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Diversity: colors of unique thoughts, beauty of a painting

By Isinsu Baylam, PhD, OSA Recent Graduate Member, Koç University


What is diversity and why is it important for scientific communities? The Oxford Dictionary defines diversity as “a range of many people or things that are very different from each other.” If we start from this definition and try to link it to our society, we can see why diversity is vital for the healthy development of a scientific environment. For example, think about Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef. It is a unique home for thousands of different species with a vital balance between species that keeps the reef environment alive and healthy. If you exclude even one species this fragile balance will break and the reef will start to lose all of its beautiful colors.

The situation is same for the healthy progress of science. If we think of science as a living organism consisting of different problems and solutions, the only way to grow it successfully is to invite everyone to participate in science without exclusion. Every person from a different background would introduce a different opinion and bring a different solution to the table. You do not know who will come up with that brilliant idea that would solve a long-standing problem in science.

How can we achieve this? We should eliminate harassment of any kind (humiliation, insults, physical or psychological abuse, bullying) and we should create an anti-harassment culture starting from the smallest groups such as a classroom or a laboratory.

First think about yourself. Have you had any experience where you felt singled out and excluded from the group? Try to think about other people’s identities and avoid such behaviors or jokes. Sometimes you can make jokes which seem innocent to you but if you feel that you make someone uncomfortable, stop it and try to understand why they feel upset about your behavior. Although there are obvious unacceptable behaviors, sometimes you will learn from your mistakes.

As a student in a class, you can talk with your classmates about anti-harassment policies. You can consult with your teacher about how to report or prevent harassment. If you witness such a situation, you can help your classmate take further action. If everybody in your class remains silent during an obvious harassment, your classmate may even think about quitting school. Surely you do not want to lose a brilliant friend.    

Mentorship is also crucial to creating an inclusive environment. If you are a teacher or a director of a laboratory, you should be a good role model for your undergraduate/graduate students. You should understand the needs of your students with different social, cultural, and economical backgrounds. Be supportive and learn how to take action. During regular group or personal meetings, you can ask them about how they feel in the laboratory environment and you can inform them about the harassment policies of your institution.

Another important point about inclusion is to be aware of invisible differences. When promoting or celebrating diversity in the workplace, companies or institutions usually prefer photographs of a group that includes people of different gender, race, and religion. However, every identity, for example, sexual orientation, does not have a specific physical identifier. Just as we cannot see each wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, there are also differences or differing abilities that are otherwise invisible to others.

Recognizing diversity, being inclusive and combatting harassment is a life-long learning process. You can be an ally. It is important for people who feel excluded to know that they are not alone. Be an empathic person, communicate with others about their problems and you will automatically become an ally.

As a scientific organization, The Optical Society (OSA) has stepped up to encourage diversity in the optical sciences. As OSA Ambassador, I had the opportunity to attend the 2019 OSA Leadership Conference. During the Conference, I realized how much effort has been given to sustaining a friendly environment. I have been an active member of OSA as a student since 2010 and as an early-career professional since 2017. I can attest that OSA has always been a supportive organization for everyone and has increasing enthusiasm for promoting diversity in scientific societies. OSA recently published a survey report in collaboration with SPIE about addressing and reporting unacceptable behaviors at scientific meetings. You can download and read the full report from the OSA web page (https://www.osa.org/en-us/get_involved/diversity_inclusion/event_harassment_survey/). You can also learn more about the diversity and inclusion policies of OSA by looking at the “Get Involved” tab of the OSA web page.

At most of OSA conferences there are special events or workshops organized to discuss how to create inclusive environments. At CLEO 2019, OSA and IEEE Photonics Society organized The Pride in Photonics Workshop. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I followed the event from social media with great happiness. I am feeling so proud because it is important to connect LGBTQI+ individuals with each other and with allies. I am sure that people learned many lessons during this event and by learning we will understand the needs of every person in society. We will be able to healthfully nourish our scientific community through diversity.

The first step is communication. Do not hesitate to share and to understand differences. A colorful summer to everyone!

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Posted: 18 July 2019 by Isinsu Baylam, PhD, OSA Recent Graduate Member, Koç University | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.

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