Inclusion in Labs, the C-Suite & More: Xconomy Awards Diversity Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 8/20/18, 4:47 p.m. See below.] Efforts to boost diversity and inclusion at life science organizations are themselves becoming more diverse. A growing number of biotech companies are adjusting their recruitment and hiring practices to ensure that their employee rosters—from the lab to the boardroom—better reflect the diversity of society.

But recruitment is just one of the areas highlighted in the diversity initiatives undertaken by the finalists in the Xconomy Awards Commitment to Diversity category. Other efforts include mentoring students and young scientists who will form the next generation of biotech workers; broadening patient diversity in clinical research; and linking LGBTQ workers across the life sciences sector.

The winner in the Commitment to Diversity category will be announced along with the other winners at a gala on Wednesday, Sept. 5. In the meantime, here’s a look at the 2018 diversity award finalists.

Addgene—Embracing Diversity in All Forms

Addgene is a nonprofit organization that serves as a plasmid repository, allowing scientists from more than 95 countries to share the genetic material and associated data for research and collaboration. Executive director Joanne Kamens says that a commitment to a diverse work culture aligns with the mission of the Cambridge-based nonprofit. “There are great people and great science everywhere,” she says. “It is part of our daily work to ease communication and sharing of scientific resources across borders.”

Diversity at Addgene starts at the top, where women comprise half of Addgene’s board of directors and management team, and extends to the rank and file, where women make up 58 percent of the organization’s 90 workers. The company works with Just-A-Start, a non-profit organization focused on community development for people from low- to moderate-income backgrounds. Just-A-Start’s programs include one focused on developing biomedical careers. Kamens says Just-A-Start helped Addgene recruit early-career scientists for part-time jobs. So far, seven of those recruits have been promoted to full-time positions at Addgene. Kamens says diversity also includes the abilities of its workers. One longtime Addgene employee, a woman who has Down’s syndrome, makes boxes in the company’s packing room.

“By being diversity minded, we can get the best people others might not even consider,” Kamens says.

Pandion—Diversity of Background, Thinking & Experience

Pandion Therapeutics is still in its early stages, having just closed its first round of funding at the start of 2018. The Cambridge biotech is developing antibody drugs to treat immune disorders and has also taken steps to make sure that diversity is part of its culture from the start. The company’s small staff is evenly split between men and women, and immigrants comprise half of its staff. Pandion says this focus on diversity comes from Jo Viney, the company’s co-founder and chief scientific officer.

Viney is also president of the board of directors of Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology (WEST). The nonprofit organization offers professional programs, panels, and events that support early and mid-career women working in the science and technology fields. Viney applies that diversity mindset at her own company. Pandion has hosted events for the LGBTQ life sciences group OUTBio (see OUTBio profile below).

“We’re cognizant of the value of getting together the most innovative and creative team, and that comes from a diversity of thinking, of background, and of experience,” Viney says.

GINGER—Making Clinical Research More Inclusive

Drugs that succeed in clinical trials often don’t show the same level of benefit in the real world. One reason is that patients enrolled in clinical studies don’t reflect the diversity of the general population. That disparity is glaring in psychiatric diseases. According to the Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research (GINGER), more than 90 percent of the genetic data for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder come from people of European descent.

Despite Africa’s genetic diversity, GINGER says few psychiatric studies have been conducted on the continent—leaving people of African descent out of the development of new psychiatric treatments. GINGER was founded in 2017 as a joint effort between the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT focused on improving the collection and analysis of data from diverse human populations for psychiatric diseases. The initiative is working with universities in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda to train scientists in psychiatric genetics research. GINGER’s two-year curriculum, which was developed by faculty at all of the academic institutions involved in the initiative, includes mentoring, online courses, and workshops, all aimed at giving trainees the skills and support to conduct clinical research in Africa. [Paragraph updated to clarify GINGER’s origins.]

Lori Chibnik, GINGER’s director, says the program currently has 17 research fellows representing Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda, who participate from their home institutions. But GINGER’s reach extends beyond those fellows. Chibnik notes that GINGER fellows, who are students, post-docs, or junior faculty, share their experiences with colleagues and students at their home institutions. GINGER also hosts workshops on research methods that expand the program’s reach to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students at the partner institutions.

Abbie Celniker, MassBio, Liftstream—A Call to Action

Biotechs make decisions about their drug pipelines based on data. But when it comes to decisions about diversity and inclusion in their companies, executives have little data to work with. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) and life sciences recruitment firm Liftstream are filling that void with analysis and reports about diversity in the life sciences. Among the findings from their most recent report released last fall: there is a broad disconnect in … Next Page »

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