Why we need to increase diversity in the immunology research community

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The immunology research community lacks diversity, particularly at the top. Here I discuss diversity, inclusion and equity and their benefit to science. I suggest steps we can take to achieve a more diverse and inclusive community.

Immunologists are well aware of the importance of diversity. Effectiveness of the adaptive immune system depends on diversifying antigen receptors through recombination and mutations. Diversity in T and B cell receptors makes a life-or-death difference in the body’s ability to defend against pathogens. Vertebrates also rely on immunological diversity at the population level, through polymorphic and polygenic major histocompatibility complex molecules to maximize the repertoire of peptides that can be presented to T cells for recognition. However, the immunology research community has fallen short of applying this principle. All-male panels (or ‘manels’) and symposia with all white speakers are still common.

Diversity has become a focus for many institutions and companies. Much of this is driven by the groundswell of people speaking up in various outlets, in particular on social media, to advocate for a more equitable workplace. The #MeToo movement has become a large and influential social drive to bring an end to sexual harassment and to demand a more equitable society. Social media has given voice to otherwise voiceless and powerless members of society, obliging institutions to rethink the basis of their traditions and practices. Leaders and administrators are starting to realize the benefits of diversity. In this Comment, I will make my case for why diversity is important for the immunology research community to succeed and propel future generation of scientists.

What is diversity?

Conversations of diversity should encompass attributes beyond race and gender. Diversity can apply to a wide range of human traits and qualities, including religion, sexual orientation, age, culture, socioeconomic background, political orientation, and geographic background. Inherent diversity describes inborn traits such as gender and ethnicity, whereas acquired diversity involves traits gained from experience, such as working abroad and interacting with other genders. It turns out that both types of diversity contribute to innovation and success. The biomedical-science workforce does not reflect the diversity of the demographics of the United States1,2. In the US, underrepresented minorities (URMs) in science are defined as people of African, Native American, Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino or Pacific Islander descent. While URMs constitute ~30% of the population nationwide, their representation is low in science, and it declines at every level of academic scientific careers (Fig. 1). In addition, women of every racial background are underrepresented in science compared to their male counterparts, particularly in the senior ranks (Figs. 1 and 2). We have much work ahead to reach diversity within the research community.

Fig. 1: Percentage of men and women in the US resident population versus those employed full time in faculty positions in degree-granting post-secondary institutions, by race/ethnicity and sex.

Percentage of men and women in US resident population versus those employed full time in faculty positions within the ranks of professor, associate professor (prof.) and assistant professor (key). Source data for full time faculty in the fall 2016. ref. 1 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_315.20.asp), and noninstitutionalized resident population of the United States ages 18–64, by race, ethnicity and sex, 2014, ref. 2 (https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/introduction/).

Source data

Fig. 2: Percentage of women in career stages and typical timing of first F32 and R01.

Figure from Marc J. Lerchenmueller and Olav Sorenson (ref. 13).

Benefits of diversity

Let’s take a scientific approach to the question of whether diversity is beneficial to science. Decades of research in multiple fields have shown that a diverse workforce helps enhance creativity, productivity, problem solving, innovation, loyalty, and teamwork. Various institutions and interest groups have examined and prioritized the importance of diversity in scientific outcomes3,4,5. I will discuss some of these examples below.

A study examined 2.5 million research papers, in which all of the authors had US addresses. They showed that papers with four or five authors of multiple ethnicities have, on average, one to two more citations than those written by authors all of the same ethnicity6. They found that homophily, or the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with people who are similar to themselves, is greater for authors with weaker publication records, and is associated with lower-impact papers among authors with similar publication records. These data indicate that researchers can strive for more impactful science by diversifying scientific research teams. A homogenous team is bad for science, because it is not possible to achieve synergy without heterogeneity among the team members.

The benefits of diversity extend beyond academia. A study that involved a nationally representative survey of 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies, and focus groups and interviews, revealed that companies with leadership having both inherent and acquired diversity were 45% more likely to have had market share growth over the previous year and 70% more likely to capture a new market7. It turns out that immigrants, who by definition come from different countries with distinct cultures and have acquired diversity, tend to make successful leaders.

How does diversity promote excellence in science? Learning about points of view that differ from one’s own helps to dispel stereotypes and personal biases. But it does more than that. According to Professor Katherine Phillips of Columbia University, “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort”8.

Achieving diversity

So how can we achieve diversity in the immunology community? In order to ensure a bright future for immunology, we need to diversify the research community at every level. At the trainee level, philanthropic organizations and federal funding agencies have started programs to increase diversity in the pipeline. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program supports young scientists from gender, racial, ethnic, or other groups underrepresented in the life sciences through up to four years of postdoctoral training and up to four years in a faculty position. The HHMI Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study provide up to three years of funding for graduate students who are committed to increasing diversity among scientific leaders. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has enrichment programs that support URM scientists during their graduate and postdoctoral training periods. Federal funding agencies have instituted measures to ensure diversity in training. For example, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has T32 institutional predoctoral training grants, whose criteria include the presence of underrepresented groups in biomedical research at all levels (recruitment, trainees, mentors, and leadership), and there are various administrative supplements that can be added to existing NIH R01 research grants to support scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has invested $925 million in diversity programs, ranging from elementary schools through postdoctoral training and beyond9. In addition to these funding initiatives, trainees need role models and mentorship, as well as the right environment to succeed.

To increase diversity in the immunology research workforce, everyone must support the effort at every level. In practice, how can we train people to do so? A recent study suggests that brief online diversity training (offered by most institutions) may not be sufficient to change behaviors toward women in the workplace10. This suggests that in-person or long-term diversity training may be needed to fundamentally change people’s behaviors. In addition, resources dedicated to identifying and hiring diverse faculty into leadership positions might shift the behavioral dynamics of an institution. To reverse the decline in numbers of women and URMs at higher ranks, institutions need to stop using rhetoric that enables deflection of responsibility. For example, I have heard people in leadership positions say that a ‘pipeline problem’ has made it hard to diversify their faculty and that there are not enough qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds to fill their positions. This might be true if we only rely on the traditional ‘old boys’ networks for identifying candidates. Institutions need to be more proactive in seeking out qualified diverse candidates.

The percentage of women in academic positions drops most precipitously at the postdoc-to-faculty transition11. In a typical open faculty search in biology, about 25% of applicants for an assistant professorship are women12, whereas women comprise about 45% of the postdoctoral applicant pool (Fig. 2). The reasons for this drop are complex but are often attributed to family-related issues such as their partners’ careers, childcare, or obligations to other family members11. Women may also be less likely to apply for faculty positions due to a lack of confidence or of role models. Institutions need to support women in the form of flexible working hours, nursing rooms and investment in couples’ recruitment efforts, and they should create mentorship programs for diversity candidates and provide access to role models for trainees wherever possible.

Another possible explanation for the drop in numbers of women in junior faculty positions is even more troubling. A recent study13 examined the careers of 6,336 scientists from the postdoctoral fellowship stage (with an F32 grant) to the principal investigator (PI) stage to aquisition of an R01 research grant. Women were awarded R01grants at a 20% lower rate than men. Differences in publication records explained about 60% of this difference. The remaining difference was attributed to women receiving less credit for their publication records. In other words, a woman who has the same numbers of publications and average citations per publication as a man benefits about 12% less in terms of time to receiving her first R01 grant. While the exact reasons for these differences are unknown, cognitive biases by the reviewers of the grant application may be at play13. To counter such biases, grant reviews may benefit from a shift toward more quantitative assessments of PIs and away from the ‘gut feelings’ of referees, because gut feelings can be full of implicit biases.

Institutions need to nurture and cultivate faculty from underrepresented groups. This should begin early and should continue even after such faculty are in leadership positions. The criteria for appointment and promotion should include a candidate’s efforts to promote diversity and provide mentorship. Early-career faculty should be guided and groomed for leadership roles. Serving on university committees is a good way to expand one’s understanding of the institution and to learn what it takes to lead. Furthermore, serving on scientific advisory boards of institutions and foundations and on committees in professional societies will provide insight into the workings of organizations beyond one’s home institution.

For women and minority scientists in leadership positions, institutions and communities must be committed to protecting their time so they may excel in what they do. Successful women and URMs are often invited to serve on committees, give talks, or sit on advisory boards. As discussed earlier, service on committees and boards enhances networking and leadership skills. However, underrepresented scientists are often in unusually high demand, particularly on faculty search committees, which are labor-intensive and where diversity matters a lot. People in majority groups can share this burden by training in diversity and inclusion advocacy and serving on committees to promote diversity in hiring, promotion, and retention. Women also bear duties that are often not compensated or rewarded in any way, such as serving as ‘ghost advisors’14. Proper acknowledgment mechanisms for such services is needed to change the dynamics of promotion and retention. Overall, institutions need infrastructures and mechanisms that provide women and minority scientists more time to focus on their research and careers.

Finally, women and URM scientists who have made it to leadership positions need to use their influence to effect change from the top. For example, instead of emulating their male counterparts to ‘fit in’, women in leadership positions could use the opportunity and privilege to influence those around them to be more diverse and innovative.

What should a leader look and act like?

As a society, we need to step back and reexamine the characteristics of a desirable leader. Too often, attributes that are exhibited by traditional male leaders such as assertiveness, confidence, decisiveness, and even a loud voice, are viewed as desirable characteristics in a leader. When women exhibit these behaviors, they are labeled as pushy, aggressive, and worse. Might someone who is thoughtful, consensus-seeking, and eager to admit weakness and identify areas for improvement not be a great leader? That’s radical but forward thinking. Women leaders with such characteristics are beginning to emerge15, and once there are enough of them at the top, the traditional notion of a leader can change.

Inclusion and equity

A diverse work force is the first step to achieving innovation. However, it must be accompanied by an inclusive environment. As Vernā Myers says, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/gpsolo/publications/gpsolo_ereport/2012/june_2012/diversity_invited_party_inclusion_asked_dance/). I learned the importance of inclusion when I started my postdoctoral training in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1998. At that time, the vast majority of my colleagues were white, male medical doctors. As a small Asian woman without an MD, I felt invisible: I was at the party, but I was not dancing. I remember having to shout out my opinions and pound on the table to be heard in meetings. Eventually, my colleagues began to listen to and value my opinions. Many of them became and remain my closest colleagues. But I invited myself to dance. Not everyone is as forward as I am, and I learned from this experience that inclusion is easier implemented if it came from the top.

I often reflect on a study, carried out by Google, called Project Aristotle. This project examined more than 180 teams from across the company over a year. The goal was to identify what makes a team successful. Effectiveness in this study was defined by both qualitative (evaluations by executives, team leaders, and team members) and quantitative (sales performance) measures16. Surprisingly, characteristics such as team members’ IQ or track record did not correlate with a team’s success. Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, above all else, was the number one predictor of an effective team. In other words, for a diverse team to work to its fullest capacity, everyone on the team must feel that it is safe to voice his or her opinions without being ridiculed.

It is important to keep in mind that people do not all start off on the same footing, and that equity is required for diverse groups to have successful outcomes. Equity is an active process. For example, an evaluation of R01 grant award outcomes found that compared to white applicants, Asian and black or African-American applicants were 4% and 13% less likely, respectively, to receive NIH investigator–initiated research funding17. Notably, the study found that even after controlling for educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, black applicants were 10% less likely to obtain R01 funding. It is unclear why, but the authors suggest that one explanation may be differences in cumulative advantage18 experienced by certain groups. Therefore, small differences in opportunity, mentorship, and access may add up to make a large difference in award outcomes. Given these data, institutions and researchers need to reflect on what policies and measures can be implemented to provide more equitable access to funding among diverse individuals in the scientific community.

As a PI over the past 19 years, I have witnessed the amazing benefit of diversity within my own laboratory. Although I did not intentionally do this, my lab has always consisted of more women than men, and they come from very different racial and cultural backgrounds. This diversity has enriched the culture of the laboratory (and led to some great potluck parties). At one point, an Israeli graduate student was paired with a Lebanese medical student for her thesis project. Before joining my lab, these two women were living on opposite sides of the Israel–Lebanon border, and both survived the hardships of the conflict. After working together, a remarkable understanding and life-long friendship formed between the two, and this created an even better laboratory environment. There are countless other examples of wonderful friendships forming between people of various nationalities that helps to provide a whole different perspective of the world. Diversity in the research community therefore contributes to more than just scientific success.


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I thank the members of my laboratory, past and present, for teaching me the value of diversity in science. Many of the insights I shared in this commentary came from posts by my fellow scientists on Twitter. I thank the funding agencies, including the HHMI, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, NSF, and NIH for their commitment and effort in promoting diversity in science.

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Correspondence to Akiko Iwasaki.

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