Research

UK ASPIRE workshops help faculty make labs more inclusive

Yelena Chernyavskaya and Jessica Blackburn
UK College of Medicine Associate Professor Jessica Blackburn (right) in her lab with staff scientist Yelena Chernyavskaya. Photo by Audrey Kirby.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 30, 2022) Jessica Blackburn, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, wanted to make her undergraduate students feel welcome at the start of the fall semester. As the daughter of a teacher, her instinct was to gift each undergraduate student a binder with supplies. She also included a Starbucks gift card for new students to grab coffee with new colleagues and a giant eraser “because mistakes are OK and how you learn.”

“Most undergraduate students don’t know what research is or if it’s a career they’re interested in,” Blackburn said. “For me, the goal was to make sure these students figuring out their career path could do so in a lab that is welcoming.”

Blackburn was motivated to go the extra mile for her students because over the summer, she attended the University of Kentucky’s Adopting Supportive Practices for an Inclusive Research Environment (ASPIRE) workshops, which were established by the UK Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) in collaboration with the UK College of Medicine Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

The ASPIRE program was developed by Shauna Morgan, Ph.D., director of inclusion and equity initiatives at CELT and Trey Conatser, CELT acting director, with the College of Medicine’s Stephanie White, M.D., acting associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and Kevin Pearson, Ph.D., assistant dean for inclusive research initiatives. Drawing from foundational principles of restorative justice, a process to build community and address marginalization, ASPIRE’s interactive and dynamic module provides thoughtful and practical approaches to optimize research settings so that all colleagues are welcomed and have equitable opportunities to engage in the research community.

“We know that a lab can produce impactful and innovative findings when there’s an integration of ideas from a diverse group of people,” said Morgan. “But if you are in a lab where some people don’t feel a sense of belonging or are excluded, you have lost that element that could be critical to the work that you are doing.”

The ASPIRE module has synchronous and asynchronous components facilitated through the Canvas learning management system to establish community agreements, diversity statements and structured activities tailored to the lab environment.

“If we want to diversify our learners, staff and faculty, we have to actively work toward inclusive excellence,” White said. “From the restorative justice perspective, the workshops acknowledge that foundational community building best enables our teams to repair misunderstandings and harm that may occur. The ability to safely and actively address harm is essential for student and faculty belonging and well-being, particularly for those from marginalized backgrounds.”

ASPIRE workshops are split into four sections. The first focuses on how to establish connections with lab members. The second part addresses how to build a more inclusive environment. The third part works on making these solutions sustainable, and the fourth — where Blackburn is, currently — is the evaluation stage involving student feedback.

Along with the binders, Blackburn was inspired to create a collaborative Google slide deck where graduate and undergraduate students in the lab could introduce themselves to each other. She also established a community agreement with her lab trainees to ensure all lab members were on the same page from the very beginning. Every team member agreed on the final version and was involved in the decision-making.

“She sat down with her lab and heard how much they enjoyed working on the community agreement, and everybody participated,” Pearson said. “I think those were the endpoints we were looking for in measuring the success of the program. Dr. Blackburn’s experiences have been tremendous.”

Pearson noted that these collaborative exercises should work well for larger labs that also have potential to build stronger relationships. With the pilot program near completion, CELT is looking into ways to make the ASPIRE program available to more UK faculty.

Meanwhile, Blackburn is excited to use her newfound knowledge each year to enhance the educational experience for her students. She highly recommends the experience to others.

“I feel like new PIs now are more and more excited about having a lab, and they are wanting to build a team that gets along and has fun in their lab,” Blackburn said. “This program is a good way to provide them the tools for that process.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $501 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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