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Diversity contributes to flourishing excellence in science and academia

Berlin ist vielfältig, Forschung soll es auch sein

Berlin ist vielfältig, Forschung soll es auch sein

Diversity and equality are the foundations of fair, well-functioning societies – and of excellence in research. The perspectives and experiences of people of different sexes, genders, ages, nationalities, and abilities are a valuable addition to every area across society. Good responses to challenging questions of the future require a diverse range of expertise and talent. The flip side is that science and academia lose valuable skills and abilities if fairness and equality of opportunity are lacking. Diversity and gender equality is a major topic of focus. How are its objectives being embraced in Berlin’s research sector? A look at obstacles, successes, plans for the future, and opportunities. 

The Diversity and Gender Equality Network (DiGENet)

The Berlin University Alliance founded the Diversity and Gender Equality Network (DiGENet) in 2020 as a research and competency network to support and raise awareness of diversity and gender equality across the network of excellence. There are now more than 200 experts from the integrated Berlin research landscape who belong to the network. They engage in regular dialogue on how to support diversity and equality in research and practice, where there are structural issues, and how to develop recommendations for actions to take to counteract discriminatory structures. The network is an important pillar in the network of excellence’s stated aim of fostering and supporting diversity and diversity research among all alliance partners.

Wheelchairs aren’t the biggest obstacle

Alexandra Tzilivaki

Alexandra Tzilivaki
Image Credit: Christos Tsoumplekas

Science and academia benefit from talent from all over the world, with people contributing not only expertise on specific subjects, but also diverse experiences and life stories. European academic and research institutions have expressly pledged to support diversity in research. Nevertheless, members of underrepresented groups often face special challenges along the path to an academic career. Molecular biologist and brain researcher Alexandra Tzilivaki had to overcome huge obstacles to be able to work in Berlin. 

Alexandra Tzilivaki was delighted to be approved for a doctoral fellowship at the Einstein Center for Neurosciences Berlin (ECN), one of Germany’s largest neurosciences networks, in 2017. A junior researcher from Greece, Tzilivaki immediately began planning her move to Berlin from Heraklion, on the island of Greece, where she had completed a master’s degree in molecular biology and biomedicine. Within the NeuroCure cluster of excellence, she planned to continue the research she had started in Greece on specific nerve cells in mammalian brains – inhibitory interneurons – and how they affect learning and memory and write her dissertation on this topic. 

Using computer models to study nerve cells 

Moving to a different country in this way, saying goodbye to a person’s familiar environment and to family and friends, is a common part of an academic career. But in Tzilivaki’s case, it is a very special step anyway. Tzilivaki is an excellent scientist who uses computer models to study how nerve cells work. She was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in early childhood. Tzilivaki has been in a wheelchair since then, and her hand and head movements are limited. She has taken her condition as a challenge: “Understanding the meaning behind terms like ‘cells,’ ‘neurons,’ ‘functions,’ and ‘proteins’ always fascinated me,” she explains. “As far back as I can remember, it always motivated me to become a scientist and overcome any and all possible obstacles along the way.” 

After receiving the positive answer from Berlin, Tzilivaki, then 24, made all the necessary arrangements, gave notice on her apartment, packed her things, and held a going-away party for friends. But then things started to go wrong. She got a call from Berlin: Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to come to Berlin in October as scheduled. There were “some small obstacles.” 

Going abroad for science 

“It was a shock,” Tzilivaki recalls. It was clear to her that if she was to have a top-level scientific career, it was important to show that she was mobile, independent, and flexible, and that she could collaborate effectively with different working groups in different places. “Science isn’t a job. It’s a vocation,” she says. She was willing to fight for her dream and undertake a years-long odyssey. And a good thing, too, since it would take four and a half years in all for her to get to Berlin. 

Linda Faye Tidwell followed along from the start as well. Tidwell is responsible for public relations at the Einstein Center for Neurosciences Berlin and the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence. “There were a lot of things we had to arrange, and everyone at the office had a job to do,” she says, explaining the wealth of administrative challenges that employees at the ECN had to pitch in to resolve in order to bring Tzilivaki to Berlin. “At the beginning, we didn't even know where to start or where to get information and support.” 

E-mails, applications, forms 

There were no blueprints from similar cases – bringing a fellowship recipient who uses a wheelchair, who requires help and care, to Germany from a different country. Who would assume which costs? Which institutions and insurers were responsible for what? What laws and regulations applied? All of that information had to be gathered, a lengthy and painstaking process. It also turned out to be near impossible to find an affordable wheelchair-accessible apartment in Berlin. In 2018, Tzilivaki met with her mentor and future supervisor, Professor Dietmar Schmitz, the spokesperson for the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence at Charité – Universitätsmedizin. He said, “Alexandra, there are no problems, there are only challenges.” Giving up was not an option. 

Step by step, Tzilivaki and the teams at ECN and NeuroCure overcame all those challenges as the months dragged into years. They wrote countless e-mails, filled out applications and other forms, and talked with long-term care insurers, social insurers, and health insurers and with offices and government agencies. The neuroscientist officially started her doctoral fellowship at Charité in 2018 – but she did so from Greece, in her old working group at the university in Heraklion. That was because before she could receive the long-term care assistance in Germany that she would need for her work, she would have to pay into the German long-term care insurance system for two years as an employee. That seemed like an insurmountable obstacle for someone who requires care, is from a different country, and wants to start a new job in Germany. “This isn’t mainly a German problem, but a European one. Right now, in 2024, there is still no European strategy for mobility for researchers with health challenges or disabilities,” Tzilivaki says. “We’re a minority within a minority.” 

Berlin at last 

The researcher stuck with it, and finally, at long last, she was able to move to Berlin in 2021 and continue her work at Schmitz’s lab. “’I remember how happy I was to arrive at the airport in Berlin,” she recalls. That was the moment when she knew the four and a half years of work had all been worthwhile. 

Now she can focus completely on her research, constructing detailed biophysical models of individual neurons and large neural networks. She uses them to study exactly how inhibitory interneurons work. “The brain is the most multifaceted organ in the body, and there’s so much we still haven’t studied. I hope my work will contribute many new insights into important functions,” she explains. Berlin is the perfect setting for this, Tzilivaki says. “There are wonderful scientists and researchers working here within the cluster and at ECN. It’s an open, interdisciplinary, motivated, and successful community.” She is due to complete her dissertation soon and plans to continue living and doing research in Berlin afterward. She feels comfortable here now, in the research setting and beyond: “I feel safe, and I don't feel different from others. The city has a multicultural vibe. And that’s a big advantage over other global megacities.” 

Read or listen to the podcast of a detailed interview with Alexandra Tzilivaki. 

“When women are in charge of research teams, the teams publish more often on the topic of gender differences”

Prof. Dr. Gertraud (Turu) Stadler

Prof. Dr. Gertraud (Turu) Stadler
Image Credit: Bert Queiros

Prof. Gertraud (Turu) Stadler holds the professorship for gender-sensitive prevention research at Charité – Universitätsmedizin, where she is in charge of the Gender Research in Medicine unit. We caught up with her to talk about her research and her goals in the areas of equal rights, participation, and equal opportunity. 

Professor Stadler, can you tell us a little about your field, gender-sensitive prevention research? 

Prevention research is my main topic. I study how we stay as healthy as possible and prevent chronic disease and health conditions. The earlier in life we start to support healthy behaviors and environments, the more healthy life years we can gain. For example, our team of researchers is active at over 30 schools in Berlin, where we do gender-sensitive smoking prevention with students of all genders. Kids can gain up to ten healthy life years by staying smoke-free, and our goal with the program is to help with that. The idea is to reach boys, girls, and nonbinary kids alike. And that requires personalized measures tailored to different needs. 

Why are these kinds of personalized approaches important? 

When it comes to health behavior, there are big and observable gender differences. Some boys and men think it’s not masculine to eat a salad or vegetables. Images of toxic masculinity like the cool “Marlboro Man” are still really prevalent in people’s minds. Women are much more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but suicide is three times more common in men. Men are also more likely to be overweight and less likely to keep up with routine health screenings. Men die an average of five years earlier than women – not because that’s just their fate, but because there are gender differences in health behavior and living conditions. On the flip side, women face health disadvantages when it comes to things like treating a heart attack. Diagnosis and care are geared toward the average patient, who is older and male. Women have different symptoms, and the event takes a different course. We need to take factors like that better into account in medical research and healthcare. 

How do your findings make their way into medical practice to establish sensitivity to gender and diversity in healthcare? 

Research on these topics is still in its infancy in both Germany and Europe as a whole. This is a cross-cutting subject that can’t be dealt with just by specialized institutions and initiatives working in isolation. We need contributions from everyone who studies health. The best way to do that is by systematically considering gender and diversity across all our studies. That’s already how it’s done in Canada, for example. For all projects that receive public funding, the findings are listed separately by gender in the final report. That makes it easy to see where there are differences – and where there aren’t. If we want to offer personalized medicine, we need better data. That’s also why at Charité, we’re also studying how to actually measure and gather data on diversity and developing methods of analyzing large volumes of data effectively. And finally, we’re working on incorporating what we already know into teaching as well, across a full range of disciplines. 

What other factors should we consider aside from gender when we think about diversity in medicine? 

We had that same question in the Berlin University Alliance, so right at the start, we carried out a joint project with over 50 experts from Berlin and international areas. One traditional factor is age, which is routinely recorded in medicine and healthcare research. But that’s also as far as it goes. There are so many other important parameters, like social situation, meaning a person’s education, finances, and material resources. We know that these social factors have a really big impact on health, but there have hardly been any systematic surveys. And then you have comorbidities – meaning coexisting mental and physical illnesses and conditions – and other health limitations and disabilities. Often, not enough information is collected about those, either. Care work is another factor, for example when women don’t engage with rehab because they have small children or other family members to take care of. Sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and beliefs are also important diversity domains that haven’t received much attention so far. All of this affects how you provide someone with appropriate medical care, whether a medication works well, and whether important information reaches the patient. At the end of our project, we put together what we call the minimum set of diversity items (DiMIS, for the German name “DiversitätsMinimalItemSatz”), which is a suggested minimal questionnaire on gender and diversity, so future studies can take these aspects systematically into account. 

You’re not only a professor at Charité, but also a member of the steering committee on the cross-cutting topic of diversity and gender equality at the BUA. What are the concrete goals of your work in this role? 

The committee is made up of members from all four BUA partners. There are researchers working in the field of diversity and gender studies and also the central equal opportunity officers, who are highly familiar with practical measures to increase equality of opportunity. We maintain excellent and productive dialogue, and within the network of excellence, we advance both research on these topics and the conditions in the integrated research space so that everyone can explore and develop their talents to the fullest. One example is that when women are in charge of research teams, the teams publish more often on the topic of gender differences. The composition of teams of researchers plays a role in what questions are studied. People with lived experiences of marginalization are more sensitive to these topics. 

How far along are we in Berlin toward the goal of equal opportunity in research? 

Female students have made up about 50 percent of all medical students in Berlin since the 1990s. About 40 percent of the city’s population has an immigrant background. Berlin is diverse and multicultural. You might say the whole world is right at home here. But the people who could directly embody important topics like global health and diversity right here are still underrepresented in our institutions. We know from international data that we have a “leaky pipeline” in science and the research sector, meaning that a lot of talent gets lost along the way between the different levels of the hierarchy. Talented members of underrepresented groups have a harder time reaching positions of leadership.  

What kinds of talent and potential is the research sector losing as a result? 

We can learn from the experiences these people bring with them. That includes things like how the health systems work in other countries. One good example is Kerala, in the south of India. Life expectancy there is similar to that in highly industrialized countries, but they don’t have the same high-performance medical capabilities. Thinking in terms of reverse innovation, our healthcare sector could benefit from some of the well-functioning and less capital-intensive solutions developed there. We can also learn a lot from researchers who come from countries with a lot of pandemic experience. The BUA can initiate important developments and provide impetus for tapping into these forms of potential. For our third grand challenge, for example, we introduced the idea that applications for research funding should prompt people to consider whether gender and diversity are factors in the research questions. That often goes overlooked otherwise. Our mentoring program for women on their way to a professorship – ProFil – now also includes an English-language line so we can also reach and support those who don’t come from German-speaking countries. Excellence in research is international, and we need to better equip ourselves to advance that internationalization. 

Researching diversity

Diverse teams produce better work results

Diverse teams produce better work results
Image Credit: Matthias Heyde

A systematic strategy for cultivating diversity and diversity research is one of the key goals of the Berlin University Alliance. The network of excellence works toward this goal through active efforts from many different angles. These efforts include supporting four junior research groups, which began scholarly research in 2023 to explore what visible forms diversity takes within Berlin’s research and academic landscape, how information on diversity is collected, and how diversity can be supported.

“Fixing the System: Analyses in the Context of the History of Science”

Research group head: Dr. Sarah Bellows-Blakely, Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies, Freie Universität Berlin

This research group is studying the history of various overall political conditions as they relate to gender and diversity. The researchers are analyzing how a number of epistemologies became established and political proposals for gender, diversity, and related areas became institutionalized while this was not the case for others.
Their aim is to understand how holistic insights into discrimination have been marginalized both in science and academia and at the national and international governance levels. Why have institutions instead adopted concepts in which gender is analyzed in a vacuum – independently of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, and other factors? The junior research group is exploring these issues based on case studies, one of which deals with the history of the United Nations women’s movement and another with the history of institutional policy measures to combat sexual harassment and violence at Berlin’s universities. This research is relevant to the ongoing discussion of how concepts relating to gender and diversity have arisen and how they could be designed to be more effective and fairer in the future.

Multiple Barriers on the Path to Scientific Excellence: Empirical Approaches to Solutions

Research group leader: Prof. Mirjam Fischer, Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

People with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and women are frequent targets of discrimination in society. These groups are also underrepresented in academia, and they are not equally represented in many processes. The higher the career level, the bigger the imbalance. To break with this pattern, various perspectives need to be included as a natural and self-evident part of knowledge production at universities. This junior research group is studying how members of minorities are represented at the various levels of the hierarchy at the partners that make up the BUA and what solutions could foster greater diversity. Alongside researchers’ careers and mental health, their attitudes toward diversity, objectivity, and meritocracy in science and scholarship are covered. The experiences of marginalized researchers with discrimination are also being taken into account.

Fix the Institution, Not the Excluded!

Research group head: Dr. Aline Oloff, Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies, Technische Universität Berlin

How can diversity policies and anti-discrimination work at universities be designed to be critical of discrimination, collaborative, and knowledge-based? That is the question for this junior research group, which is studying how experiences of discrimination and the perspectives of marginalized groups can be made into a starting point for the inclusive and democratic development of universities. Starting with a detailed snapshot of where things currently stand, the researchers are identifying the advising structures that already exist within the partners in the BUA, how the knowledge built there is safeguarded and used, and how effective measures to combat discrimination can be crafted on that basis. The goal is to build lasting anti-discrimination structures and processes at higher education institutions with research-based concepts and the involvement of stakeholders from across civil society.

Development and evaluation of an intervention to improve inclusion of underrepresented groups to increase diversity and gender equality in research, teaching, and health care in university medicine and the life sciences

Research group leader: Dr. med. Pichit Buspavanich, specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy, Charité – Universitätsmedizin

Diversity is more than just an ethical obligation. It also holds valuable potential for science and medical research. Differences in experiences and perspectives can unlock new insights in medicine and point to potential solutions for complex issues. What challenges and needs are faced by people with differences in background and identity who are members of marginalized groups? This junior research group aims to explore this question in order to ultimately be able to address specific needs of all people on a more targeted basis in carrying out diversity-sensitive interventions.