How does the universe work? Promoting diversity can help answer that

UC Berkeley Professor of Bioengineering Aaron Streets, right, was recently honored with the 2023 Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Equity and Excellence. Here, he speaks on an engineering panel at Sibley Auditorium. ÜBerkeley Engineering photo by Adam Lau) Science has been considered a purely objective field of study that has produced research to cure diseases, map out the anatomies of living things and explore our planet and the universe. But UC Berkeley Bioengineering Professor Aaron Streets says it is important for those who conduct that research "to represent the full diversity of human genetic variation."

And while equity and justice are important, he said, it goes beyond that.

"Scientific research runs the risk of not comprehensively addressing the broad range of public need if our scientists only represent a narrow range of genotypes," said Streets, whose bioengineering lab on campus conducts research on microscopy, microfluidics and single-cell genomics. "It matters who is doing the science."

Aaron Streets, right, with Berkeley students from his Bioengineering Scholars Program.

Streets was recently honored with Berkeley’s 2023 Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Equity and Excellence. While certain states around the country are currently moving to eliminate public education funding for various diversity, equity and inclusion programs - efforts led by politicians who devalue the importance of that work and research - Streets has been a tireless advocate for increasing diversity in STEM.

Through his Next Generation Faculty Symposium - a joint initiative between Berkeley, Stanford University and UC San Francisco that aims to diversify faculty recruitment pools at universities - Streets has given STEM postdoctoral candidates from underrepresented communities an opportunity to showcase their work and research to the masses.

And Streets’ Bioengineering Scholars Program has introduced first-year undergraduates - many from historically underrepresented groups - to STEM research through a mentoring program focused on recruitment and support.

Berkeley News spoke with Streets recently about why Berkeley has become an ideal place for DEI work, how diversity can help bring new and necessary perspectives to STEM research and academia, and the intersection of his two passions, art and science.

Berkeley News: As an undergraduate student at UCLA, you majored in physics, but also minored in art. Do you think art and science intersect in their pursuits?

Aaron Streets: I always saw physics and art as seeking to address the same question: How does the universe work?

Physics tries to address that question not through the lens of the viewer, but through an omniscient objective lens. The laws of physics work the same in outer space as they do here on Earth, and they don’t depend on who is doing the science.

But it is intrinsic to art who the observer is. Art attempts to understand the universe fundamentally through the lens of the human experience. Additionally, art is sometimes very much about the historical and sociopolitical landscape, and thus its meaning is very much informed by the viewer.

Everybody’s physics is the same, but everybody’s art is different. They relate to each other because their endeavor is the same: trying to make sense of the world around us.

As researchers in STEM, we can find inspiration and new ways to think about concepts from the various perspectives that different types of art can give us.

That’s a fascinating connection. In that sense, how important is it to have different perspectives, from people from diverse backgrounds, when working toward answering these very complex scientific questions? How important is diversity in STEM?

It is important for research that involves humans to be conducted by scientists who represent the diversity of the human genome, because it matters who is doing the science.

When it comes to medicine, we tend to study things that we care about. We tend to study things that our community cares about. We tend to study things that our funding agencies and our government cares about.

A microbiologist performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus at a Pennsylvania lab. "It is important for research that involves humans to be conducted by scientists who represent the diversity of the human genome,” said Streets.

If researchers represent only a narrow composition of genotypes, then the things that those biologists and those doctors care about might only be applicable to a narrow range of stakeholders. Historically, we have seen researchers focus solely on demographics that reflect their own genotypes.

But as we get more into the age of genomics, personalized medicine and rare diseases, there are potentially blind spots to that approach.

What are those blind spots, and how do they impact society as a whole?

Scientific experts, like biologists and bioengineers, are people that the government looks to for policy decisions and decisions about epidemiological responses, for example. We saw that especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If they’re looking to our STEM academic community as experts to guide policy decisions, it’s important that we collectively understand the implications of those policy decisions in different ethnic and socioeconomic communities.

In order to have better science, better science policies, and better science communication and trust with the public. ... science needs to be diverse.”

Another example is if we’re trying to understand the relationship between one’s genome and the likelihood of getting a disease, and we’re only studying one sliver of genotype - one ethnicity, one type of ancestry - then we’re only going to understand the relationship between the disease and that specific group of people.

Going even further, if we come up with a drug or therapeutic approach to that disease, and we test the efficacy of that intervention on a homogeneous sample of human genomes, our data might not apply to a broader population. That is a huge blind spot, because we won’t know the implications for people with different genotypes or from different ethnic groups or different lifestyle behaviors and diets.

Our research is incomplete if our subjects aren’t diverse. And, oftentimes, it takes a researcher from those underrepresented groups in STEM to point this out.

But should people of color have the onus of responsibility to diversify STEM? How does that impact equity when that is the case?

That is a very good point. In the same way that it’s our responsibility as professors to come up with new and more effective ways to teach, it’s also everyone’s responsibility to diversify our own fields of study, our classrooms and our labs. That work helps us come up with new ideas that might advance biotechnology and other scientific fields.

But being a good teacher takes work. Being a good researcher takes work. Being a good campus citizen and faculty member takes work.

Streets with graduating bioengineering student Reet Mishra who was a researcher in Streets’ lab.

As the best public university in the country, at Berkeley you have a podium that you can stand on, and people will listen. You have people before you that have done really great things, and people after you that are going to do great things.

It makes it easier to do that work here.

As a university, our primary product is not only our research, but our students. They may be the most valuable resource the university produces. And I get the most joy out of seeing my students succeed, because when they have success, that means the research, the mentoring and the teaching was done well.

And it is done well when we serve and support not just one group of people on campus, but everybody.

By Ivan Natividad

View all articles by Ivan Natividad