Ecology & Evolution 5(9), 1213-1223. do I:10.1038 / s41559-021-01522-z

Freeman, S., Eddy, SL, McDonough, M., Smith, MK, Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. & Wenderoth, MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in scientific engineering and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. do I:10.1073 / pnas.1319030111

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