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Combatting Racism to Benefit Scientific Progress

February 04, 2021

In 2020, Senior Investigator Alan Mast, MD, co-chaired a special session on race and science at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting.


Versiti is committed to cultivating an environment of diversity, inclusion and sustainability for our employees, donors and communities. Each state in Versiti’s footprint has its own Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council, which collaborates on organization-wide efforts, including fostering and encouraging conversations about race. Versiti Blood Research Institute Senior Investigator Alan Mast, MD, PhD, is a member of Wisconsin’s D&I Council and is passionate about equality. “I’m a very strong advocate for the diversity and inclusion efforts at Versiti and I’m an advocate for change,” he said.

Racism has personally affected Dr. Mast and his family. During his MD/PhD training at Duke University, Dr. Mast and his wife—who are both white—began working at a children’s home in Durham, NC, where they met two African American brothers, aged 1 and 2. The Masts adopted these boys and eventually had two biological children, resulting in a mixed-race family.

Despite all four children being raised in the same household and brought up with the same values, Dr. Mast said that his Black sons recognized racial differences at an early age. “I can tell you for certain that my Black children have encountered many more obstacles to success and have not been given the same opportunities for success as my white children,” he said. “I’ve clearly seen the depth of racial injustice in the United States and how it affects individuals and families.”

Understanding racial disparities in science

Because of his family’s experiences, Dr. Mast became interested in how racial disparities affect scientific progress. “Experiences from raising children of different races have made me acutely aware of the racial disparities that permeate our society,” he said. “I have also begun to learn more about how racial disparities and structural violence limit scientific innovation.”

Dr. Mast credits Michigan State University economist Lisa Cook, PhD, with sparking his interest in race and science. Dr. Cook examined how racism affects scientific productivity by examining patent approvals for African Americans. She found that during the 1800s, there was more patent activity by Black scientists, but this number decreased after the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which profoundly impacted a prosperous Black community. In fact, Dr. Cook can link specific events in history to decreases in Black scientists filing patents.

“Usually, people say that you need diverse backgrounds, diverse ways of looking at projects, and diverse opinions to come up with better solutions, and I agree with that,” Dr. Mast said. “But what’s often not said is that you also lose really good people. There are very smart scientists out there who aren’t allowed to be scientists because their lives are impacted by racism. There are smart, talented people who are not given the opportunity to be smart and talented.”

Special session on race and science

Dr. Mast felt this discussion merited consideration at the 2020 American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting. “This session was meant to raise awareness about systemic racism in research and ensure that the field of hematology is positioned to conduct high-level, cutting-edge science driven by a diverse community,” he said. “I discussed this idea with ASH leadership. It received tremendous support and led to a special session, which was developed as part of ASH’s commitment to building a global hematology research community that is inclusive of diverse individuals, perspectives and experiences.”

Within a week, this special session became a major attraction at ASH and, though the 2020 Annual Meeting was held virtually, was elevated to the “main stage”—the same one that Anthony Fauci, MD, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director, would have spoken on, had the event been held in person.

Originally, Dr. Mast did not plan to speak at the session; however, one of the Black co-chairs encouraged him to do so, saying that if a white person spoke, it would give the session validity. “My goal in life was never to be an advocate, but sometimes in life you’re forced to,” Dr. Mast said. “I’m trying to communicate what I’ve learned.”

During his opening remarks, Dr. Mast spoke about his family’s experiences with racism and inequality and encouraged others to take a closer look. “I was trying to talk to the white people in the session and talk to my white self before I understood this,” he said. “What would I listen to? How could I communicate with myself when I didn’t know about the things my children have been through? How could I speak in a way that would be impactful to the white people listening? That’s what I was trying to do and what I’m still trying to do.”

Versiti's commitment to diversity

Through the D&I Council, Dr. Mast continues to advocate for equality and ensure Versiti has a safe space for underrepresented groups. “Because of my family’s experiences, I can give a voice to what’s happened that people listen to,” he said. “Working with the other members of the D&I Council has given me the opportunity to meet wonderful people across our organization. I am encouraged by the passion and commitment of others to address hard problems and make needed change. I’m still learning, and we’re all trying.”

About the expert: Alan Mast, MD, PhD, is a senior investigator at Versiti Blood Research Institute and medical director at Versiti Medical Sciences Institute. He is the Walter A. Schroeder Endowed Chair for Blood Research, studying thrombosis, hemostasis and vascular biology.

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