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Emma Benn: Professor, Mentor, Interpreter, and Advocate

1 September 2021 No Comment
Kim Gilliam, ASA Marketing and Communications Coordinator

    Emma Benn

    Emma Benn

    Emma Benn experienced a joyful life change in 2020 when she and her wife, Nicole Dennis-Benn, welcomed two new additions to their family—baby boys they affectionately refer to as Peanut and Dumpling.

    Becoming a new mother to babies they call the “most precious in the world” during the pandemic had its challenges, but these didn’t slow Benn down. In addition to serving as an associate professor and the associate dean for faculty well-being and development at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, she launched and was named founding director of the Center for Scientific Diversity.

    Benn created the center to increase the research success and ensure equitable advancement of underrepresented faculty investigators in academic medical centers across the country. The center is also committed to increasing the representation and retention of underrepresented students in the biomedical research workforce. The center is unique in that the staff there apply a rigorous, antiracist, research-driven approach to accomplish these goals. Benn got the green light in June 2020.

    Hailing from the Main Line, a suburb of Philly, Benn attended Harriton High School, where she played sports and the violin in the orchestra. She excelled at science and math but fell in love with Spanish. Studying the language opened her to another culture, another world, and a way to communicate with other communities. Benn pursued a Spanish major at Swarthmore College and aspired to be an interpreter at the United Nations.

    However, swayed by the limited summer job opportunities for someone majoring in Spanish, Benn set her sights on chemistry and landed an internship her senior year at Johnson & Johnson as a quality control chemist. That turned into her first job out of college. Today, with a doctorate in public health from Columbia University, she sometimes wonders what it would have been like to be an interpreter or if she had continued down her path as a poet. What many in the statistical community may not know is Benn is passionate about the “spoken arts.”

    Q&A with Emma Benn

    What are the spoken arts?
    When I was in college, my godbrother, Craig, used to take me to Philly to visit the art galleries, one of which—the October Gallery—was also a “spoken word” poetry spot. I thought it was pretty cool and began participating and competing in the spoken word scene. I loved it. It was a mechanism to communicate the things I loved, that made me angry—a platform to share thoughts and feelings.

    When I went to New York for grad school, I competed at The Bowery, working problem sets offstage. I ultimately won a competition at Bar 13. It was nice to feel empowered through the spoken word in this way. My wife is a novelist and calls me a poet, although I knew poetry would be difficult for me to fully pursue. I am grateful to my godbrother for exposing me to the arts.

    Any regrets about not becoming an interpreter?
    Maybe in some way, I am an interpreter. As a statistician, I’m constantly having to communicate things that my collaborators may not understand so they can make effective clinical decisions. And I’m always looking for the best way to teach the ­importance of communication to those I mentor. There are so many statisticians out there who are amazingly brilliant, but I feel strongly that collaborators want to work with statisticians who are brilliant communicators, as well.

    What’s your philosophy on mentoring?
    Mentoring is so important. It’s something we should all be doing, right? It’s not easy. Sometimes I have folks who need help getting to the next step and, in my mind, I want to make it easier for them. How do I help navigate so they don’t have to follow 20 different pathways to get to where they want to be? I also stress how communicating effectively plays into being confident about expressing their work.

    I encourage them to observe how people explain themselves. I also recommend reading. How will you explain your thoughts after you’ve finished a scientific article? Don’t just read for the science; consider how you would structure your arguments.

    Honest communication between the mentor and mentee is key when discussing where they are doing great and where they need to work harder. But I also want my mentees to express to me how I am as a mentor and where I can improve. It makes me happy when they are comfortable talking to me. I am always willing to listen and to take critiques.

    Dovetailing off mentorship, what are the goals of the Center for Scientific Diversity?
    The center enhances the pipeline of underrepresented students into the biomedical research workforce. I have always been focused on biostatistics students and trying to diversify the field of biostatistics, but I wanted to have another platform where I work with a whole host of scholars dedicated to this effort. Students need to feel like they belong in this field, because there were times when I questioned whether I belonged. I want to help them bring everything they have to the table—their experiences, culture, identity—and to reinforce that they are needed, they are valued, and they will reach their goals if they put in the work.

    Where do you see the statistics and data science community on diversity and inclusion, and how does communication play a role?
    We’ve definitely made strides here. We’ve put interventions, best practices, and cultural changes in place, but we still have a lot of work to do. There are progressive thinkers in our field who I believe will help transform the field, but we need to make sure everyone with intersectional identities has a seat at the table.

    It took me a while to own all my identities. Like, if I go into a space that is focused on inclusivity and increasing opportunities for racial/ethnic minorities in the field, is it okay for me to also own that I’m a lesbian and a woman? These are the things I think about. I’m learning to better communicate inclusivity in the classroom and doing everything I can to raise awareness that different voices, different people only make our field stronger.

    What do you think of social media as a communications platform?
    I use Twitter a lot. It’s helped me to get connected and build a community in the statistics and data science fields. We can share ideas and that’s a good thing, even when things are difficult like the back and forth on Twitter about renaming the COPSS award. There was a lot of exchange. Multiple sides trying to figure out how we effectively communicate our opinions to push for change. And that is a positive.

    Final thoughts?
    We need strong communicators, we need strong educators, and we need strong leaders. Many of the leaders who I admire most in our field have effectively established their own styles of communication that are so inherent to them, and they make me want to listen.

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