Department of Psychiatry appoints vice chair for diversity, equity and inclusion

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator

The Department of Psychiatry at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has appointed Assistant Professor Aislinn Williams, MD, PhD, as vice chair of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Peggy Nopoulos, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, says given the recent national spotlight on issues regarding race and inclusivity, the department’s leaders thought it was an appropriate time to review how the department was doing to ensure it was diverse, equitable and inclusive.

“Importantly, we really wanted to give this ‘traction’ rather than lip-service (so to speak) and felt that dedication of a high-level administrative position where there is protected time to address these issues was long overdue,” Nopoulos says. “There are few other positions in the College of Medicine like this and we are proud that we are one of the few departments making the creation of a position like this a priority.”

Nopoulos says that although the department’s residency class is diverse, the faculty could use more diversity.

“I hope that over time we can hire with an eye toward being as diverse as possible,” Nopoulos says. “I think it is also important to continue to address the issues of making sure our environment, both for patients and for employees, is as equitable and welcoming as possible to everyone.

Nopoulos says Williams’ application to be vice chair was “outstanding in not only the work she has been involved in previously, but she also outlined several items that she identified as projects and expectations to move on now, and in the future.”

A nod to Smith

Williams has been an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa since 2017. She received her MD and PhD degrees from the University of Iowa before completing her residency and doing postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her undergraduate degree is from Smith College in Massachusetts.

“I grew up in northern Wisconsin, and then when my parents divorced my family moved to Ann Arbor,” Williams says. “I was really active in anti-racism efforts as a high schooler… but when I got to Smith, I feel like that was that was the first time that anybody had really talked to me as an adult about inclusivity and leadership and diversity and representation.”

Aislinn Williams, MD, PhD

Williams says she attended Smith during the tenure of Ruth Simmons, who was the first Black female president of a major college or university in the United States.

“When I was in high school my principal was Black, my superintendent was Black, it didn’t occur to me that was not common,” Williams says. “But Smith was the first time that it was brought to my consciousness: This is unusual. This is something that you should be working toward. This is something that takes effort. It’s not just going to happen by accident.”

Williams says although Smith is not thought of like the University of California-Berkeley in terms of being a revolutionary place for diversity, equity and inclusion, “there certainly was a lot of activity and conversation around that when I was there, which looking back on it, I think probably influences how much I think about it now.”

Activities at Iowa

Since returning to the University of Iowa, Williams has been active in a number of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. As a member of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI), her lab is located in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, and she worked with administrators Meghan Lawler and Samantha Wasson, along with INI director Ted Abel, PhD, and others to get the building’s single-stall bathrooms designated as gender neutral facilities.

Williams also helped set up a social group for junior faculty members of the INI, after talking with fellow Assistant Professor Krystal Parker, PhD, about the need for an informal setting to discuss problems and troubleshoot solutions.

“It’s just sort of moral support for each other, and that’s particularly important for women and people of color, just because there are fewer of us at these ranks,” Williams says, adding they used to meet once a month at a local establishment, but since the onset of the COVID pandemic have been talking over Zoom.

In addition, Williams takes part in another group that Parker started, Women of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute, which focuses on the specific issues facing people who identify as women in academia, and also intends to help start collaborations vertically, from undergraduate to graduate school on up through more senior faculty, to provide more networking opportunities.

Williams also takes part in a national program called Skype a Scientist, a nonprofit organization that connects teachers and children in kindergarten through 12th grade with scientists, “with the hope of showing kids, particularly those who would later be underrepresented groups in science that there are scientists who look like them and have had the life experiences that they’ve had,” Williams says.

As someone from a rural background, Williams says she was considered disadvantaged because she was a first-generation college student and her family was low-income, qualifying for such items as free and reduced lunch.

Through Skype a Scientist, “I try to interface with teachers to give them an opportunity to have their students talk to me about whatever they want, so sometimes it’s younger kids wanting to know what happens when the sun explodes, or sometimes its juniors in high school who are feeling like they don’t know whether they have the financial resources to really go for a college degree.”

Plans for her position

Williams says when she heard the Department of Psychiatry was adding a diversity, equity and inclusion position at the vice chair level, it struck her immediately that the department truly was placing a high level of importance on the job, and decided to apply.

“I figured at the very least I would put together the best proposal that I could, taking all the information that I’ve gotten from other conversations that I’ve had, and even if I didn’t get the job, I thought that if I put together a really strong proposal that whoever did get the job could look at it and try to incorporate it into what they were doing.”

Williams says the proposal was more challenging than she expected, “because it wasn’t ‘what’s your dream for what this position could achieve” but in short order, what do you think you could actually get done in order of priority when you first get here.”

For education, Williams says, “the more short-term goal is to talk to people who are already here who are underrepresented at both our institution and widely in psychiatry, and talk to them about why they were willing to give us a chance,” Williams says.

In terms of clinical care, Williams says she thinks everyone recognizes that medicine has a lot of institutional racism, and both medicine and psychiatry have a really long history of not treating people equally “based on what we think about them from how they look.” She says during her first year, she plans to reach out to local community organizations such as NAMI, Cross Park Place and CommUnity, as well as smaller groups, churches and religious organizations.

“We say that we want to provide care for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identification or race or ethnicity, but there are clearly a lot of things that we do that we don’t think about that undermine that message,” Williams says. “So what message are we actually sending, versus what message we want to be sending, and how do we change that?”

Williams says she will focus on relationship building, learning more about patients’ experiences and what the department could be doing that would improve care for all patients.

From the research perspective, Williams says she already has been working with the INI, the largest research group with which psychiatry is affiliated. One thing brought to her attention by Dr. Antentor Hinton, senior postdoctoral fellow in Internal Medicine, is cluster hires, where a number of different people focused on the same topic, such as big data or health outcomes, are hired at the same time. Williams says the National Institutes of Health have encouraged the reimagining of a cluster hire, to try to broaden the ethnic backgrounds or diversity in a given department or institution.

“The benefit of that is that not only end up recruiting several people at the same time who are young and exciting and you increase your diversity and inclusivity but also it provides this sort of organized support structure for them,” Williams says. “We know some of the things that cause people to fall away from an academic career is if they are unsupported at their institution, so if there are ways that we can support the people that here successfully and keep them here and show them that we are invested in their future success, I think that’s another thing that this position could be helping.”

Overall, Williams says she’s excited to see what happens next.

 “I'll be talking with other folks about whether or not their departments are doing similar things and whether or not there is stuff that we could do together that would be more powerful than whatever we can do on our own in psychiatry,” Williams says.

Thursday, August 20, 2020