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“Increased diversity in science and medicine leads to better science.”

Amid the flood of research abstracts, images, and data, one graphic caught
his eye. Colored in blue hues, a map from the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention depicted asthma prevalence among Latinos in the United
States. A quick glance seemed to tell a simple tale: Latinos in New York,
Massachusetts, and other northeastern states experienced asthma at
significantly higher rates than Latinos living in other parts of the

Except Burchard realized this wasn’t the whole story. When he studied the
poster more closely, he was able to connect it with his own work on a
certain mutation to the interleukin-4 gene
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10471619>. He knew that a certain
variant of the gene, which he’d linked to increased asthma severity, is
more common in African-Americans, and that Puerto Ricans have a deeper
African ancestry than other Latinos. So this asthma hotspot in the U.S.
Northeast was a reflection, in part, of the heavy Puerto Rican population
in that region.

“I was like, ‘I know what this is,’” Burchard tells Grist. “This is the
African gene coming through Puerto Rican populations.”

But we may not be getting insights like the one Burchard had at the rate we
could be. After all, there’s an overall lack of people of color in science.
And that’s especially true of the environmental and climate sciences.
An analysis
of science employment patterns
<http://research.pomona.edu/sci/files/2014/11/PearsonSchuldt2014NCC.pdf> found
the workforce in the medical and life sciences is the most diverse, while
the makeup of environmental scientists and geologists is among the least


According to Burchard’s own work, fewer than 5 percent of the respiratory
disease research programs funded by the National Institute of Health
between 1993 and 2013 involved studies that included non-white participants
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25584658> — even though they make
up nearly
40 percent of the U.S. population
<https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045216>. So in a
subject area like asthma, there’s likely a dearth of data on groups where
the illness is highly prevalent. That not only limits our understanding of
the condition, but it could also impede the discovery of preventative
measures and treatments.


According to Esteban Burchard’s colleague Sam Oh, director of epidemiology
at the Asthma Collaboratory, diverse scientists have an advantage in
working with communities that aren’t often part of research efforts. “If
[scientists] share your culture, if they look like you,” Oh says, “you’re
going to be more likely to identify with them and be more receptive.”

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