Inclusivity Research Aims:
Through our inclusivity research we aim to understand where the Synthetic Biology and STEM field in general, lacks accessibility. We will investigate the barriers in these fields, focusing our research on local values, specifically analysing data from the United Kingdom; additionally we will develop a pilot study on the identities that are represented in iGEM and those who are not. Based on our results we intend to stipulate a study in which the objective will be expanding access to a broader audience. This will be achieved by creating various documents, which could eventually be used as a guide for other teams and/or external parties in the future. These documents will include firstly an intersectional guide, focusing on intersectionality in STEM especially, and secondly a handbook. This handbook will contain all the guidelines for our own synthetic biology competition: Biologix. Biologix will be a free entrepreneurial competition based on developing an innovative solution to a world problem through the use of biotechnology and synthetic biology. Taking inspiration from the iGEM competition, we altered its structure basing the development of the projects solely on literature research, expanding the access to it to more schools given that laboratories facilities will not be needed. All the points mentioned above will be further analysed and explained in detail in the following sections.
Inclusivity in Renervate
During the completion of our project we analysed various situations to define accessibility and inclusivity in the UK. As a team focused on Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), we explored inclusivity relating to people with SCI in our local city, London and in the United Kingdom. Our result are summarised below:
- 60% of the London Underground shows to be inaccessible to wheelchair users
- The number of accessible toilets in the UK fluctuates around 1,400 which have to account for 250,000 severely disabled people
Various efforts have been put in place by the government regarding both the issues cited, although regarding the accessibility to transports in London more innovation should be pushed forward, such as raising platforms to allow level boarding of trains. Furthermore, we analysed the importance of language and how this can severely affect people with disabilities and/or mental health issues. We found it crucial to be aware of the power of words and how we need to be respectful and thoughtful with the language we use, as this can have a large impact on the emotions of those around us. We have explored this further as part of the science communication and awareness campaigns we implemented relating to these areas.
Accessibility in the U.K.
The impact of language on others' state of mind
Pilot study: Which identities are represented in iGEM and which are not?
We planned to carry out a pilot study in order to provide a better insight into the representation of different individuals within the iGEM community - and based on the results obtained, decide on how to break the existing barriers which exclude certain groups of people from participation. Moreover, we discussed with other teams, engaged with those in the community, and further experts within ethics, regarding inclusivity issues within iGEM. Through this process, we have gained an in-depth insight into carrying out studies in an ethical and inclusive way, as well as finding areas that require attention - such as financial accessibility in iGEM. The key point on which we developed our study are the following:
- Research to compile an extensive list of all the options people could need to feel represented in the inclusivity survey
- Forward the survey to various teams, included ones from China; although these teams could not answer the survey, nor access the mediums we were using to share the survey, as well as google forms
- Interview teams and engaging with the community about inclusivity issues in iGEM to discover the avenue we are passionate about, the financial barriers in iGEM. This section also inspired our competition, Biologix, through which we aim to give access to high schoolers who may not receive the same amount of funds, because they attend public/state schools, towards STEM clubs and lab equipment.
The aim of the pilot survey was to gain reception and to analyse how people would answer the questions; we prefered to create answerable slots instead of boxes, in order to make the survey more inclusive. Although, at first, we received inappropriate and unusable answers, as our audience ignored its importance.
We launched the inclusivity survey through the KCL iGEM instagram page, asking iGEM team members about their ethnic and religious backgrounds, gender and sexuality, as well as other questions on identity. The goal of this pilot survey was to understand who are those taking part in iGEM, and thus which views and experiences are represented. We would then use the information to discover potential trends in demographics, to then brainstorm, and create avenues in order that under-represented groups may be heard in the iGEM, and scientific community. As we received responses about the demographics, and reflected upon our team’s challenges with fundraising money for the competition and discussed our own experiences and the experience of others, we became aware of the significant financial cost universities and high schools have to face, and how some may not be able to provide for young and curious scientists. This acknowledgement led us to develop the Biologix competition, which aims to allow high schoolers from all backgrounds to participate in a competition model similar to that of iGEM, though with a stronger focus on literature research and project development, to eliminate the cost of lab access and equipment.
The survey was meant as a pilot study to observe the responses we would get from participants, hoping to get an insight on those who are not represented in iGEM. Therefore, as previously explained, we gave the opportunity of having open questions so participants would not be limited in their answer, making it more inclusive. However, we received a number of inappropriate responses from some members of the iGEM community. In response to this, we discussed the King’s College London Ethical Committee and they advised us to disable this feature on any further studies, in order to avoid inconvenient situations. Furthermore, we were informed that we had to obtain permission from each of the participants’ university for a survey, which implied that the data already acquired could not be published. A second key point of feedback was that iGEM members from China were unable to gain access to the survey due to the survey being created on Google Forms. To rectify this we would recreate the study on platforms that can be accessed anywhere in the world.
Although our pilot study has not shown a general positive outcome, it helped us realising some key aspects, such as the importance of gaining the approval of an ethics board prior to releasing a survey to ensure that each question is suitable, and further to include a complete range of multiple-choice answers.
Lastly, after establishing the economical barriers present in iGEM, we moved on researching more broadly about the barriers present in the STEM community, especially in our local area, the United Kingdom.
Barriers to STEM: What are they and how can we overcome them?
STEM education comprises an interdisciplinary approach to learning; it’s derived from the integration of four disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This combinatorial approach to learning removes the traditional barriers of education by relating academic concepts to real-world situations. Unfortunately, many schools are underfunded and unable to facilitate the proper development of STEM literacy amongst their students. Most teachers are left under-prepared to provide quality teaching in their discipline, which limits the student’s ability to fully engage with the subject. School districts are often ill-equipped to implement STEM education because they do not have access to the proper facilities or equipment required to conduct experiments.
The lack of investment towards facilities and teachers fails to provide students with the proper foundation to cultivate their minds and ameliorate their student achievement. Students are positively influenced by teachers who create a stimulating and inclusive learning environment in the classroom. Studies have demonstrated that exposing students, early on in their careers, to STEM subjects allows the development of both communication and collaboration skills; further providing them with the confidence to engage in higher education opportunities (Ejiwale, 2013).
Furthermore, deterrent learning environments have impacted girls’ achievements and interests in science and math, such that women only account for 28% of the workforce in STEM. On account of bias, most people relate scientific fields with men and often regard women in these fields as masculine. Similarly, students from minority groups are less likely to have access to advanced STEM classes and therefore are unable to pursue the field further (Hill et al., 2010). In order to minimise the isolation of these groups, widening participation initiatives should be enforced and sustained to increase their exposure, accessibility and awareness to the field.
Barriers to STEM in the United Kingdom:
In the United Kingdom, the perceived difficulty of STEM subjects has discouraged many students in further pursuing them in their secondary education. Most students complain of the disillusionment with their transition between primary school and high school STEM education; the general consensus stands that instead of continuing into an experimental based field they are forced into passive learning. Schools need to ensure they are portraying scientific programmes properly and not falsely leading students to choose the subject because of the ‘cool’ experiments (Haynes, 2008).
The primary barrier to STEM education in the United Kingdom stands in their limited representation of women and minority groups. The United Kingdom accounts for only 8% of women in engineering, which is the lowest number in Europe. Similarly, minority groups in engineering in the UK only account for 6%. Moreover, the UK struggles with both shortages of proper teaching staff and their public’s general opinion that engineering consists of manual labour and is a low status field (Morgan et al., 2016). In order to counteract this false perception, there should be more funds invested into educational provisions and apprenticeships that provide proper recognition towards the field.
We believe it is essential to provide students, from all walks of life, transferable skills that would allow them to access STEM education from their institutions. We plan to achieve this by hosting a STEM based competition that reinforces students to embark on their own scientific journey, where they will investigate and learn how to present their findings to an audience. Firstly, the competition will be available to students throughout the UK, hoping to expand access to it to more countries across the world in the future.Moreover, we plan on creating an inclusive platform that allows for both teachers and students to discuss how they can develop their research skills in STEM.
The main barriers we have founded our competition on include:
- Teachers are underfunded and have minimal training in STEM subjects.
- Students are deterred by the perceived difficulty of STEM subjects.
- The effect of societal beliefs and learning environments on enforcing gender gaps and excluding minority groups.
The Role of Leadership in Inclusivity: Our Intersectionality Guide
The term “ intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw; she defined it as a “a metaphor for understanding multiple forms of inequality that compound themselves to create obstacles that are not understood with conventional ways of thinking.” This theory is used to assert the disadvantages people are subjected to by various sources of oppression (YW Boston, 2018). This framework evokes questions about the conditions under which individuals can thrive and helps improve our scientific understanding of lived experience in all sectors of life, including STEM.
Importance of intersectionality in STEM:
- The concept of intersectionality has legal origins due to the fact that historically, legal systems fractionalised various identities, allowing people to identify as only one part of themselves. However, our identities are multifaceted - individual experiences need to be articulated as closely to their full complexities as possible and marginal voices cannot be ignored.
The 2015 National Science Foundation’s Report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering found that women have earned about 57% of all bachelor degrees in the US since the 1990’s, but are still considered minorities in STEM fields, as only 19% of physics degrees were awarded to women, 43.1% in mathematics and statistics, 19.2% in engineering and 18.2% in computer science. Most importantly, these figures continue to plummet when considering racial and ethnic identity - minority women receive 3.1% of degrees in engineering, 5.8% in mathematics and statistics, 4.8% in computer science, and 6.5% in physical sciences. Additionally, the report has noted the lack of women of colour in teaching positions in STEM - only “3.6%, 2.5%, and 1.2% of all assistant, associate, and full professors' ' identify as women of color in STEM fields in the US. Research indicates that when a student has a role model of similar gender or racial/ethnic background, “these figures are believed to provide prototypes that facilitate students’ ability to envision themselves occupying these positions and instill a sense of academic self-efficacy” (Syed et al., 2011). It often leads to greater “psychosocial support”, and that “widely accepted reasons to explain low levels of representation of women of color include a persistent lack of role models''.
The subsequent employment gap between women and racial minority STEM degree-holders compared to their white, male counterparts was highlighted by the U.S. Congress report on STEM Education - it was characterised by the lack of talent retention in the fields and overall dissatisfaction of STEM employers by this employment discrepancy. It has become clear that women, particularly women of color, have the potential to ameliorate this damage should their entrance and retention in STEM improve.
Reflections & Feedback
The theory of intersectionality can be used as an analytical tool to uncover challenges and possible areas of improvement. By creating an intersectional guide we will provide a way to address such possibilities. Some beneficial changes in the STEM community would be for example including inclusive surveys when conducting analytical research (AWIS, 2018). These will expand the options available, in order to represent different identities and experiences backgrounds. Furthermore, there are certain strategies that can be introduced to support minorities in STEM, such as implementing the use of anonymous applications, mentoring programs, social and professional support against feelings of isolation and creating employee affinity groups (Engendering Success in STEM (ESS), 2019).
Anonymous applications are already in use when applying to universities and in some companies, although this very powerful option is not spread enough. By using anonymous applications, in which applicants will be recognised by a specific code and no image will be displayed, the eradication of discrimination will be possible in workplaces; pushing the employer to merely focus on skills and qualification when selecting new employees.
Additionally, as previously mentioned, another key conclusion established from this research, is how necessary and beneficial mentoring programs are. These can in fact improve the conditions of new employees in the work environment; encouraging them not to be demoralised by what can be initial discomfort.
Furthermore, studies have shown how creating employee affinity groups might be an additional asset. Having a mentor/role model/ group sharing the same social and/or ethnic background will create a sense of motivation and affiliation, helping the new employee not to feel discriminated against.
To these novel measures, there are still many others to include in order to defeat discrimination caused by any form of oppression. Even if progress has been made in this area, there is still a large margin for improvement.
Increasing access to SynBio: Hosting our own competition
Introduction & Rationale:
Biologix is a free biotechnology and synthetic biology entrepreneurial and innovation competition. It is an opportunity for students in their penultimate year of high school to take part in a hands-on project. During this competition all the essential skills of project development will be acquired, which will help enhance students’ CV and Personal Statement by teaching them a wide variety of skills.
The Biologix competition has been created by the KCL iGEM 2020 team and inspired by the iGEM competition, with the intention of offering an accessible platform to enhance skills for students who are unable to partaking in the iGEM competition due to barriers including the lack of finances or laboratory equipment. We aim to grow awareness and interest in the field of Synthetic Biology, encouraging students to enter higher education and start or join iGEM teams at university. Our aim was to forge a competition which would represent some of the key features of iGEM combined with some additional elements we are passionate about, while making it more accessible to a wider audience. An example of an element of Biologix inspired by iGEM is the medal scheme, which is composed of bronze, silver and gold. We have provided changes such as different medal criteria as well as special awards for specific outstanding features, but our ethos of Biologix is parallel to the ethos of iGEM. Additionally, Biologix is based entirely on literature research, making it accessible to various schools which are unable to run projects over the summer, are unable to access laboratories, do not have enough funds for specific equipment or participation in other competitions.
- AWIS, 2018. AWIS’ Intersectionality Fact Sheet. [online] Available at: https://www.awis.org/intersectionality/.
- Ejiwale, J.A., 2013. Barriers To Successful Implementation of STEM Education. J. Educ. Learn. EduLearn 7, 63. https://doi.org/10.11591/edulearn.v7i2.220
- Engendering Success in STEM (ESS), 2019. Intersectionality in STEM. [online] Available at: http://successinstem.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Intersectionality-in-STEM-Final.pdf.
- Haynes, L., 2008. Studying Stem? What Are The Barriers?. [online] Mei.org.uk. Available at:
- Hill, C., Corbett, C., St. Rose, A., 2010. Why so few? women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. AAUW, Washington, D.C.
- Morgan, R., Kirby, C. and Stamenkovic, A., 2016. The UK STEM Education Landscape. [online] Raeng.org.uk. Available at:
- YW Boston, 2018. What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? [online] Available at: https://www.ywboston.org/2017/03/what-is-intersectionality-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-me/.