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Dr. Valentina Greco serves as Genetics’ Inaugural Vice Chair of Diversity; Establishes Diversity Advisory Committee

March 23, 2021
by Thomas Martin

This past summer, the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests across the nation. While images of marches for justice permeated news outlets, additional, yet quieter work was started or accelerated within various organizations. Like other groups at Yale, the Department of Genetics engaged in several community-wide conversations. Members took the opportunity to speak about the long history of discrimination in science, and on its impact within Yale Genetics. The Department had already begun initiatives to promote gender equity and education on diversity, but the conversations over the summer expressed a common feeling: more change needed to happen more quickly. Over the last six months, the Department has sought to respond to that message.

In an email to the Department at the end of August, Valerie Reinke, Vice Chair of the Department and Professor of Genetics, announced the creation of a Vice Chair of Diversity position. The new role was designed to “establish a framework to scrutinize [the Department’s] current practices and truly commit to change that enhances diversity.” Dr. Reinke acknowledged the need for more intention in “advocating for and facilitating the presence and advancement of under-represented groups.”

Valentina Greco, the Carolyn Walch Slayman Professor of Genetics, accepted the position. Dr. Greco asserts the importance of “scrutiny not only of ourselves but also of the professional structures in which we operate.” This extends to both daily decisions involved in hiring practices and mentorship, as well as broader, longer-term efforts from across the School of Medicine, she says. As Vice Chair of Diversity, Dr. Greco has consulted experts in organizational psychology, diversity, and race and has met regularly with Dean Darin Latimore and Dean Rochelle Smith, chief diversity officers at the School of Medicine, to “coordinate efforts with parallel initiatives across departments.”

Meaningful change requires a broad coalition. Underpinning Dr. Greco and the Department’s vision for sustainable and impactful action is the lived experience of community members. Dr. Greco established a departmental advisory committee in September. It is composed of volunteers from the administrators, students, faculty, lab professionals, and post-docs/ARS of the department. Each member represents the voices of their larger constituencies, and they will update their respective groups on new initiatives. Dr. Greco says the committee will lead the Department’s effort to remain aware of “the potential for power differences that suppress individual voices and work to combat that suppression.”

The committee represents a group diverse in professional and personal background. One of its most basic goals is to amplify traditionally overlooked or neglected voices. Justin Cohen, a postdoc in the Lek lab, feels strongly about this aspect of the committee’s mission. He has a physical disability and says that he joined the committee because, “in most conversations around diversity and historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, people with disabilities tend to be left out.” Cohen also hopes to “make Departmental events more accessible to everyone and increase awareness of everyday challenges those with disabilities face.”

The committee members believe the issue extends beyond representation. It’s not simply about pursuing change in demographic statistics, but about effecting more fundamental change. Maria Benitez, a 4th-year graduate student in the Giraldez lab and committee member, hopes “conversations around diversity and inclusion will slowly become core to who we are as a department in the future.” Fernando Giron, a financial assistant in the Department, echoed that sentiment. As a committee member, he wants to help generate both “quantifiable changes and a department culture that is always striving to welcome members of under-represented minority groups.”

Benitez hopes to address the discrepancy between the Department’s history of scientific prestige and its history of representation. Despite its many important contributions to research, Benitez notes that the Department lacks Black faculty members. “I hope that we will eventually be as proud of how we handle matters of diversity and inclusion as we are of the science generated in the Department,” she says.

Mandar Muzumdar, another committee member and Assistant Professor of Genetics and of Medicine, highlighted a similar focus. He believes that a stronger dedication to inclusive practices will strengthen the Department’s dedication to impactful research. Dr. Muzumdar says that “a diverse medical and scientific community is not only important from a standpoint of equity, but it is also essential to maximizing Yale’s capacity to make groundbreaking clinical and scientific advances.”

Recruiting department members from underrepresented backgrounds means making opportunities more visible, explains James Noonan, Associate Professor of Genetics and of Neuroscience. As a first-generation college student, PhD, and PI, he joined the committee to help make Yale a more plausible reality for people from similar backgrounds. “We don’t benefit from having prior role models to follow and often may not feel like we really belong,” he says. “We need to recruit students, postdocs, faculty and staff from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, who otherwise may not have ever considered Yale as a place where they would be welcome, and where they can be successful.” Lauren Lautermilch, currently a junior at Yale College, adds to this stating, “It is so important that communities like the Genetics Department at YSM center these issues because many undergrads look up to professors, post-docs, and graduate students.”

Martin Rosenfeld also described a struggle to perceive himself in his current position as a Postgraduate Research Associate in the Hammarlund lab. “As a young and ambitious black male,” he explains, “Yale just seemed so far out of reach that the possibility of me finding a community here seemed impossible.” He hopes to send a message to future leaders in science and other fields. Through his work with the committee, he wants other “black and brown individuals to know that we are not only capable of forging our own destiny, but we can make an impact on all those who follow us.” Rosenfeld likened the work to “turning a beaten path into a paved road.”

Even in a welcoming community, issues of implicit bias and structural discrimination may persist, Ariel Vacheron explains. When she joined the Department as a Clinical Technologist in the Bale DNA Lab, she felt welcomed and valued by her lab colleagues. However, she also experienced some sexist comments and microaggressions from visitors to the lab. While she says “I had already accepted that these minor brushes were always going to occur in my life,” she wanted to help create a new, better standard. “This community is something I treasure immensely,” she says. “I want everyone who comes to the Yale genetics department to experience the wonderful education, discussion, collaboration, and inclusion that I have been able to enjoy.”

In an email to the Department in November, the committee identified four areas of focus. The committee aims to better understand the array of identities and lived experiences of the Department’s members and to start major initiatives to examine the Department’s hiring practices, to educate community members on issues of diversity, and to invest in support networks for current and future members from under-represented minorities. “This massive project begins in our immediate circles, in our own department,” says Lautermilch.

The committee members understand the magnitude of their task. Discrimination is entrenched in science’s history. Like so many of the committee members noted, the goal is a state of constant growth, and the work started this year will likely never be finished. Such a broad challenge presents an opportunity for broad impact. Benitez encapsulated part of this potential in speaking about developing a stronger curriculum with regards to mentorship. “I would like for trainees leaving the Department to be a positive force wherever they might decide to go.”

Submitted by Neltja Brewster on March 23, 2021