Postdoc perspective: Diversity as our strength

Feb. 23, 2017, 12:10 a.m.

The community of postdoctoral trainees is one of the most diverse groups on the Stanford campus. More than half of the 2,100 trainees are international, hailing from dozens of countries around the world. Various cultures, ethnicities and sexual/gender identities are represented. However, the diversity of this community has faced several recent challenges with the change in the country’s leadership.

About 50 current Stanford postdocs are from the seven countries affected by President Trump’s immigration ban. Other postdocs, while not from those nations themselves, had family members or in-laws who would not be traveling to the U.S. or back to their native country because travel was restricted. International travel for academic and professional conferences or invited presentations will be difficult or impossible for some, and may not be worth the risk of languishing in the limbo of a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol holding area.

Even for those not directly affected, many are concerned about what a Trump presidency means for them and their careers. Although this executive order only affects the citizen of selected countries, it may indicate the direction of general international policy that would negatively impact the postdoc community.   

Indeed, there is already an emotional and psychological toll of the executive order and aggressive international policy tactics President Trump is enacting. Some complain of having trouble focusing on their work, distracted by concern either for themselves or colleagues who may be affected by the immigration ban or other possible looming presidential actions.  

The Stanford administration has already taken steps to offer support for students and postdocs on campus. Town halls and counseling sessions have been scheduled and made available. The Bechtel International Center and the Immigrant Rights Clinic in the Stanford Law School are both offering assistance to those who have travel or visa issues.

Aside from internal support, the Stanford administration has taken a more public stand on Trump’s immigration platform. On Feb. 2, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne signed a letter – along with 47 other university and college presidents – to President Trump to rescind or rectify his executive order. The letter reiterated the importance of international diversity to the vitality of education and research.

Intellectual diversity in research may also come under threat. Postdocs engage in such politically charged research topics as climate change, embryonic stem cells, human and civil rights and alternative and sustainable energy. Government funding for this research may be cut or reduced, and with it the livelihoods of the researchers who work on these topics.

Such threats have mobilized scientists to organize a national march in Washington on Earth Day this year. How effective such forms of resistance are remains to be determined. However, protests have succeeded in bringing attention to current issues, and public sentiment may sway government actions. Moving forward, it will be critical that the research and academic communities speak up and speak out for themselves. There are still underrepresented groups of U.S. citizens in postdoc community as well; in March, underrepresented minorities in the biosciences will attend the Postdoc Recruitment Weekend to encourage attendees to apply for postdoc positions at Stanford.

Progress cannot be taken for granted. For the postdoc community, Koshika Yadava Ph.D., outgoing co-chair of Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS), pointed out that it’s hard for the administration to know the needs of the postdocs if they don’t speak up.  “Postdocs need to advocate for themselves” she said. Sofie Kleppner, associate dean of postdoctoral affairs, had a similar message about postdocs taking action when she read out her open letter in December: “I challenge you to work as hard as you can … participate in national conversation … this is the time to take action … I challenge you to do so.” It’s a message that perhaps all communities whose liberties are being threatened should take to heart.


Contact Kate Brown and Abby Sarkar at kvbrown and ajsarkar ‘at’

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