Like many Americans, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 was a wake-up call for Taylor Abele, a PhD student in the Department of Immunology. Not only did the horrific event motivate her to get more involved in changing systems that lead to inequalities, but it also provided her with the courage to stand up for herself and other LGBTQ+ individuals.
In this month’s EDI Spotlight interview, Abele shares how her department’s EDI committee is working to make everyone, including those in the LGBTQ+ community, feel safe and accepted. She also discusses the importance of involving students and trainees in the School of Medicine’s EDI efforts and gives us a glimpse into her passions outside of immunology. Among them: acting.
You are currently a member of the Department of Immunology’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. What is your role within the committee? What inspired you to get involved?
I am one of three graduate student members for our EDI committee. As such, I help to advocate for EDI initiatives that are important to our grad student community. I wanted to get involved with the EDI committee because I felt as a queer person, I had unique perspectives that would be useful to our department’s EDI goals and growth.
What issues are you working to address as a committee?
One of the key issues we faced was a lack of communication and transparency between the faculty and graduate students about important issues that over the years had culminated in a loss of trust. A major improvement targeting this issue has been establishing a standing monthly meeting between faculty leadership and two student representatives. These routine meetings have facilitated open communication where student representatives can bring up any issues or concerns the student body has, and faculty leadership can provide updates on progress within the department, in a very low-stress and transparent environment.
This routine communication has created a bedrock of trust between faculty and students within the department that has been necessary for all our other EDI work to flourish. We are also currently evaluating our admissions process to make sure we are treating all applicants equitably, by trying to determine which components of the process are prone to influence by unconscious, implicit bias and how we can diminish or eliminate that bias from influencing a final admissions decision.
Can you tell us about any projects or initiatives that the committee has worked on?
One of the very first projects our committee worked on was the creation of a “Safe Space” placard. This placard represents an individual’s commitment to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and safe to be themselves. Clear signage like this can be impactful for a variety of groups, but especially for the LGBTQ+ community.
Coming out is not a one-time event. It’s a risk queer people take in every new setting and can be very stressful, especially if you don’t know what type of response to expect. There is only so much “scoping out” of the environment you can do in a limited-time first meeting without outing yourself. Having passive signals (such as signs, flags, or pronouns in signatures) demonstrating that the environment you are in is accepting, welcoming, and full of allies makes a really big difference in being able to successfully evaluate how safe an environment is.
This goes a long way in easing the stress of coming out to that group and can make an impact in determining whether you want to join that group in the first place. Signs like these were fundamental to my ability to feel safe in coming out at my previous university.
This was a driving force behind creating our “Safe Space” placards, and also in the push for inclusion of pronouns in email signatures and on Zoom. Happily, our department embraced both initiatives with open arms, and these signs are now widely posted across our department. I have also led the charge with two other LGTBQ+ focused initiatives sponsored by our committee.
First, I facilitated a collaboration with Angel Collie at the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity on campus to host yearly PRIDE trainings for our entire department during our weekly seminar slots. Second, I organized our department’s first booth at Durham PRIDE this past September. Multiple people from our department volunteered and we had a lot of fun getting to share what it means to be an immunologist, as well as provide updates on our department’s research on a HIV vaccine to our local queer community. During this event, I was able to connect with the lead for Duke Health’s PRIDE booths, and next year we hope to collaborate to include both sides of Duke Health, the clinical and the research sciences, under a single umbrella.
Why is it important to have students and trainees involved in EDI work within the School of Medicine?
Trainees are the lifeblood of a research department. While a single department may only have a handful of new faculty over the course of a decade or so, graduate students and post-docs are constantly cycling through. This is great for EDI because it means you are constantly bringing in new people with new ideas and new experiences and perspectives.
Momentum is key when it comes to implementing meaningful changes, and I think inclusion of graduate students on EDI committees is an important component of any department being able to keep momentum for EDI initiatives. Additionally, it can be much easier for grad students to confide with other grad students what issues they have faced that are rooted in systemic EDI issues within the department than it is to share that information with a faculty member.
What is the focus of your research? Does it inform your work in EDI? If so, how?
My research focuses on how the innate immune system utilizes programmed cell death to defend against bacterial infections. While not directly EDI focused, I do see parallels with my EDI work. My research is just one small drop in the massive pond of immunology that teaches us over and over again that our bodies need a diverse array of mechanisms to protect us against the wide realm of pathogens that exist.
As much as immunologists all like to joke that we each study the most important cell type or pathway, we know that no one component of the immune system does the full job. Without the breadth of diversity found within our immune system, we would not survive. Without the breadth of diversity found within our society, we could not thrive. It is important that we honor our differences because we are all necessary pieces of the whole story.
Do you have a moment or experience when the need for improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in academic medicine (or the country as a whole) felt especially urgent to you personally that you could share?
I think that George Floyd’s murder was a wake-up call for a lot of people in this country. I knew that racism was still a severe and active problem in this country, but I think the dual effects of the pandemic and the viral nature of George Floyd’s murder allowed the fear that Black people in America face on a daily basis to be conveyed in an extremely potent manner. And while I do not have that same set of experiences as a white person, that fear resonated within me as a queer person.
I grew up in an area of the state where you did not come out because it wasn’t safe. Being accused of being a lesbian by classmates was a threat I had held against me on multiple occasions. As a teenager, I had a friend who got kicked out of their house and lived in a car for several months when their parents found out they were queer. I saw my town riot after one local church said gay marriage should be allowed. And while I had experienced the relief that came from being at a university where people were welcomed and accepted for who they were, I had never really let myself acknowledge the fear that I had carried with me from growing up in such a queerphobic environment.
The nationwide movement following George Floyd’s murder calling for change gave me the courage I needed to stand up for myself and people like me. I decided to be very out about my queerness, and to share the issues I faced in applying to grad school. It was a very stressful thing for me to wonder during the interview process if asking about queer grad school resources, or mentioning my partner would end up being marks against me. I realized that not only did I not want to keep living in fear any time I mentioned my girlfriend, I also didn’t want any other queer person to face the same things. This became my motivation for being active in EDI. I am extremely pleased with the work I have been able to do, because I now feel confident that any queer grad student, faculty, or staff wanting to join our department will know this is a supportive environment.
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the graduate program?
My partner and I love to go on hikes through state parks and play with our two cats. I love to read, and one of my lab mates got me into knitting during our monthly “Wine and Whine” nights. I am also an actor! I have played Marcellus in Hamlet, and Anita Pollitzer in Their Story/Our Story at Studio 1 theater company in Burlington, and I hope to do more productions with them in the future.