In May, the annual student-led chemistry conference “ChemCon” unfolded at Dalhousie University with a theme of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). The conference carried a casual tone, rich with dialogue between audiences and presenters.
The ChemCon organizing committee strived to host a conference that was inclusive. Second-year student organizers Fanny Vain, Lister De Vitre, and Alex Petkov believe that discussions on EDI in science are important for objective science.
“If we have more voices in general contributing to science, we’re going to have a better understanding of science,” says De Vitre, co-president of the organizing committee.
“The science is going to be more thorough and less biased. Science is supposed to be objective,” Petkov, a committee volunteer, says. “Your opinion shouldn’t hold less weight because of your background.”
The keynote lectures featured chemistry postdoc Alex Veinot from Western University and chemistry professor Nola Etkin from the University of Prince Edward Island.
Veinot, a member of the Mi’kmaq community, experienced cultural disconnection in university, and shared his insights on making academia more welcoming. Etkin, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, believes that academia should acknowledge diverse social dynamics. Their stories were threaded with explanations of their chemistry research.
“It was a very well-done narrative,” says De Vitre. “They would be talking about chemistry one moment and then a harrowing experience the next. But it wasn’t too jarring – it was jarring in the way it was supposed to be. It felt very natural.“
“I didn’t have any expectations because I didn’t have any idea what it would look like,” says Vain, co-president of the organizing committee. “I was pleasantly surprised that it went so deep and personal.”
Vain, De Vitre, and Petkov were marked by Veinot’s talk.
Vain shares that Veinot’s comparison of Indigenous students’ experiences in university to those of international students experiencing culture shock “opened her eyes.”
De Vitre says that Veinot’s talk made it “click in his mind” how empowering role models from one’s own cultural background can be.
Petkov was surprised that Veinot had hidden his Indigenous identity.
“You forget that it’s only recently that Western society became more progressive,” says Petkov.
The organizing committee had reached out to academics well-versed in EDI talks. Vain believes their stories can spark policy changes.
“The best way (for policy changes) is to share stories and be more personal,” says Vain. “I think our conference is a very good step towards that. (It’s) a perfect way to start getting these stories out there and making people more sympathetic. And then we can move on to the next steps.”
De Vitre says that some steps have been taken. Dalhousie University established EDI roles in science departments and student societies to promote equity. The organizers believe that discussion about EDI should occur whenever possible, but that more change should follow
“The most important part is understanding that more action needs to be taken, and just talking about stuff is not the best thing we can do,” says De Vitre. “But at the same time it is something we can do, and in terms of hosting a chemistry conference (with) our main theme being diversity – that’s a pretty good way of helping in our own way.”
Alex Veinot remembers ChemCon fondly as an undergrad. A conference that propelled him to pursue a research career, he wanted to inspire young researchers, and hoped that Indigenous students might look up to him.
“Representing Indigenous people in science is important since there are so few,” says Veinot, sharing that many Indigenous people who grow up on reserves don’t have the means to learn about what scientists do. “I never had a mentor myself, and hope I can be a role model for someone else.”
In his talk, he strived to share his experiences genuinely and prompt reflection. He began his talk with “a bigger picture” – statistics from 2021 showing that only 25 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada had university degrees. He then told his life story, from growing up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to how he became a chemist.
“My approach has always been to share my story and be honest,” says Veinot. “What people take from my story is on them – I’m not trying to convince or sell. It’s been more about awareness. I just share my story. That’s all I try to do. I don’t consider myself an activist.”
Veinot discussed that universities must acknowledge Indigenous students’ cultural responsibilities and feelings. He identified systemic barriers to Indigenous education such as a lack of role models, a lack of transportation to schools, and a lack of Indigenous knowledge in curriculums. These insights arose from self-reflection.
“Every time you get more experience, your perspective changes,” says Veinot. “You kind of have to take stock every so often of where you’ve been and where you’re going. That’s been my process for what I want to talk about. As much time as I spent making the talk, I probably spent more doing that self-reflection because, ultimately, it’s my journey.
In undergrad, Veinot struggled to understand his feelings. Some aspects of academia felt comfortable, but others felt foreign. He hid his Indigenous identity to fit in, but could not deny his unease. He had not considered the barriers Indigenous people face; his upbringing in rural Nova Scotia had left him with a lifetime of prejudice to unlearn. When he joined EDI committees in university, he realized how substantial his perspective was.
“I spent a lot of time hiding my identity for my undergraduate, my Master’s even, but I do belong to a community and I have some of those experiences, so I’ve never really felt like I’ve necessarily had the same experiences as my peers. But also, it’s not that different,” says Veinot. “It was a lot of being aware that I do have a different perspective than a lot of people and trying to understand what that perspective is. And I think about that as finding my voice.”
Vienot’s perspectives are ever-changing. He believes EDI talks should spread awareness so that everyone can contemplate change.
“We already put enough burden on underrepresented groups to share their stories,” says Veinot. “My feeling is that the burden of finding the solutions shouldn’t be on the equity-seeking members, it should be on the majority that have benefited from shared experiences and the current system. I do what I can to share my story.”
He was glad that ChemCon took an approach to EDI that celebrated diverse perspectives instead of plunging into histories of oppression. He believes recognizing the past is important, but says dwelling on it may harm the scope for moving forward.
Veinot adds that he resonates with Indigenization movements, which serve to blend Indigenous thought into academic structures. He believes Indigenization would nurture thought that shares science with Western and Indigenous frameworks.
“Indigenization would be bringing in Indigenous thought and aspects of learning, and keeping in mind how things can work in harmony,” says Veinot. “That’s always been my approach. It’s about losing or gaining. It’s about what you stand to gain through EDI as opposed to what you are trying to make up for.”
Veinot is optimistic that change will follow discussions“Everyone has good intentions and we all want to have these changes in place,” says Veinot. “We need to be mindful that we can’t fix everything overnight, but focus on incremental changes. As long as things are getting better, we’re going in the right direction.
Incé Husain is a psychology student and student journalist who has written for The Aquinian, The Brunswickan, and The Atlantic Student Research Journal. She writes for the NB Media Co-op , and and pursues local stories independently at https://theunprecedentedtimes.net/ .