Epistemically Challenged: Medeva Ghee, Ph.D.
Epistemically Challenged is an opinion series about how each one of us explores knowledge. In this installment, Medeva Ghee, Ph.D., talks about the problem that propels her work with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.
As a young African American growing up in rural Virginia with an interest in science, I thought that the only way I could make a difference in my community was to become a physician. An opportunity to conduct research at my undergraduate institution and participate in a summer research program helped me to realize that there were so many more career opportunities to fuel my passion for discovery, contribute new knowledge and give back.
Exposure to basic science research early on prepared me for an exciting and diverse career path that included obtaining a doctoral degree in microbiology, an international postdoctoral fellowship in Paris, and consulting in Africa on HIV/AIDS initiatives. After my international experiences, I was drawn to the Leadership Alliance at Brown University to help shape program development and to serve as a mentor and role model to students. I felt ready and compelled to share my experiences with students so they could become aware of the exciting possibilities of pursuing research-based careers.
My experiences prompted me to think critically about a problem I’ve been long interested in and one that continues to motivate me today. With increasing disparities in students from underrepresented (UR) backgrounds pursuing degrees in science, engineering and math, how do we ensure more UR students are aware of the vast opportunities afforded to them through scholarly research and discourse informed by multi-disciplinary perspectives? Diverse voices and scholarship that reflect our nation’s multi-cultural communities are essential to addressing the complex societal issues of the 21st century.
This is what we do at the Leadership Alliance. We are a national consortium of more than 30 leading research and teaching colleges, universities, and private industry, united by a shared vision—to train, to mentor and to inspire a diverse group of students from a wide range of cultural and academic backgrounds to get into competitive graduate training programs and professional research-based careers. We are able to engage undergraduates from diverse backgrounds in our Summer Research Early Identification Program (SR-EIP) that provides all-expense-paid research internships on more than 20 campuses across the country. Oftentimes, on any one campus, there are a number of students doing research in the biological sciences, in physical science and engineering, as well as the humanities and social sciences. This is really exciting, because typically students in the life science majors do not interact regularly with students in the humanities and social sciences.
As the executive director of the Leadership Alliance, I collaborate with faculty and administrators across the country to help students pursue advanced training at the most competitive institutions in the country. Our Leadership Alliance National Symposium, the culminating event of the summer research experience, provides a forum for undergraduates to communicate their ideas from different disciplinary perspectives. There, students are challenged to think comprehensively about innovative approaches and ensure ideas are accessible to a broader audience. Unique to this conference, a tiered mentoring approach provides role models who are alumni of the SR-EIP at each stage of the academic pathway.
Most importantly, as almost 1,000 alumni of the Leadership Alliance have completed doctoral, professional degrees and Master’s degrees, we are creating an ever-increasing talent pool for tomorrow’s workforce—people who are serving as leaders and role models in academia, the public and private sectors.
I am also fortunate to be able to teach Brown undergraduates in their third and fourth years in a course that employs multi-disciplinary approaches to develop novel HIV/AIDS care and treatment programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. I designed this course based on my experience working as a laboratory systems specialist in Africa. I learned that to work effectively in a culturally diverse environment I needed to listen and learn from local stakeholders, as no one understood their problems better than they did. This might sound obvious—how could you not be aware that having a broader understanding of the cultural context and the environment is essential for local buy-in to a project?
But there is a natural – and completely understandable – tendency to think of a one-size-fits-all approach to such problems. For example, in a class in which I was a guest lecturer, a student suggested tackling HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa with an approach that worked in the U.S. I challenged the student to think about how this would be implemented, given the various challenges resource-limited countries face. After allowing time for a brainstorming exercise, we had a rich discussion, and I later received a lot of emails from students who were really interested in learning about more practical approaches to complex diseases in resource-limited environments. This, in turn, led me to think of topics, ideas and learning outcomes that I wanted to share with students, all of which evolved into a syllabus for my course on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
For their final project, teams of students are tasked and challenged with creating an HIV/AIDS national strategic plan. The student teams are encouraged to think ‘outside of the box’, and to explore things that we haven’t done before, that we haven’t thought about, and that provide more novel and more sustainable solutions for very complex disease situations. In teaching this course, I have come to believe that many students in all types of classes would benefit from supplementing their foundational courses with discussions on current issues from a variety of perspectives. This would encourage broader, more creative, and more critical thinking.
The best way to understand something that you’re unfamiliar with is to get out of your comfort zone and find an opportunity that’s right for you to learn more about the issue. And if you are the type of individual who loves to delve into the literature, then my suggestion would be to read broadly, not just one scientific journal or select articles available online, but really think about the issue from a lot of different viewpoints. Read broadly and get involved. To really understand a problem, you must talk to people, get to know them, and learn about the issue from their unique perspectives.
This brings me back to the problem of knowledge that I started with: if we understand that diversity of thought is the foundation for problem solving, we need to strive for equity and engagement of students from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds in scholarly, transformative discourse to develop their potential as thought leaders and change agents.
— Medeva Ghee, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Leadership Alliance at Brown University in Rhode Island.