EDI Champions and Allies Series: A conversation with Elizabeth Rideout

Meet a UBC faculty who is creating an impact.

EDI Champions and Allies Series: A conversation with Elizabeth Rideout

In this edition of the EDI champions and Allies, meet Dr. Rideout, co-chair of the EDI Committee, Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences.

Dr. Rideout grew up in Burlington, Ontario and completed a BSc (Hons) in Forensic Science and Biology at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. As an undergraduate, she worked in a fruit fly lab doing research on larval behavior, then moved to the University of Glasgow in Scotland to complete her Masters and PhD. Upon the completion of her postdoc in the University of Calgary, she moved to the University of British Columbia to join the faculty at the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences.

How did you get involved in EDI work?

In the early stages of her research, Dr. Rideout used fruit flies to study how sex differences in neural circuits give rise to male-female differences in behavior. 

Later, she went to the University of Calgary and studied fruit fly metabolism. In this work, she noticed that the field rarely separated male and female animals. “As I looked more into prior research, I saw that people had done work on sex differences in neural circuits and behaviors, but much less was known about male-female differences in metabolism. Now, my whole lab is focused on studying sex differences in metabolism and metabolic disease.” 

Dr. Rideout notes there is a gap in knowledge in terms of our understanding of how metabolism works differently in males and females, and it was this lack of knowledge that led her to EDI work.

As I started reading, “I realized there has been a historical exclusion of women in medical research, and that male animals are used more often than females in biomedical research” 

Dr. Rideout notes that these issues are deeper than lack of inclusion of women. Many groups have been excluded from clinical trials, resulting in the underrepresentation of specific demographics in both the field of medicine and biomedical research. 

“Realizing that some people have been historically underrepresented […], I started to think about the barriers that prevent full participation of people in medical, clinical, and biomedical research, and also in terms of who is able to participate fully in academia at a larger scale.”

Dr. Rideout noted that she started her work in EDI with scientific research. As she learned about the pervasiveness of exclusion of women and other groups in clinical research, this work became more of an ongoing learning journey. “Over time as I did more learning, and I am still learning, it became very clear that there were lots of groups which were not considered, who were overlooked and left out.” Dr. Rideout notes that there are also significant systemic barriers that prevent the full participation of people that conduct research.

However, it is important to highlight that progress has been made. For instance, while women were historically excluded in medical/clinical trials, current clinical trials must now include women. To continue this progress, researchers should analyze their data using biological sex or gender as variables, which will significantly improve precision in health outcomes. 

For instance, in a clinical trial, if participants are not separated according to biological sex or gender in the analysis, a strong beneficial effect of treatment in one group could actually hide a negative effect in another group. This could put one group at a higher risk of disease progression or adverse treatment effects. Beyond sex and gender, there are factors such as cultural identity that can also influence health outcomes that have not been given full consideration in clinical studies. 

Dr. Rideout notes that key goals of Precision Medicine are to recognize individual differences in disease risk and progression, and to develop evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies that will lead to optimal health outcomes for all individuals. 

A significant barrier to achieving this goal is our current lack of information. Since women and many other groups have been historically excluded, basic knowledge is needed about fundamental physiological processes in these populations. We do not have yet enough information to enable precision medicine, but Dr. Rideout notes that there is a growing recognition that we need more data on why different population groups are at a different risk of developing certain diseases. 

 “There is a significant need and there has to be a significant dedication of funds, time, and effort to increase knowledge on different population groups that have been historically excluded and underrepresented in the clinical and biological sciences.”

Dr. Rideout also adds that it is crucial to build relationships with the different communities that have not been included. “When people are excluded I think there must be lot of work done to build relationships in order for people to feel safe to participate and for them to contribute their time, knowledge, and expertise to build this foundation of knowledge.” 

For EDI work, Dr. Rideout notes that that people can start their learning from whatever stage they are at and undertake it as an ongoing journey. “I think that once you start your learning journey, you will realize that no matter where you are starting from, we can all learn fairly quickly. In this way, everyone can contribute to creating an inclusive and safe environment […] ultimately EDI work has to be the work of all the members in our community.” 

Dr. Rideout recognizes, as she says, “the enormous amount of privilege” she has lived with. For this reason, these barriers were not immediately apparent earlier in her life. However, her research and ongoing learning led her to invest significant efforts in EDI work. “You come to realize that this is important work, it is the work of all of us, and we can all contribute […] What I try to do is to listen, to learn and to advocate. I think these are things everyone can do. Listening to [others’] experiences and make it safe for people to share – if you are in a position to do so, then advocate for others to change the system.”

What initiatives is your committee working on?

In our department we have completed the the ISAT (Inclusion Self-Assessment Tool) and developed a set of recommendations for best practices in teaching, research, hiring and staffing, and department awards. We have also been running workshops led by the Faculty of Medicine REDI Office, introducing to people ideas on how to create safe and inclusive learning environments. The goal is to familiarize people with Anti-Racism work, upstander engagement approaches, and to improve knowledge of systemic barriers.

Our next steps are to find effective ways for us to engage with the communities we serve. The objective is to understand what their needs are, whether these needs are being met or not, in what ways they want to communicate with researchers, and how they want to exchange knowledge. 

Additionally, a survey is being distributed for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, post docs, and staff to learn what types of activities would help them engage in EDI work and how they would like to be involved. The plan must reflect what people want. We are developing a survey to ask people for example if we are meeting their needs and what types of activities they would like to see and how they would like to share feedback with us. Based on that, if people say [for example], “I only feel comfortable with an anonymous survey,” [then] we will not ask them to come in person to discuss their experiences.” 

What is your vision?

“Having a culture that creates safety for all individuals and all dimensions of their identity by removing systemic and interpersonal barriers.”