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Improving the Climate for Research in Neuroscience

The Challenge

The University of Michigan admits and graduates outstanding students every year. But for women and underrepresented minorities (URMs) in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the climate in research laboratories can be unwelcoming. This environment can result in the decision to leave academia, contributing to a “leaky pipeline.”

Approximately 65% of graduate students in the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) are women and about 30% are URMs. Yet, this proportion is not retained on transition to the faculty in neuroscience, reflecting the national trends.

In 2017, the NGP conducted a survey, supported by a Whitaker Grant from CRLT. The results strongly indicated that gender issues exist within the program. In response, the NGP Executive Committee decided to implement a new policy requiring our faculty and all NGP doctoral students to undergo directed training on gender harassment-related issues.

Our challenge was to develop workshops to address issues related to gender harassment:

  • how to recognize gender harassment
  • how to change our behaviors relative to gender harassment
  • how to intervene in instances of gender harassment.

Our Approach

Engage NGP Student and Faculty Advisory Committees for “Addressing the Leaky Pipeline: Improving the Climate for Research in Neuroscience.”

  • Interested NGP students and faculty joined independent advisory committees and spent the summer of 2018 reading key scientific studies on sexual harassment in academia with guidance from two GSIs in Psychology, Kathrina Robotham and Nadia Vossoughi. The NGP student and faculty leaders then provided insights during table discussions at Workshops I and II described below.

Faculty and Student Advisory Committees met with Dr. Sara Armstrong and Dr. Christine Bean (Director and Assistant Director of the CRLT Theatre Program, respectively) to discuss development of two workshops on Sexual Harassment.

These workshops addressed specific issues of concern to the NGP and were modified versions of presentations developed earlier by the CRLT Theatre Program in collaboration with Professor Lilia Cortina. Each workshop was presented three times to allow all NGP faculty and students to attend.

  • Workshop I—“Moving the Needle I: Shifting the Conversation Around Sexual Harassment.” This workshop provided an overview of the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment on individuals and communities in higher education. It also provided education on U-M resources to support targets of harassment, mechanisms for addressing and reporting harassment, and guided group discussion. It was presented by Sara Armstrong and the CRLT Players and included dramatic sketches of different types of gender harassment followed by small and large group discussion. Dates: November 13, November 30, January 23; Total Attendance: 150 (81 faculty, 69 students)
  • Workshop II—“Moving the Needle II: Enacting Your Personal Responsibility.” In this workshop, using case studies, developed in consultation with the NGP student advisory committee, participants reflected on their current behavior during facilitated conversations, learned proactive ways to respond when witnessing sexually harassing behavior, and considered actions that promote communal accountability and respect. This workshop was also presented by Sara Armstrong, Christine Bean, and the CRLT Players, and included both small and large group discussion. Dates: March 21, April 1, April 3; Total Attendance: 129 (72 faculty and 57 students)
  • Follow-up Workshop for Student and Faculty Advisory Committees—“Moving the Needle: Creating an Inclusive Climate/Culture.” The final three-and-a-half-hour workshop (held once) included members of the faculty and student advisory committees to help us identify next steps to promote inclusivity and respect within the NGP. This session included a structured design format to encourage brainstorming ideas for organizational changes. Working in small groups, we discussed questions related to culture change in the program and individual labs, communal values and expectations, and accountability. Date: April 26; Total Attendance: 16 (9 faculty/administrative staff and 7 students)

What We’ve Learned

The training workshops were effective at increasing student/faculty awareness and understanding of issues related to sexual harassment.

  • The CRLT Theatre Program post-workshop evaluation tool found (Figure 1) a strong positive trend over the series of workshops toward increased knowledge of issues and commitment to changes.
  • The ADVANCE Program administered and analyzed online surveys prior to the first workshop and after the second. Both surveys contained identical questions related to definitions and behaviors of sexual harassment, its prevalence, requirements for reporting, department climate, harassment observed or experienced while at U-M, and preparedness to handle such situations. Statistically significant differences were observed for items related to awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment (Figure 2), the reporting requirement for responsible employees (Figure 3), and U-M policies and resources related to sexual harassment (Figure 4).

In the follow-up workshop, participants developed ideas for structural changes related to how the NGP could:

  • Support education efforts and climate work in individual labs.
  • Leverage moments when graduate students enter our community to create a culture resistant to sexual harassment.
  • Leverage moments when faculty enter our community to create a culture resistant to sexual harassment.

Next Steps

Over the next year, we plan to focus our efforts in 3 areas:

  1. Develop a Professional Code of Conduct that outlines the values of the NGP program that govern its decisions and actions, including expectations for behavior and mechanisms of accountability. The document will be developed by the student and faculty advisory committees and then discussed at town hall meetings for NGP faculty and students. After approval, all NGP students and faculty will be expected to sign the Professional Code of Conduct.
  2. In collaboration with the CRLT Theatre Program, we will repeat Workshops I and II to provide education/training for our 13 first-year Ph.D. students, newly affiliated NGP faculty, and any NGP students or faculty that were unable to attend the sessions last year. Attendance is required for all NGP students and training faculty.
  3. We will host two national leaders in the area of gender harassment for visits to the University of Michigan. Each guest will be invited to present a seminar open to all interested U-M faculty and students. Additionally, they will facilitate a workshop with NGP students/faculty to discuss new ideas for improving the climate of respect, equity, and inclusion for all within our scientific community.


Neuroscience Graduate Program


  • Audrey Seasholtz, Associate Director of the Doctoral Program in Neuroscience, Professor of Biological Chemistry and Research Professor, Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, Medical School
  • Jill Becker, Patricia Y. Gurin Collegiate Professor of Psychology, Professor of Psychology and Research Professor, Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, Medical School
  • Pamela Raymond, Professor Emerita of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
  • Sara Armstrong, Director, CRLT Theatre Program


To learn more visit the CRLT Program and the Neuroscience Graduate Program.