Johnna Frierson, PhD is Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for the Basic Sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine. She joined the Medical School in 2019 as Assistant Dean, from the Pratt School of Engineering, where she directed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. Before building a career on inclusive research and academic environments, Dr. Frierson was awarded a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology at Vanderbilt University. From Vanderbilt she came to UNC as a postdoctoral fellow where she worked on initiatives focused on diversity recruitment and retention, science outreach, and cross-disciplinary graduate education.
Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD: I would like to ask you about your early beginnings, as an undergraduate at Furman University, South Carolina. Are you today what you were dreaming of as an undergrad? Data shows that vast majority of undergraduates end up working in places that are very, very far away from what they dreamed of. Is that true for you too?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: I knew for a long time that I wanted to major in a scientific discipline, so I graduated with a Biology major. I also knew that I love science. But I didn't have an idea of what I would do exactly, just that I wanted to get my hands involved in research. The two biggest things that really shaped my career trajectory from my undergraduate years at Furman University were the liberal arts education and developing an interest in learning about a lot of different things, including philosophy and other humanities. This shaped my perspective, it supported my curiosity, and critical thinking.
And then, you went to Vanderbilt for a PHD…
Johnna Frierson, PhD: Getting a PhD really changed my life. It changed the way I think, the way that I approach problem-solving, and not only in an academic environment. It also helped me to broaden my world view, getting a chance to work with people from a lot of different places and from other countries. I hadn't done a significant amount of travel until my graduate studies, so going to places like Italy, which was a dream of mine, where I presented at a Gordon conference, sharing my research, getting affirmed and validated was a very positive experience.
What mentors shaped your career?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: I would like to mention my graduate advisor, Terry Dermody, who is now at Pitt. He was the ideal mentor who balanced constructive criticism and encouraging support. Dr. Michelle Grundy, who led the summer research programs at Vanderbilt was a model of what it looked like to have a biomedical PhD and an administrative career track. It helped me see the role that a person could play, not only for a few students but shaping many student trajectories.
Was the UNC postdoctoral fellowship what truly changed your future trajectory?
Johnna Frierson, PHD: All the experiences I had accumulated until that point led me to want to pursue that postdoctoral opportunity and choose this trajectory. It was because of my leadership activities as a graduate student focused on equity, diversity and inclusion. And because of my mentors who motivated me to complete my PhD. Also, my personal experience and the experiences of some of my peers, about what it means to come from a racial/ethnic background which is not well represented. All those things came together to make me want to pursue a career where I could serve as a mentor, help people make really critical career decisions, help them navigate the environment that is so unique to the biomedical journey and help to create solutions to the barriers that I saw as a graduate student. The interest came first, and the Postdoctoral fellowship was a perfect fit for it.
What barriers have you had to overcome?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: At my undergraduate institution, I was very enthusiastic about science, I had more than one research experience over the course of my college career, and yet I almost didn't pursue a PhD because I didn't realize that I fit the profile of a PhD student. Despite my previous exposures and interests, I did not think about pursuing this track until one of my professors told me that I should at least consider a PhD degree. I know that my story is not uncommon and it is indicative of a larger problem where especially those from historically excluded groups don’t always have access to information, or don’t see themselves as viable candidates. So, a barrier I needed to overcome was to increase the awareness of considering a PhD as a viable trajectory. And a second barrier was learning the hidden curriculum: the many unknowns about how you conduct yourself, what are your standard operating procedures for being successful. Most of this has nothing to do with your ability or your intelligence. And yet, because of how unwelcoming the environments can be, sometimes you can interpret it that way. You can interpret your lack of knowledge as an indication that you just aren't fit. You can internalize your challenges in a way that make you think that you don't belong in that environment.
So, the hidden curriculum was a big barrier not only for myself, but for a lot of my peers. Now I have a greater understanding of the nuances of those challenges in the environments that exist, the systems that exist, and not only at the individual level, but at the institutional level. As a student, the main barriers were barriers to access, and barriers to understanding the environment, the culture, in order to be successful. Those two factors had a big impact in motivating me to want to make a difference. The question I was receiving most when I started my PhD program was “how did I get there” and “why was I there”. You're not able to benefit from the learning experiences and the training in the same way, because you're afraid of being invalidated. So, if you make a mistake, or if you're not one hundred percent perfect, then you're confirming the bias behind those type of questions.
"Ultimately, our goal is to have a full understanding of what equity, diversity, and inclusion means, and how we can apply that to every single decision that we make, so that it is never looked at as a separate consideration."
Looking back at the universities you got to know, what do they have in common in terms of diversity and safe research environments, and also in terms of aspirations?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: I would say that there is a lot of good will among the leaders, among the faculty, and there are many resources and top notch facilities. An aspirational goal that I would love to see in general is for those intentions to be translated to concrete change in in how we do business, how we develop our policies that impact individuals at every level – students, faculty and staff. Everything that we do ties into equity and inclusion, because every decision - whether it is budgets, how you're leading a group, or how to successfully pursue and conduct research – at the core, it’s about the people involved. And they have to think about how everyone is being heard, valued and treated. Ultimately, our goal is to have a full understanding of what equity, diversity, and inclusion means, and how we can apply that to every single decision that we make, so that it is never looked at as a separate consideration.
"We have to remember that at the core of our work is our humanity. If you keep humanity and compassion at the core of the work that we do, it is not so hard to understand why everyone has a desire to be treated fairly and equally. And, especially because of the importance of our mission it's critical that we have everyone who is able to participate to help make advancements in scientific knowledge."
What do you say to those people who do not welcome this change?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: If we think about our mission as members of the academia, we're trying to have a better understanding of the world around us: a better understanding of our health, and how we can promote health, wellbeing and cure disease. Ultimately, our goal is to improve our lives as humans. We have to remember that at the core of our work is our humanity. If you keep humanity and compassion at the core of the work that we do, it is not so hard to understand why everyone has a desire to be treated fairly and equally. And, especially because of the importance of our mission it's critical that we have everyone who is able to participate to help make advancements in scientific knowledge.
How difficult was for you to succeed as a woman of color?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: Fortunately, I had a very positive experience particularly during my training years. Over the course of my professional career, there have been challenges, such as instances when I haven't always felt heard and where I felt that my expertise or perspective hasn't always been appreciated. Diligently working to advance equity, diversity and inclusion, and amplify the message of why it's important, and how we can advance those values in our environment, and on top of that, doing that as a black woman, being on the receiving end of that bias at times, has been very difficult. What helped me to continue were my mentors and colleagues who pushed me to think of how I can refine or sharpen my message to make sure that I am reaching the audience in a way that I know will be understood. My determination comes from my understanding of what's at stake, and from understanding that my work goes beyond who I am as an individual. My identity enhances my work, but it's not about me or about my particular experience. It is about the many experiences that are documented in the literature that push me to continue even when I get frustrated at times.
What is your advice for black students and especially for black women about building successful careers?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: My biggest piece of advice is to push through any fears that you might have and utilize every resource available to you – people, financial resources, collaborators, etc.,- everything that it is within your reach to leverage for your success. Don't be afraid about what the perception might be because ultimately, the outcome of your project is going to speak for itself. Not having access to those resources is going to inhibit you from being able to reach your goals. Also, find people that you feel that are going to be advocates to give you good advice, help connect you to those resources.
"I would like Duke to be one of the top institutions in the country regarding diverse representation and inclusive excellence in our academic community, and I believe we have the resources and leadership support to make it happen. I would like us to be known as leaders for creating the inclusive environment where people are happy, thrive, are successful and feel supported. I would like Duke to be known as an institution that makes bold moves when it comes not only to the message, but to investments in supporting people to be successful because of their talent and passion and regardless of their background. We have a lot of good ideas in place and a strong commitment from our leadership."
Do you have a lesson that you would like to share, related to your work in diversity and inclusion?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: The biggest lesson that I've learned is that in order to be successful in my mission of helping our environments to be more inclusive, I have to tie my mission to the core mission of the university, the school, the lab. I have to think strategically to make sure that my message is always connected to the core mission and goals. Otherwise it will be seen as secondary. Another big lesson is that the work is best when it is collaborative and when we treat people like full partners. I don't have all of the answers, but I can brainstorm around solutions, provide insight from what I know from the literature and from the models that I've seen to find potential solutions. I am constantly searching for those models, for the latest papers and studies. I can help be a catalyst.
Could you share a proud moment with us?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: About five years ago I had the opportunity to work with Burroughs Wellcome Fund to create the Graduate Diversity Enrichment Network. I invited representatives from six institutions in North Carolina. When we met for the first time and I looked around the table, I realized that the work that I had done over the years, the connections that I had made, the trust that those people had in me to do good work, all culminated in this opportunity to have an inter-institutional collaboration for the benefit of the students. That was a big moment that made me realize that I've come a long way.
Gerry Blobe, Micah Luftig and I were recently awarded a NIH grant to promote diversity of our graduate education helping to support post baccalaureate students to access PhD, MD-PhD programs and biomedical sciences. Years ago, my participation in a post-baccalaureate program at Vanderbilt helped me to get into the PhD program. Now, to be able to serve as the PI of the same type of program and be able to help students at such a critical stage in their education is something I'm very excited about, on a personal and professional level.
Could you share a little more about this program?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: The goal of the project is to help support students through a yearlong post baccalaureate experience and help them to successfully matriculate into a PhD or MD-PhD program in the biomedical sciences. During that year they'll do laboratory research, attend professional development programming and have intensive mentoring. The activities will serve the purpose of helping them identify their academic and scientific strengths and needs in order to help increase their sense of scientific identity and encourage them to continue along the path of pursuing careers in the scientific workforce. We'll have small cohort of students and I am very excited not only impact their trajectory, but hopefully to help increase the diversity in our student population, as well as sending a message about the importance of having inclusive environments. Duke had a similar program years ago and we are excited to have the opportunity to have a new one in our menu of options to support students from historically excluded backgrounds, in addition to BioCoRE and similar other initiatives. I would like Duke to be one of the top institutions in the country regarding diverse representation and inclusive excellence in our academic community, and I believe we have the resources and leadership support to make it happen. I would like us to be known as leaders for creating the inclusive environment where people are happy, thrive, are successful and feel supported. I would like Duke to be known as an institution that makes bold moves when it comes not only to the message, but to investments in supporting people to be successful because of their talent and passion and regardless of their background. We have a lot of good ideas in place and a strong commitment from our leadership.
What are some of the key elements of a healthy research environment? And some of the unhealthy aspects that people need to pay attention to, whether they are managers or just regular employees, with little power.
Johnna Frierson, PhD: Some key elements of healthy environments are transparency and leadership accountability at all levels, meaning that if we are committing to do something, there are measures in place to make sure that we're accountable to what we say that we're going to do. And if we don't meet our goals, how are we going to revisit them in order to make the necessary adjustments to be able to resource goals. The pillars of my office are accountability, consistency, belonging, and infrastructure needed to support the work of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. These components are also key elements of having a healthy environment where everyone feels that they can be successful. Accountability means making sure that people regardless of who they are, feel comfortable and belong in the environments where they are working, that there's accountability to staying true to the values that we say are important. It also includes adopting policies and processes to address issues when they come up, that are in alignment with those values. Consistency means that we are not only implementing a one off initiative, but we have a longstanding strategic commitment to investing in programs that will ultimately create the environment that we want. And Infrastructure means supporting the leaders, providing advancement opportunities for those who are willing to take leadership roles and then rewarding those efforts. Also, making sure that we have the investment, the financial resources, and the personnel that we need in order to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion properly. This can’t just be based on our emotions. If we have proper infrastructure that allows our departments to have the capacity to support the members of the academic community, then we can be much more effective.
When we have deficiencies in those areas, they contribute to an unhealthy environment, to mistrust, and apathy.
How could leaders and managers build a sense of belonging for their employees?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: I would encourage managers to go beyond their own personal experience, and have a mentality of openness and vulnerability. It is important for the managers to recognize: “I only have my lived experience, but I have to be willing to listen to others with different viewpoints than mine, with different lived experiences, and be curious as a person in an academic environment. I have to want to learn. So that means going outside of my normal sources for information, to go outside of only discipline-specific journals and publications, be curious about different materials that can inform and broaden my perspective.” This takes some work and effort.
What is your piece of advice for someone who is struggling in an unhealthy or unsafe work environment in the Academia?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: It depends on the situation; whether it is about a student, staff, or faculty. I advise people in difficult situations to try to recognize what their sphere of influence is. Before you think about what you can’t do, assess your sphere of influence: on what actions do I have direct influence? Who in my environment, in my network can help me to address this challenge that I'm facing? What do I need?” Going through that process can be really helpful. And it also can be very empowering, because, you might realize you have more power than you thought, or more help than you thought. It is also important to have a clear understanding of why you're doing what you're doing, what goals do you have and why is it important to you and the broader scientific community, because it will help you understand what challenges are worth pushing through or walking away from.
How do you empower researchers and staff members to actively contribute to changing the work environment without putting themselves at risk?
Johnna Frierson, PhD: In order to make the environment inclusive and welcoming, we need to make sure that we are each doing our part. You alone are not responsible for setting the tone of your environment. It especially isn’t the job of those who have been on the receiving end of the bias or systemic inequality to try to change the environment. If we have a community oriented approach to improving the environment, then I think that's how we can each actively contribute. And we do this by seeing everyone as having a part to play in creating the environment that we want to have. We do this by listening and considering anyone who does bring up an issue. If you’re an individual who knows that your voice carries more weight, or you have more influence and power, then you have an active responsibility to make positive change. We have to actively see each other as having ownership in this process to meet the goal of changing the environment. So, it is all of us, not just one person sacrificing themselves in order to make the environment better.
Mentoring is a very powerful vehicle in making this change, because everyone, regardless of your career or training stage, can grasp what it means to be a mentor. If we see ourselves as mentors, then we can feel more motivated to learn and grow.