Aiming for Progress: Q+A with Dr. Sandra Ryeom on Improving DEI in Science, Medicine

June 9, 2022

Sandra Ryeom, PhD, is associate director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office at the HICCC and associate professor of surgical sciences and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs and new master's degree programs at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) last fall unveiled its new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI Office). The new office will build upon the HICCC’s ongoing efforts and commitment to increase the recruitment of researchers and clinicians that have historically been underrepresented in science and medicine, at all levels of the organization. Through new programming and initiatives, the DEI Office will promote the crucial need for diversity, equity and inclusion across the entire cancer center. 

Sandra Ryeom, PhD, who joined Columbia University Irving Medical Center in October 2021 as associate professor of surgery and member of the HICCC’s Tumor Biology and Microenvironment program, is leading the DEI Office at the HICCC as its associate director, with Jennifer Woo Baidal, MD, as assistant director. Dr. Baidal, a member of the HICCC’s Cancer Population Science program, is director of pediatric weight management in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S)

The lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in cancer medicine and science remains a persistent problem. With the establishment of the HICCC’s DEI office, there is a reinforced commitment to enact real change and improve the status quo. 

Dr. Ryeom discusses her role as associate director of DEI and why it matters so much to her to see progress made in a field that has long suffered from the lack of diversity. 

When you think of what DEI means to you, what do you immediately think of? 

Since I started my lab 12 years ago, it has been a real passion of mine to diversify the biomedical workforce on all levels, from trainees to staff, to faculty to leadership and to patients and clinical trials. I was at Harvard, then Penn and now at Columbia, and it continues to astonish me how these institutions are still predominantly white and do not reflect the diversity that surrounds us. I find that unbelievable. We are still in this place where most of the institutions and centers like ours are mostly all white.

For me, “DEI” starts with “I” for inclusion. The acronym really should be “IED.” I think diversity is a long-term project. How do we have true diversity, meaning having people represented from different backgrounds, different genders, different sexual orientations, different physical abilities and capabilities, different socio-economic backgrounds and race and ethnicity. But inclusion, to me, is making people feel like they have a voice at the table, right now. I know everyone says that, but what does that actually mean? To me, it means, meeting people where they are, depending on who they are, and supporting them.

Can you give an example of how you and the DEI Office will accomplish this, at least in the near term?

We are organizing a new post-doc initiative called the Rising Star Postdoctoral Recruitment Event October 12-14 . We are going to bring in underrepresented graduate students in the biomedical sciences to Columbia in the fall for three days and two nights, and the goal is to recruit them here as fulltime postdocs at VP&S. What’s unique about this program, and what we can offer at Columbia, is that they will come in as a cluster hire. This means they’ll have four or five, maybe up to nine, other post-docs that will look like them and come from similar backgrounds, so they’ll have that peer-mentoring and support from the gate. This is so important because it can be really difficult to navigate a new job, new lab, when you are part of the underrepresented minority, for instance, in a predominantly white institution. The new post-docs hired through the Rising Star initiative will also have integrated mentoring, so in addition to having peer mentoring, and mentoring from their PIs, they’ll also have monthly workshops offering support on navigating academics on topics from microaggressions to dealing with implicit bias and meeting routinely with Columbia leadership, deans of the colleges and other PIs and researchers across the organizational structure. 

They have a voice and will be able to amplify their voice, and we’ll help with that and whatever they’ll need to set them up for success. That, to me, is a good example of meeting people where they are and really trying to ensure inclusivity. 

What are the other new initiatives you’ll be introducing?

At the end of June, we’ll be kicking off a new summer science program, with high school students at University Heights High School in the South Bronx where the student body is roughly 90% Black and Hispanic, and 82% of the students are from low-income families. It is a week-long program where students work on experimental kits containing Drosophila, a common fruit fly, to study the impact nutrition has on tumor growth in the flies and which foods promote more rapid tumor growth. The weeklong session closes with  a cooking class that their parents or guardians can participate in to be led by one of our community partners, Sylvia’s Kitchen, and the following week, the students will present posters on their work at a poster session and reception to be held at the HICCC. Our goal is to run this program annually with more than a dozen local schools. The idea is to increase and improve our pipeline of talented students from the diverse neighborhoods around CUIMC and engage students who may be interested in science and medicine at Columbia with our trainees, researchers and faculty members. 

Jennifer (Woo Baidal) and I are also starting an exceptional scholar speaker series. We’re inviting junior faculty, who are underrepresented in science and medicine, to give talks at the cancer center once a semester and spend two days here visiting and meeting with members. We’re going to keep an eye on these trainees as they establish their early careers and keep in touch with them for potential future positions at Columbia. This initiative will help us establish a more diverse network of potential hires and expand our existing recruitment networks and outreach efforts.

What motivates you personally to be involved in matters of DEI?

I emigrated to the U.S. from Korea in the 1970s. First, to Los Angeles, and later, to Washington, D.C. where I attended elementary and high school. There was so much racism in the ’70s; I remember being called racial slurs at school growing up, and just feeling different and constantly feeling embarrassed. There was embarrassment around learning English, and witnessing the constant embarrassment and humiliation my parents suffered from their heavily accented English stays with me. Just this past year while shopping at a grocery store, someone there presumed I didn’t speak English because I didn’t reply to their question right away. Being an immigrant and having friends from diverse backgrounds throughout my life and witnessing the racism and microaggressions they often face has made me passionate about DEI. 

What’s your long-term goal or vision for DEI at the HICCC?

We are going to be very intentional about bringing in trainees and faculty who are diverse, and we’re going to run affinity groups year-round that provide a space and community at the HICCC to discuss DEI-related issues, plan events and activities. We’re going to be a constant presence. We held our first DEI affinity group meeting in May and we’ll have our next one on July 22nd when we will discuss the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. This isn’t a book club meeting but a presentation by Jennifer and I to share key concepts that Mr. Kendi writes about. Our DEI affinity groups will be held every other month.  We are planning a DEI training session for our leadership, and we want to also, down the road, hire a consulting firm to do a DEI climate survey at the cancer center, involving everyone in the organization. We need to have the tough and hard conversations about why Columbia and the cancer center aren’t as diverse as we should be.