A conference focused on building diversity and inclusion

During my PhD I was lucky enough to attend a few UK-based chemistry conferences and to travel as far as the US to share my research. I remember that each of these experiences were exciting and daunting in equal measure – particularly when sharing my results in front of leaders in the field.

At each conference the key focus was on sharing scientific results across multiple parallel streams, with networking opportunities largely left until the end of the day at poster sessions or industry-sponsored drinks and nibbles.

Over recent years, particularly in light of Covid-19 travel restrictions, conference organisers have been challenged to reconsider the format and purpose of these meetings. For example, how do we make conferences more environmentally benign, accessible and inclusive in terms of how and where researchers meet? And what role should conferences play in developing academics across dimensions extending beyond the science shared?

Developing networks

In Australia, inSTEM is aiming to address some of these challenges, as ‘a networking and career development conference for people from marginalised or underrepresented groups in Stem, and their allies.’ Running for the second time in 2023 (in-person and online), inSTEM was an initiative originating from discussions within the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) where early-career women highlighted the challenges they experienced in building networks within male-dominated fields.

‘We actually started to do a bit of research into it and found that that’s very common,’ says Katrina Tune, the chief operating officer at EQUS and 2023 inSTEM programme chair. ‘It doesn’t just relate to women, but a lot of underrepresented groups find it really hard to network and to create those relationships to help with their career.’

Twelve Centres of Excellence have provided support for the inSTEM conference over the first two years, acknowledging the importance of a ‘more diverse and inclusive Stem workforce’ through their partnership.

‘Obviously the ARC funds Centres of Excellence for research purposes primarily, but there’s also a remit to ensure that we are training the next generation of research leaders in a very holistic way,’ says Tune. ‘That we’re providing them training around career development, networking, EDI, outreach; the responsibilities that we think that they should take on in addition to their research.’

Kristen Harley, communications and engagement manager at EQUS, was chair of the EDI Committee at inSTEM’s inception.

‘I think we should care about diversity and inclusion as much as research because if people don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel included, if they’re actively excluded, they’re not going to be able to contribute to the science,’ says Harley. ‘And it’s essential for science to have diverse viewpoints.’

People first

Aditi Vijayan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, attended the conference for the second time in 2023 and shared some of the reasons she believes we need such events.

‘A lot of times what we see in the media is the science and the journey of the scientist behind that story is hidden on a day-to-day basis,’ says Vijayan. ‘When we go to academic conferences, we only look at the science part of it and we never ask what the person has gone through to be able to get this one paper out. And it’s incredibly important because, I mean, of course the science is inspiring and we are all so passionate about doing new kinds of science, but just the journey and the struggles can be so inspiring in their own sense.’

This year’s inSTEM programme expanded from two to three days based on feedback collected from attendees in 2022 who enjoyed the content and wanted to hear from a greater diversity of speakers and perspectives.

‘We had requests for sessions on neurodiversity, mental health, chronic illness, a range of topics, imposter syndrome, burnout,’ Tune shares.

The organisers hope that the conference will continue to develop and evolve and that more senior research leaders will feel encouraged to attend future events.

‘The leaders who have gotten involved, who registered last year and watched online, have gotten so much out of it and have been surprised with how much they’ve learned,’ says Tune. ‘But every one of our senior leaders should be watching it.’

For Harley, the participation of senior leaders is also key to building mentorship opportunities for attendees. ‘I would hope that students or early-career postdocs take away from it new networks and connections both at their level so that they’ve got a new community, but also higher level, more senior people that could potentially be mentors for them.’