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Increasing diversity in biotech graduate program of Poznan University of Life Sciences

By: Ovinuchi Ejiohuo, Poznan University of Life Sciences

Graduate scientific programs and curriculums are still focused mainly on academic and scientific development with little direction towards mental and social development – which can only be guaranteed by intentionally ensuring fairness, inclusion, and diversity in their programing both in teaching, administration, and support.

Unintentionally promoting diversity

Promoting EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) in scientific education is usually unintentional. One example is the English language biotechnology master’s program of Poznan University of Life Sciences, which began in 2019 following a European Union grant.

According to the Vice-Dean and head of the program, Professor Daniel Lipinski, the graduate English language study program is not directly focused on EDI but structured to favour diversity. Since students come from different countries and with diverse academic backgrounds – Animal Science, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Plant Physiology, Pharmacology, and other life sciences – the program stimulates academic mobility. He cited co-integration of Polish students with international students as the most important reason for starting the program, saying “we hope they will start to cooperate with each other on an academic level and in the future trigger mutual projects on an international level.”

Science education ranking

Even though Poland may not be high on the ranking for biotechnology graduate programs, it sit in the top 5 of best performing education systems in the world, according to the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). Since 2012, Poland’s performance in science and reading has continued to increase substantially. However, according to NCEE, equity remains a concern.

Intentionally bridging the gap or not?

Different units of the university are responsible for different aspects of EDI as well as coordinate grants, allowances, and scholarship awards. Poznan have several grants available for students with disabilities an allowance for students who face difficult life circumstances, in addition to scholarships based on academic merit. Students also have the opportunity to study at foreign institutions. However, as the same rules apply to Polish and international students, it begs the question of whether these policies truly promote equity considering existing economic differences, racial and gender marginalisation.

For example, if you are not a citizen of an EU country and intend to go for an internship in somewhere like Denmark, besides finding the internship position yourself (a daunting process), you will have to pay about 500 euros for a permit, and another 200 euros as embassy fees (which isn’t covered by your home institution). This all occurs despite applicants already having resident cards or visas.

The pandemic has only made things worse, as internships are being shortened, and may even end before a decision on the original permit application is made. There is usually a knowledge gap about these issues in students, and relevant information on addressing them are usually not covered or tailored to international students by graduate programs.

What’s in it for us and the university?

On the part of the institution and program, the benefits of better support for international students are obvious. The teaching and learning quality of the university is improved as well as its international prestige. English programs and courses can “be a source of additional income”, notes Professor Daniel Lipinski. He also highlighted how the program boosts the confidence of its participants, enabling them to communicate their work and knowledge beyond the lab or classroom to the international scientific community.

Putting it all together

As a general recommendation, to adequately ensure diversity in graduate programs such as the English language biotechnology program of Poznan University of Life Sciences, teachers, mentors, advisers, and leaderships of science graduate programs needs to move beyond the classrooms and laboratories to intentionally identifying and addressing the specific challenges of their diverse student body. Only then can we begin to feel the impact of their EDI endeavours beyond words and institutional gains and create better and healthy scientists.

Edited by participants of the 2021 Science Writing Internship program and B.G. Borowiec. Header photo from Ovinuchi Ejiohuo.

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