June 27, 2019

Reflections on a year as BioAIMS President

As an organization, the Biomedical Association for the Interest of Minority Students (BioAIMS) runs a $25000 budget with 13 officers coordinating on average more than one event each week, which serve from 10 to over 100 students per event. Our events are open to the entire Stanford graduate student community and provide opportunities for students to engage in career development workshops, social hangouts, outreach activities to underrepresented groups, wellness conversations and practices, and advocacy.

When I was elected president of BioAIMS at the end of my second year of graduate school, I was burned out. While I cared (and still do care!) deeply about the mission of BioAIMS, I had accepted the nomination out of obligation, knowing that no one else had been nominated and no one else would be willing to accept. (Being bad at saying no and setting boundaries is just one my personality traits that I have had to work on, but more about that later.)

It has been a crazy year. Honestly, I don’t remember much of it. However, I know that BioAIMS as an organization has accomplished a lot; the executive board and our volunteers have worked incredibly hard; and I have personally learned and grown a lot — as a scientist, an advocate, and a person. The purpose of this post is to reflect on the goals that I set out to accomplish as president and what I have learned in the process.

Setting goals

In 2017, the BioAIMS executive revised our mission statement to reflect how BioAIMS has grown in the last 15 years to reflect how we have evolved from a grassroots community and support group for minority students to a well-funded and student group embedded into the Stanford Medicine infrastructure:

The Biomedical Association for the Interest of Minority Students (BioAIMS) is an inclusive organization that provides a welcoming home for all Biosciences students at Stanford to celebrate their identities–especially those that have traditionally been marginalized in academia.
We actively build this community through cultural celebrations, peer support, and career development programming. To address the issues facing our communities, we engage in social justice advocacy and local outreach initiatives.

When setting my priorities as president, I sought to identify how BioAIMS was uniquely positioned to serve student interests and needs. Ultimately, I decided that to most effectively increase BioAIMS’s impact, we needed to increase our visibility, to maximize the impact of our resources and minimize officer burnout by collaborating with more groups, and to utilize our platform as the “go-to” diversity and inclusion graduate student group on the medical campus to advocate on behalf of marginalized student needs.

Restructuring officer expectations to address burnout

To protect the wellness of our officers and to ensure the quality of our events, the BioAIMS vice president and I set intentional expectations and norms for our officers at the beginning of the year during our annual officer retreat and, at the suggestion of Bryan Thomas, Assistant Director of Graduate Education at the Biosciences Office of Graduate Education (OGE), check in monthly with our team to offer support both in their personal lives or in designing events. The greatest challenge for any voluntary student organization is burnout. During our one-on-one meetings with officers, if any officers were working on an area alone, we asked if they wanted a co-chair. We made BioAIMS officer meetings very intentional: Makenna emailed out a pre-meeting survey to identify what went well and to identify areas for improvement, and we asked officers to map out their expected events for the following quarter. This enabled us to keep officers accountable for their events by solidifying times, dates, and locations way ahead of time — mitigating last minute stress. To help us to be more supportive of one another, our social chair, Josselyn, organized quarterly officer gatherings so we could check in on one another. It is because of my vice president’s support and the BioAIMS officers’ autonomy that I have had the privilege to pursue many other projects in my capacity BioAIMS president.

Making BioAIMS more visible

When I became president in 2018, BioAIMS already had strong history of programming. However, in previous year-end reviews, the officer board recognized that the events and resources that we organized were poorly publicized.

During the summer and at the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, I reached out to OGE and Stanford Bioscience Student Association (SBSA) to increase our visibility to incoming graduate students, who are the lifeblood of any student group. To make our respective student groups and other resources more accessible and visible to these groups, SBSA and BioAIMS sent out a joint welcome email, presented at Foundations (a required course for all first-year graduate students), and organized activities and resource fair.

To grow our visibility, our 2018-2019 vice president and communication chair, Makenna Morck and Maia Kinnebrew, worked extensively to create and maintain a more prominent and unified digital presence for BioAIMS. Makenna and Maia revamped the BioAIMS website, created a twitter and instagram, and organized a quarterly newsletter. These have been major contributors to creating a more centralized place for people to check out our events and put holds on their calendars.

Expanding and strengthening cross-campus collaborations

Because the limiting resource for BioAIMS has always been the number of manhours that people can put in, we aggressively pursued additional collaborations with cross-campus organizations. Most events we have pursued in the past have been with the support of OGE, with some collaborations with SBSA and the off-campus partners that enable us to pursue outreach and policy-related events.

This year, we greatly extended the number of campus groups and offices that we intimately worked with to organize new events addressing the needs and issues most pertinent to the graduate student community. Many of these new collaborations focused on addressing the desire for a more diverse faculty to mentor or act as role models, and on addressing the graduate school mental health crisis.

Diverse mentorship. Many of our programming surrounding providing more diverse mentorship was funded through the Vice Provost of Graduate Education’s Diversity and Inclusion Innovation Funds (DIF). Our professional development chairs continually collaborated with the Solidarity, Leadership, Inclusion, Diversity (SoLID) Mentorship Program to bridge relationships between Biosciences students and faculty who can provide additional mentorship to guide and support students on issues that may be largely outside of their research. I also proposed and organized two DIF projects collaboration with the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS): “Someone Like Me” helps fill the gap for diverse mentorship Stanford graduate students by connecting graduate students campus-wide with postdoc mentors, and the Diversity Perspective Seminar Series brings a speaker to Stanford to talk about diversity and inclusion in academia.

Mental Health. Our wellness chairs collaborated with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Recreation and Wellness, SBSA, and Wellness Matters.

Advocacy on behalf of graduate students:

Because BioAIMS is one of two graduate student organizations on the medical campus that is invited to represent graduate student voices and to access multiple strategy discussion (the other being SBSA), I sought to actively engage the Biosciences graduate student community in the issues being discussed by faculty, staff, and administrators.

As president, I had a seat at the School of Medicine Diversity Cabinet and the Stanford Biosciences Committee on Graduate Admissions and Policy (CGAP). Here, I learned about the graduate admissions process, policies about graduate student mentoring, and Stanford Medicine’s DRIVE initiative and Integrated Strategic Plan. Throughout the year, I was also invited to provide student input on programming and strategy by multiple Stanford offices, including OGE’s Wellness Matters program and Stanford’s IDEAL initiative. After each of these meetings, we reported updates and solicited input our quarterly BioAIMS general meetings.

Our greatest success this year was in collaborating with my good friends and SBSA Co-presidents 2018-2019, Lawrence Bai and Julie Ko. Over the course of the year, we sought to create awareness, educate, and organize around GRExit & holistic admissions in collaboration with Dr. Ayodele Thomas, Associate Dean for Graduate and Career Education and Diversity at OGE, and Dr. Steve Lee, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

My greatest regret in terms of advocacy was that we did not sufficiently amplify nor address the impact of sexual harassment and assault. The extent to which we pushed for advocacy on this front was to push for students to write to Secretary Betsy DeVos about the suggested changes to Title IX and to support the letter drafted by Stanford ASSU. I am looking forward to the work that our advocacy chairs will do next year to move this forward.

Standing in solidarity with and supporting other affinity group efforts

The legacy of BioAIMS is to create spaces for underrepresented and marginalized students. Coordinate funding mechanism to co-sponsor cultural celebrations. Examples of co-hosted events this year: Open Casa with multiple Latinx groups, Flower Arranging with Stanford Tzu Chi, Frybread with SNAGS, and Lunar New Year with APAMSA.

Starting in 2014, BioAIMS began to get more involved in social justice efforts, starting with rallies to support the Black Lives Matter Movement. Officers also often sent out letters of support and in solidarity to groups after national events would occur.

After Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally and the Trump administration’s announcement to end DACA, when I was acting as Financial Officer in 2017-2018, OGE also began to provide additional funding to BioAIMS in the form of “solidarity funds” for the express purpose that BioAIMS could respond to national events and to provide resources to other groups who were responding to national events. As Financial Officer in 2017-2018, I managed requests from others to respond to national events, but as President in 2018-2019, I sought out opportunities to collaborate with and support students’ efforts. This year, we used this money to support events Immigration & Seeking Asylum, Voter Registration Drive, and Rally In Opposition to the DHHS Memo with LGBTQ-Meds. I also worked with NeuWrite to put together a series of book clubs surrounding Professor Ben Barres’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, to highlight issues surrounding transgender and/or female scientists.

Lessons learned

Note: It is likely that I will expand on this more in later posts.

Things I have learned about myself

Setting boundaries. I found out this year that my personal manifestation of perfectionism is wanting to do everything to the best of my abilities. At the same time, my time is the most precious thing to me, and I only want to spend time on things that I value or that only I am uniquely positioned to do. As such, when opportunities came along, I stopped asking myself, “Can I make time in my schedule to do this? Should I do this?” Instead, I focused on, “When do I have time for this? Is someone just as capable as I am to do this?” Instead of answering emails immediately, I began to inbox to zero at the end of each day. This way, I was able to get to things in a timely manner but also prevented email exchanges from distracting me from my research.

Empathy. I have known for a long time that my self-awareness and self-control are far better than my ability to manage interpersonal relationships, in part because I am direct, set high expectations, and have difficulty showing empathy verbally. To work on this this year, I attended an emotional intelligence workshop led by Monica Devlin and Miranda Stratton, previous BioAIMS president who has now graduated and is working as Assistant Dean at OGE. Working through the EQ 2.0 book together, I followed up with monthly mentors who helped me work on being empathetic, managing conflict, and showing gratitude.

Writing. When setting goals for 2019, I wanted to make sure that I develop a good writing habit. Working on this reflection is the manifestation of this habit! To hold myself accountable, I participated in OGE ADVANCE Institute’s The Artist’s Way, which forced me to write 3 pages longhand each day and made me explore other creative pursuits — bringing me back to my love of Latin American poetry, to watercolor painting, and to reading for leisure.

Things I have learned about Stanford

Communication. One of the things that most angered students was the lack of statements made by the Stanford Medicine Dean or the Stanford University President (or general Stanford leadership) in response to national and international events, to stand in solidarity with University values or with students. Continually, we would ask for the University to respond. Ultimately, Stanford Med set up a trainee group that was tasked with telling Stanford Medicine when an event, law, executive action, or other event required Stanford’s response. This ties into how trainees want Stanford leadership to more proactively identify what is an affront to Stanford values. While this last point is still an underlying issue, I learned during my tenure as president that one of the reasons why Stanford is so slow to respond is that in this digital environment, all communications must go through multiple vetting processes to make sure that published statements cannot be misconstrued. (I would personally push back because there were many times in which my alma mater, MIT, was able to respond when Stanford was not. But that plays into another issue that Stanford has — there is not enough staff to address issues that are important to graduate students.)

How to incite change. As scientists, we think that we are rational. In reality, we are not. I saw this in effect at multiple meetings during which we would present findings on Stanford or higher education, but individual faculty would object to the data because of their personal experiences. They would clamor for more Stanford-specific data (which is another issue — Stanford is not set up for robust institutional research; there is a lot of data about students, trainees, programs that is lacking). Ultimately, the most effective way we found to incite change was bad press in the form of comparing Stanford to other universities. This stands in direct contrast to Stanford’s claims to be a leader.

Lack of transparency and standardization and de-centralization. Again, “Stanford” does not prioritize graduate student training. That’s fine. But, there is also a lot of lack of transparency about issues that students care most about: the graduate admissions process, how to advocate for resources (healthcare, stipends, etc). The experience for each Stanford graduate program and standards for getting into each program are vastly different not even between programs but also amongst different years. This lack of standardization introduces bias and inequities within Stanford’s graduate communities.

Making students do work. Stanford is understaffed. They view it as a boon that students are given the opportunity to start different initiatives, but because Stanford is so de-centralized, there are multiple parallel & redundant efforts. Although there are efforts now to bring people together, there needs to be a a person with strategic oversight. However, people in different schools and offices do not want to cede their individual powers to collaborate and more efficiently make change.

Looking to the future

I am exceptionally proud of what BioAIMS has achieved this year — in establishing collaborations, increasing our visibility, and leaving behind a legacy of advocacy, outreach, and community-building. I have also grown so much as a person, because I have been forced into a situation where I have had to think intentionally about myself in a managerial role and to develop the skills to delegate and protect my time. I have also learned about the self-protective nature of faculty and other actors in academia.

While I am moving on from BioAIMS, I intend to continue working on holistic admissions. Indeed, Julie, Lawrence, Makenna, and I are co-teaching a class on holistic admissions with the hope that we can equip students with the literature surrounding bias in academia and admissions and with the skills to advocate and negotiate with graduate program directors. In a way, that class and this blog post is the step that I am taking to pass on the knowledge that I have gained from this year.

My BioAIMS presidency really shaped and colored my experience as a third year graduate student.

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