How I embrace diversity in my lab

Nature
Shomron lab team visit the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Some members of Noam Shomron’s lab on a day trip in December 2019.Credit: Shomron lab

Once a year, around the time that Christians celebrate Easter, Muslims celebrate Ramadan and Jews celebrate Passover, I invite my 24-person team to a festive dinner at my place. To accommodate the needs of all my students, the food I prepare includes Kosher, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes, and I make sure the meal is ready just in time for sunset, when the Ramadan fast ends. The most recent meal included Kataif, a traditional desert served on Ramadan nights that was prepared by one of my Muslim students, served side-by-side with a European strudel.

I think that this tradition reflects the wider philosophy of my genomics lab: we aim to be a diverse, yet unified group of people working in a global scientific network. My lab is made up mostly of Israeli women and men investigating translational medicine. We have many different backgrounds: bioinformatics, computer science, biology, medicine. Some of us are married, some are not. Some have children, some do not. But one of the most prominent differences is our religions and the role of those religions in our lives.

Israel is a relatively young state, and a melting pot of people from all around the world. It has faced much turmoil during its short history because of the differences in its people’s religious and political beliefs.

Most of the Jews, Christians and Muslims in the country still live in separate areas. Yet when people join my lab, they converge, first through their mutual interest in science, and then as they get to know one another and extracurricular activities — including yoga classes, rock climbing, and cooking and sharing family recipes. We become a cohesive team.

I’m proud of this cohesion and the new friendships that are forged in my lab, and do my best to encourage them: I assign specific students the task of organizing celebrations of special events such as birthdays and weddings, work anniversaries and professional milestones.

I’m also really careful about recruitment. I interview many students before I choose the right ones for my lab. They must be scientifically competent, of course — but it’s just as important that they’re friendly, interesting and interested in others. They should be prepared to respect various points of view and cultures.

During the recruitment process, I do not just rely on what I see in the candidates and the recommendations I obtain from their previous supervisors. I also ask them to talk to current team members and then get feedback from both the interviewees and my students. I make sure there is mutual appreciation and good chemistry. And I map the skills and strengths of each of my students and pair them up, so that they work on projects in which they complement each other.

As the principal investigator, I see keeping a mixture of cultural backgrounds as an important part of my job. Such an accessible, varied and supportive environment fosters innovation and scientific breakthroughs. Academia could do much more to encourage diversity, and become a leader in inclusion for the rest of society to follow and benefit from.

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