Imperial College London

Equality, diversity and inclusion in FoNS: meet our new Faculty EDI Coordinator

by

Silhouette profile group of men and women of diverse culture. Diversity multi-ethnic and multiracial people. Concept of racial equality and anti-racism.

Dr Crystal Vincent began in the Faculty's newly created role of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Coordinator in November 2021.

Crystal demonstrating her team’s work on immunity in flies at an Imperial Late event
Crystal (left) demonstrating her team’s work on immunity in flies at an Imperial Late event

Crystal will work with colleagues across FoNS departments to surface existing EDI-related activities, particularly in relation to current and prospective Imperial students. She’s also keen to develop Faculty-level initiatives and will become a key member of our EDI Committee. Alongside this role she’ll continue her work as a Research Associate in the Department of Life Sciences.

We met up with Crystal to find out more about her background in outreach and engagement, her thoughts on some of the EDI issues Imperial faces and what she hopes to achieve as EDI Coordinator.

Why has this role been created at Faculty level? 

The need for an EDI role isn't new, but its breadth has expanded. EDI is about equality, diversity and inclusion, but I think sometimes there’s only a focus on diversity. Simply having a diverse body of individuals doesn't mean that everyone feels included, and it certainly doesn't mean that everybody is treated in an equitable fashion.

It seemed  logical to facilitate this role at the Faculty level, with a view to highlighting great EDI work already happening across FoNS. I’m aiming to make sure we're more aware of what's happening within our own departments and across the Faculty – trying to join up existing activities, develop new ideas and share best practice.

Why were you interested in applying?

I'm from an underrepresented group in terms of being from an Ethnic Minority. However, to be honest with you I didn’t acknowledge that a lack of representation was relevant to me for a really long time, because I didn't think it affected me. I thought “I don't need to see someone that looks like me to believe that I could do that”, despite the fact that I was hearing this sentiment from my students. I remember, especially when I was working in Black communities, kids would be quite surprised to hear that I was a scientist, and when they found out, they assumed I'd come from a different socioeconomic background from them. They really had a strong sense that “people like us aren't people like you”, so I think that’s one of the reasons why I'm drawn to this work.

I’d like people to feel that they can enjoy science in whatever capacity they want to – whether that’s as a student, as part of their career or just out of interest. I'm interested in removing those mental boundaries that we're all susceptible to – that are related to the boundaries we might unconsciously feel have been set around us.

Why do you think EDI in science is important?

In science we acknowledge that there's a benefit in diversity in terms of pooling different fields of knowledge when working towards solutions. I came to Imperial from an evolutionary biology background to join a molecular genetics lab. When something is presented to me, I therefore think about it quite differently from my lab mates – we each pose different questions – and I think that same approach works beyond our academic pursuits. Bringing together varied academic backgrounds is to some extent analogous to the benefits of bringing together those with different cultural or experiential backgrounds – in both circumstances it becomes a potential learning experience for everyone involved.

It’s also important to acknowledge that one person’s experience isn’t – and doesn’t have to be – the same for everyone else. The emphasis on mental health for students and staff, for example, is really important. Undergraduate degrees are hard. PHD's are hard. Academic work is hard, and maybe once you’ve made headway in an academic career it can sometimes be easy to minimise how challenging your experience getting there was. In academia there can be an assumed sense that “I made it through, and if you can't make it through then maybe you shouldn't be here”. That’s such an unhealthy mindset, and it’s something I’ve experienced in my studies. Creating an environment where people feel comfortable to ask questions, develop confidence, engage and learn – in science and elsewhere – is something that should be celebrated.

Tell us more about the mentoring programme you’re setting up

I’m looking for graduate students and members of staff interested in supporting A-level students who are considering applying to Imperial for an undergraduate course, or university students who’d like to apply for one of our graduate programmes. We also need researchers to act as supervisors of paid summer undergraduate research projects. Any staff member or student who’s interested in becoming a mentor can contact me – please do get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

What are your long-term goals?

A big aspect of my role will focus on actions and commitments outlined in the Race Equality Charter. One goal is to increase representation in our undergraduate student body – particularly of those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and varied socioeconomic backgrounds. In terms of postgraduate students, the focus would be on those coming from non-Russell Group universities. 

I’m also keen to be involved in supporting our existing Minority Ethnic students to ensure their experience at the College is positive. A number of our internal Race Equality Charter surveys and focus groups highlighted that there's room for improvement when it comes to the day-to-day experience of some of our Minority staff and students. The inclusivity aspect of EDI is really important – simply diversifying a body of people doesn't necessarily mean they feel comfortable or supported to do their best in their studies or jobs once they arrive.

How are you hoping to create a Faculty community that comes together to have honest conversations about EDI, share perspectives and acknowledge blind spots?

People can be very uncomfortable having some of these conversations – and that’s because they’re uncomfortable conversations to have. It’s useful if someone verbalises that they don't see why EDI is necessary, because they might highlight a perspective that I hadn’t considered, and vice versa.

Difficult conversations can be a space where echo chambers are challenged and resolution takes shape. Otherwise, I'm sitting here in a silo, coming up with ideas and working with like-minded people. EDI work isn’t an exact science, but as with the process of academic peer review, you want to get feedback. Good work benefits from criticism.

What support do you need from FoNS staff and students?

I think support comes in two forms. One is a willingness to accept that the work being done is valuable – acknowledging that it matters. The other is participating in whatever capacity you feel you can, even if that’s coming to an event where you listen to other perspectives and reflect on or contribute your own thoughts.

Whether you are actively involved in our programming or not, being supportive of what the Faculty is trying to do is important, because it's tangible when you're in an environment where the collective is engaged in listening to each other and working together.

Any tips for staff and students who want to get involved in EDI outreach?

A good first point of contact is your departmental EDI representative, who sits on the Faculty’s EDI Committee (see below for details). You can also get in touch with me! If you're keen to start your own initiative I'm more than happy to chat over ideas. Getting a group together to share ideas and tasks can be really helpful. One of my aims is to make connections and create a network of activity and support.

If you're interested in related activities, volunteering with our Outreach and Engagement teams is also a fantastic way to meet other staff and students and get involved. And stay tuned to future FoNS newsletters to hear about upcoming activities!

There are so many ways to think about EDI. We have a Culture Committee in the Department of Life Sciences, for example, which works to improve research culture and our working environment. People – staff, students, researchers, members of the public – create what science is and where it’s going, and there's a lot of space outside of the lab where we can contribute to the direction that science takes. It's important to acknowledge the value of allocating time and space for us to engage with the broader implications of our work.

What’s really heartening is when I speak to people involved in EDI engagement across the Faculty, you can see how motivated they are – they’re spending time on it because they really care about it. One thing we might need to think about in FoNS is how to create space for people to incorporate that sort of work within their day, for personal and professional development.

Do you see links between your STEM research and your EDI work?

Well actually, at the moment I'm writing a grant application for research that’s focused on inherent differences between the biological sexes that manifest in different infection outcomes. You can infect males and females with the same pathogens, and the disease progresses differently – we know this is the case in humans, and we see it across the animal kingdom.

As I've been writing this application, I’ve been considering a kind of parallel situation with our student population – for some reason there’s a difference in the career trajectories of female and male students when it comes to staying in academia in certain subjects. This, of course, isn’t biological! But what I'm trying to do in my research and what I'm trying to do in my EDI work is parallel in some ways – identifying what's causing different effects, and what kinds of interventions might impact the patterns we see. What is it that makes the female physiology deal better with an infection, and can we lend this to a male population? In a similar way, do undergraduate students from Russell Group universities have certain circumstances or characteristics that better equip them to continue onto postgraduate study, and could identifying these help us to better support graduates from non-Russell institutions?

One of the things I'd like to do is collect more comprehensive data on widening participation interventions and outreach programming across the Faculty, to see if it’s working and to try to find useful ways of measuring its effectiveness.

What motivates you?

The motivation for my research is that I want to know more – I want to know what the answer is!

When it comes to my EDI work, what motivates me is its very obvious impact. You could spend an entire year doing outreach, and when you get an email from just one student saying that your engagement with them has been meaningful, it feels like that entire year was worth it. Just one student saying, thanks for doing this, you made me feel really confident, I really enjoyed it, or I thought it was cool – even small examples of real impact makes it worth it. And we see this as a College community every year when we do the Great Exhibition Road Festival and Lates. People love it – they love engaging.

Get involved

Find out more about your departmental EDI Committees:

Reporter

Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences

Tags:

Societal-engagement, Diversity, Public-engagement, Equality, Comms-strategy-Inclusive-community
See more tags