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Key Takeaways from the DEI in the Lab Panel at SLAS 2024

Clarkston’s Brandon Miller and Dmitri Serebrianik recently attended the 2024 Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. This annual conference brought together executives, scientists, lab automation and clinical operations leaders, and technology experts together to discuss advancements, trends, and insights related to clinical research, R&D, and lab innovations. Brandon Miller had the opportunity to share insights related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE+I) in the life sciences as a panelist on the “DEI in the Lab” panel. Below, he shares key insights and takeaways for the industry. 

With the advancements in bioanalytics, screening and automation technologies, leveraging data science and artificial intelligence in research and development, and innovations in precision medicine and diagnostics, it should not be lost on anyone the main organizational asset driving these innovations: people. With diversity being a unique advantage in science and technology, there is still much work to be done. During a “DEI in the Lab” panel at SLAS 2024, Brandon Miller and panelists Marilee Lloyd (Associate Principal at HED), Ramisa Fariha (Doctoral Student at Brown University), and Colin Cox (Senior Director of Automation at Hexagon Bio) discussed some of the opportunities to prioritize equity, create inclusive spaces, and increase diverse representation in the industry.

Key Takeaways from the 2024 DEI in the Lab Panel at SLAS 2024

1. DE+I initiatives should be prioritized throughout the fabric of your organization.

In the DE+I conversation, we often hear the phrase “having a seat at the table” as a metaphor for representation, especially in leadership. In the life sciences industry, like all others, it’s important to think about diversity as it relates to “getting in the door, having access to all rooms, a seat at the table, and a voice at the table.” Although recent reports show that the life sciences industry remains committed to advancing DE+I, we’ve yet to see the progress we should expect, and there are key differences between large and small organizations on how that commitment is actualized.

Much of the panel’s discussion and audience’s questions revolved around how to follow through on DE+I commitments, navigate the politicization of the term “DE+I,” and tactics to develop and execute an organizational business case for promoting DE+I.

The panelists highlighted foundational pieces of advice:

  1. It’s important to expand the demographics of diversity in your organization, although the FDA and regulatory bodies have focused conversations on race/ethnicity and gender. Your organization should have a commitment to sexual orientation and gender identity beyond the binary, neurodiversity, physical disabilities, and socioeconomic diversity. Although this data is challenging to collect, creating a psychologically safe environment and implementing a self-ID campaign can help you understand the representation of your organization and any inequities that may exist among these groups’ experiences.
  2. Countless studies highlight how diverse and inclusive organizations have higher rates of innovation, increased sense of belonging, and higher topline revenue. Organizations should analyze the benefits and barriers to diverse representation across all departments and functional areas – e.g. how diversity in marketing can create more inclusive and authentic campaigns and advertising, how diversity in data science can reduce coding biases, how diversity in supply chain can promote economic growth within an organization and its vendors, how diversity in HR can reduce unconscious bias in policies and create authentic connections with the workplace, and how diversity in sales can increase revenue through penetrating new customer segments.
  3. One of the larger barriers to the upward mobility of underrepresented groups are unconscious biases that are evident in performance reviews, quality of feedback, and lack of access to opportunities. Life sciences organizations should consider the institution of formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship programs to ensure timely feedback, advice, and advocacy for marginalized groups, which has a direct tie to equitable and diverse succession planning and a diverse leadership team.
  4. Companies should also take an innovative approach to professional development of their employees. Often “DE+I training programs” are specific to topics like unconscious bias, cultural intelligence, or inclusive language – all of which are critically important. From an equity perspective, it’s also important to think about the unique needs of your employees and incorporate reskilling, upskilling, and augmented training to ensure underrepresented groups are positioned for success.
  5. Consider organizational pinch points that make it difficult for a variety of people to grow their careers and ensure you have processes to circumvent common pinch points. This can include the parental wall, when individuals have children (most commonly affecting women), the transition to people-management, departmental shifts toward automation and artificial intelligence, and many others.
2. Be intentional and innovative to increase diverse representation and retention in clinical trials.

One of the prominent, yet unfortunate, challenges that we are seeing in the life sciences industry is a lack of representation and equity when it comes to health care, and a portion of these inequities stem from biased clinical trials. With the increase in investment, pipeline activity, and novel medicines, people of color are underrepresented in three-fourths of all clinical trials; in fact clinical trial diversity is the lowest it has been in a decade, with Black participation declining consistently over the past 10 years.

Outside of the moral case, there’s documented business benefit to the intentional inclusion of diverse representation and equitable design of clinical trials. The more intentionality that is focused upfront in diverse enrollment and equitable design will directly impact revenue once commercialized, from an increase in patients who are comfortable taking the therapy to a reduced chance that the drug will be pulled from the market due to concerns of adverse effects with certain subgroups. Additionally, the FDA provided guidance on implementing diversity action plans (DAP) for late stage clinical trials, implementing decentralized clinical trials, leveraging digital health technologies, and incorporating real world data/evidence – all of which support equitable design and diverse enrollment.

The panel shared key strategies that clinical research and trial designers should consider:

  1. It’s imperative to have representation and diversity at your clinical trial site and among your trial teams. Having diversity among your investigators, coordinators, researchers, and assistants can provide awareness, comfort, and connection with trial participants and increase not only enrollment but retention. Clinical research teams should also all participate in cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training ahead of trial execution.
  2. Develop mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations that support underrepresented groups while also investing in these communities. Gilead’s HIV Age Positively, RADIAN, TRANScend, and COMPASS initiative are all examples of how the organization develops partnerships, trust, and support with underrepresented communities.
  3. Understand socioeconomic disparities and how they can negatively impact the participation of your study, and partner with nonprofits or develop financial assistance support for patients to reimburse costs for clinical trial participants, such as travel or childcare expense.
  4. Leverage digital marketing techniques to increase your company’s brand, target educational content on your therapies, and ultimately increase clinical trial recruitment. This can include social media advertising, search engine optimization, content marketing, or influencer marketing (leveraging key opinion leaders and trusted partners among marginalized communities).
  5. Predictive analytics can be leveraged within commercial data sciences team to strategically sift through clinical trial and Healthcare Provider (HCP) data to make recommendations for clinical trial locations based on patient diversity, influence of HCPs, and relationships with healthcare organizations.

The number of clinical trials has increased significantly in recent years; as of January 2024 there were nearly 480 thousand clinical studies registered globally. Increasing diversity in trials is paramount, and we encourage life sciences firms to work with a trusted partner to determine the right strategies for your organization but to also adhere to new FDA guidelines and reduce exposure to incompliance.

3. It’s imperative to design labs with accessibility in mind.

A core portion of the panelists’ conversation, and an often-neglected consideration, is designing laboratory spaces that are welcoming of women, people of color, neurodivergent scientists, individuals with physical disabilities, and diverse cultures and religions. Over the years, we’ve seen advancements in laboratory equipment, a rise in automation, and renovated lab spaces. With said advancement, it’s imperative that we take an inclusive look at how these spaces are designed. Currently only 3% of the STEM workforce identifies as a person with a disability; this percentage has not changed since 2011.

Marilee Lloyd, Associate Principal at HED, advised on the importance of creating more accessible, dynamic, and comfortable lab spaces – for those that may be in the lab for a short duration, and those that may work a full workday. The panelists highlighted their top considerations in lab design, including:

  1. Using automated desktops that can be height adjusted, ensuring accessibility for those who may work from a wheelchair, as well as ensuring that all lab monitors can be raised, lowered, or adjusted for those who may be standing or seated.
  2. Leveraging natural lighting and biophilic design using windows and skylights to improve well-being and mood of lab personnel. Tunable LED lighting can be programed to simulate the 24-hour circadian color shift.
  3. Incorporating ergonomic design principles to promote comfort and welcome a diversity of bodies into the lab environment.
  4. Allowing for quiet spaces – ones that can serve as private space for neurodivergent lab personnel, a lactation room, or for prayer and meditation.
  5. Ensuring restrooms are nearby, gender-inclusive, and can accommodate lab workers with physical disabilities.

Designing inclusive lab spaces is a monetary investment, but the bottom-line results of greater inclusion and equity in sciences are evident. In designing accessible spaces, we won’t only see desired improvements in disability metrics within STEM occupations, but we will also increase the likelihood for innovation, collaboration, new insights, and ground-breaking advancements in the sciences.

Building a More Inclusive Lab Space

Contact us if you are curious about any of the insights shared at the DEI in the Lab panel or are interested in exploring how your organization can take a strategic, actionable approach in advancing DE+I. You can also learn more about our DE+I consulting services here.

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Tags: Equitable Clinical Trials, Diversity + Inclusion, Laboratory Operations