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On the Cutting Edge

May 24 2021

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20/20 Blog

Palo Alto, CA — I recently listened to The Edge Effecton NPR’s Hidden Brain, an episode focusing on the benefits of diversity. The edge effect is an ecology term that refers to the biodiversity that flourishes at the boundary of two or more habitats. 

With this concept in mind, Yo-yo Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of over 52 diverse musicians who blend unlikely musical traditions to create radically different music that is inspiring and uniting. 

Yo-yo Ma’s interpretation of the edge effect can go a long way in furthering cutting-edge research. Since I’ve been at Stanford, our research team has been immersed in the blending of chemistry, basic sciences, engineering, surgical medicine, and industry in an effort to transform patient care. 

We see collaborations between diverse fields as the future, but I’ve become more aware that to grow as a research institution, we have to cross gender, ethnic, and cultural lines to form the best, most productive science teams possible.

What does it mean to be on the cutting edge, to be at the top of your game? I think it means seeing and doing things in novel ways and taking risks while denying our human instinct to do what is safe and familiar. 

Out of the box thinking is especially crucial in medical science where global crises demand scientific discoveries that push the boundaries of our knowledge of human health.

One way that principal investigators can create laboratories that foster groundbreaking discoveries is to consciously build diverse teams of collaborators who see the world through different lenses, have unique skill sets, and offer differing opinions. These research teams may need to uncover their unconscious biases, go against norms, and make decisions that are not obvious and even uncomfortable in order to reap the benefits of diversity. We are lucky to work at an institution that encourages us to do exactly that.

It’s been shown that diverse scientific teams outperform their homogenous counterparts. I believe gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and institutional diversity lead to greater problem-solving capabilities and a higher likelihood that teams will tackle complex scientific problems.

Nature editorial piece argues that publicly funded research currently focuses on a small sliver of the population, which fails to fulfill its commitment to “work to improve society.” I see this as a compelling reason for us to recruit from and support scientists from minority communities who have a vested interest in broadening our research goals so that they do the greatest good for the largest number of people.

Diversity can make us aware of how our science is falling short, but it can also help us tackle the big problems that come into focus. For too long women, for example, have been left out of the scientific conversation, and research shows that this has been detrimental to scientific progress. 

Mathais Nielson Ph.D., a former postdoctoral student in Gendered Innovations at Stanford, has spent his career researching how gender diversity benefits scientific outcomes. His opinion piece, Gender diversity leads to better science,from his work at Sanford highlights the creative problem solving that comes out of teams that have gender diversity. This kind of problem solving can lead to groundbreaking science.

I am privileged to have trained several extraordinarily qualified female scientists and surgeons who have gone on to do great things. I’ve also trained several underrepresented minority students. After working with these extraordinary trainees, my real concern has become: am I missing out on exceptional talent because of racism, unconscious bias, or inequity? Our fight against blindness cannot afford to miss out on anyone.

Creating diverse teams is not easy work. It forces us to see beyond our biases and take a second look at candidates we may have overlooked in the past, but putting in the work is crucial as we strive for excellence in research and patient care. My colleagues and I on the Committee on Ophthalmolgoy Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion are working hard to bring about positive change in our department that has far reaching benefits for all of us, and we look forward to working with everyone in this pursuit.

- Vinit Mahajan