Assoc. Prof. Mahdi Garelnabi Led Diversity Efforts for American Heart Association Council
By Katharine Webster
When Assoc. Prof. Mahdi Garelnabi left Sudan to pursue a master’s degree in medical biochemistry in India, he fully intended to return to his native land to start a medical laboratory.
But the 1989 military coup in Sudan, as well as Garelnabi’s growing interest in research affecting human health, changed his course. After graduating from the University of Mumbai, he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Delhi.
“I wasn’t encouraged to go back” to Sudan, he says. “The country was at the peak of all those terrible things,” including political repression and a civil war.
Garelnabi got a postdoctoral research fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta. After a couple of other short-term jobs, he joined UML’s Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences 14 years ago, where in addition to teaching, he directs the laboratory for the Center for Population Health and researches heart and other metabolic diseases.
He says that living, studying and working in three countries with different populations, economies and cultures helped prepare him for his newest role: faculty director of UML’s ADVANCE Office for Faculty Equity. He starts July 1.
“I feel as humans we are mostly connected by similar values,” Garelnabi says. “We may have different opportunities … but overall, people are the same and they have the same dream: They want to live in peace, and they want to see other people happy, too.”
The ADVANCE Office for Faculty Equity is named for the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE initiative, which offers grants to universities to create organizational change supporting gender equity for faculty in STEM fields.
UML’s ADVANCE Office works to evaluate and improve fairness in hiring and promotion as well as teaching, service and research opportunities. It also offers mentoring programs and grants along with training in recognizing and reducing microaggressions and bias. Much of the programming was developed under a five-year, $3.5 million ADVANCE grant, but the office, established two years ago to continue those efforts, now serves all faculty.
Garelnabi, whose research focuses on the role of lipids in cardiovascular disease, has an extensive history of working on diversity efforts in the scientific community, especially with the American Heart Association (AHA) and the North American Vascular Biology Organization.
When he first joined the AHA, he was sometimes the only Black scientist at conferences of the Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. When the AHA began efforts to improve diversity, the chair of the council asked him to serve on the leadership team.
“At the time, I was an assistant professor, so it was like a dream come true,” he says.
Not long afterward, his colleagues proposed starting a new minority committee to increase membership and contributions by scientists from underrepresented groups, and they asked Garelnabi to head it up. He objected, seeing a minority committee as an echo chamber with little power to make changes. He proposed starting a diversity committee instead.
“I wanted to see everybody on that committee: Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, whites, Asian Americans and people of different sexual orientations,” he says.
Under Garelnabi’s leadership, the diversity committee succeeded in getting the council’s conference organizers to invite a broader range of speakers and award conference travel stipends to early career scientists from underrepresented groups. The diversity committee gave awards to senior scientists who recruited and supported more diverse scientists and students in their labs and programs.
The diversity committee also helped rewrite the policies and procedures for each of the council’s committees to ensure fairness in every area. And they offered implicit bias trainings at conferences.
“They started recognizing that each and every one of us has some implicit bias, and they started to learn how to keep that bias out of the way and be fairer,” Garelnabi says.
Garelnabi plans to bring the same approach to the ADVANCE Office for Faculty Equity. He wants to offer research-based implicit bias training to UML committees that oversee hiring, promotion and service assignments.
He also plans to establish awards for departments that achieve equity targets, with the ultimate goal of having the university recognized by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies as a leader in diversity efforts.
Garelnabi succeeds Psychology Prof. Meg Bond as faculty director. Bond, the founding director, has been preparing Garelnabi with help from Program Director Brita Dean and the faculty leadership team, he says.
With their assistance, Garelnabi will evaluate responses to an upcoming faculty survey to better understand the biggest concerns and challenges and to gather ideas for change.
He also hopes to raise the visibility and “approachability” of the ADVANCE Center through outreach aimed at new faculty and the full-time and adjunct faculty unions.
“We want to become leaders in this area,” Garelnabi says. “We want to see all faculty feel very included, valued and happy.”
When the university succeeds in welcoming and retaining excellent and diverse faculty members, students benefit in multiple ways, he says.
“A diverse faculty provides representation, expanded perspectives, improved learning outcomes, enhanced cultural competence and preparation for a diverse society,” he says. “Diverse faculty create a more inclusive and enriching educational environment for students.”