Inclusivity PROS by the Stony Brook University 2022 iGEM Team


Inclusivity in STEM is critical for the development and advancement of the scientific field. To this extent, we sought to increase the inclusivity of our project, iGEM, and student engagement in science fields more generally, at our university. We did this by focusing on various underrepresented groups including women in STEM, minority students, first-generation students, and disabled students. However, throughout our project, and based on the experiences of certain members on our team, we decided to focus on a group of students that are largely underrepresented in academia, especially in synthetic biology, but who are more than capable of allowing the field to thrive if they are given the proper support: non-traditional students.

Our team has been significantly affected by the presence of such a student. Stephanie Laderwager, who is a non-traditional student and mother of two kids, was originally a member of our team. She is seeking her first degree, and was an immense asset to our teams over the course of our project cycle. However, according to iGEM competition rules, if Stephanie were to compete, our team would be classified as overgraduates because of her age. Because of this policy, which has been in place since 2013, she opted to be reclassified as an advisor. This limits the ability of our university to recruit iGEM teams with non-traditional students in the future. This experience has empowered us to eliminate barriers and obstacles that prevent non-traditional students from gaining access to an education, and to important opportunities, both within and beyond the iGEM competition.

Non-Traditional Students

Many components of our project can be tied to a central theme: making healthcare accessible to all. One way to achieve this is to see more students from all backgrounds entering into higher education, which will ultimately lead to an increased output of diverse individuals in the workforce. One very important group to consider as a part of this strategy is non-traditional students. While the definition of non-traditional students is variable, they are typically defined as being one or more of the following: over the age of 25, a veteran, a parent, or a caregiver to another person. According to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 40% of the current undergraduate population at colleges and universities in the United States are considered non-traditional, but only 58% of institutions offer support services to non-traditional students.

There are certain challenges that non-traditional students face that may limit their ability to obtain a degree. Some of those challenges include balancing school, work, family commitments, and/or financial obligations. Looking specifically at non-traditional students who have children, child-care costs could be a major obstacle that prevents the completion of a degree. Childcare costs can be an enormous financial burden on families in the United States. The federal government defines affordable childcare as 7% or less of annual household income. In New York State alone, the average annual cost of childcare is $15,394 and the average annual pay for an individual is $69,197. That means that in our own community, the cost of childcare is 22% of the average annual household income, which is 15% greater than what the government considers affordable. There is a tremendous need for affordable childcare programs that allow parents to continue their education without the financial burden of the associated costs.

Schedule flexibility is another important factor that non-traditional students must take into account when choosing to attend a college or university. Work and familial commitments tend to take precedence over school, and non-traditional students would benefit from universities offering more flexible course offerings. With the influx of colleges and universities that offer online options as a part of their curriculum, accessibility has expanded for non-traditional students, but most post-graduate STEM programs will not accept certain online classes. So while online options for classes can be advantageous, it is certainly not the sole solution to this issue.

In the United States, African-Americans account for 13% of the population but only 4% of US physicians are Black (Rao and Flores, 2007). As we outlined in our Integrated Human Practices section, one way to increase inclusivity of clinical trials to establish characterization of disease states in different racial populations, is to diversify those who work in the healthcare field. For this to materialize, post-secondary education must be affordable to all income brackets. Economic hardships are the major deterrent for students pursuing a career in science/medicine and this is apparent among non-traditional students, specifically in single parent households.

The financial burden that comes with pursuing a post-secondary can be a major deterrent for non-traditional students. According to US News, for 2021-2022, the average tuition and fees of a private university is $38,185; $22,698 for public, out of state; and $10,338 for public in state. For students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the hardship of paying for college hinders students from enrolling in school. Defining the affordability of college is an important step in order to see policy makers formulate an effective strategy to restructure higher education to make it more available to students from all economic backgrounds. In the last 10 years, college costs have increased by 45%, while average household income has decreased by 7%. Staggeringly, within the lowest ¼ income bracket, only 9% of students have obtained a bachelor's degree. Of the highest ¼ income bracket, 54% have a bachelor’s degree. This is a major point of concern when economists predicted that by 2020, 65% of jobs in the United States will require a college or university degree (Board of Directors, & People, O.). College affordability standards according to the Lumina Foundation are based on three principals:

  1. Families save 10% of their disposable income
  2. Families save this 10% over the course of 10 years
  3. Students work 10 hours per week while they are enrolled in college

This criteria may work for some families, but low income households spend a much larger portion on basic needs such as housing, transportation, and food. In 2004, households that were considered low-income, on average had $1,500 of disposable income left after expenses. Ten years later, in 2014, that number decreased by $3,800, meaning that low income families now had $-2,300 of disposable income each year (Household expenditures and income). Disposable income is not a luxury that is afforded to low income households, and therefore makes saving for a post-secondary education near impossible. Adjusting the perspective of what college affordability means according to families on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum need to be considered to see the percentage of students with a bachelor’s degree from this bracket increase.

While there are areas where many universities could improve in offering an equal opportunity experience for all students, Best College Review compiled a list of the 5 best colleges for non-traditional students that lend valuable insights for programs that could be implemented on a national level.

  • Lewis-Clark State College
    Lewiston, Idaho
    This university located in Lewiston, Idaho has the lowest tuition rate in Idaho, 13:1 student to faculty ratio, and values community service and aiding local non-profit organizations. This school specifically offers scholarships to adults who are returning to school after a break of at least five years. This school is regularly involved with recruiting events for non-traditional students and seeks to support them through their academic endeavors.
  • University of Houston
    Houston, Texas
    This university offers support from a designated organization for non-traditional students called the Non-Traditional Student Organization (NTSO) free of charge. This organization offers tools and resources along with guidance to help non-traditional students acclimate to a new university environment.
  • Eckerd College
    St. Petersburg, Florida
    This school values community involvement as well as understands the needs of a non-traditional student who is eager to continue their education. They offer a program called “Program for Experienced Learners”, which offers evening and weekend classes which provides flexibility that is often lacking among higher education institutions.
  • Granite State College
    Concord, New Hampshire
    This university focuses on providing top rated degree programs with the non-traditional student in mind. They offer college credit through equivalency testing, experiential learning portfolios, and training programs to their student population that is mainly composed of military, transfer, and high school graduates who are continuing their education later in life.
  • Hampshire College
    Amherst, Massachusetts
    This unique institution is a member of a five-college consortium along with Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith College, and UMASS that offers an interdisciplinary degree track. Their curriculum is progressive and differs from many other colleges and universities which makes this a top school among non-traditional students.

Our Response: An Integrated Research Program

A new report was recently published that determined that adult learners, low income students, and students of color enroll in colleges that have limited resources and typically spend less per student than larger, more selective institutions. The data from this report showed that there is a stark difference between the education received by adult learners, low income, and students of color. According to 2016 data, in the United States, roughly 40% of students who pay for their own education without the financial support of parents are enrolled in a community college. 80% of adult learners with dependents were enrolled in non-selective two or four year colleges. While there is nothing wrong with attending a community college, there tends to be less resources offered to students than in larger, more selective universities. Community colleges spend an average of $14,945 per student, annually. Highly selective institutions spend about $52,129 per student, annually. Attending a community college is oftentimes financially necessary for a non-traditional student, and this is supported by the stark racial disparity that exists in loan debt between Black and White borrowers. In 2019, Black borrowers had $28,107 more in debt from student loans than white students following graduation. An unfortunate reality is that out of all adult learners who were enrolled in higher education, 49% were unable to complete their degree (Weissman, 2021). There is an entirely different set of resources and support that non-traditional students require that are too often ignored.

Our team recognized that within our community, there are ways in which we can help non-traditional students gain valuable research experience through the creation of a bridge research program between our school, Stony Brook University (SBU), and Suffolk County Community College (SCCC). One of the SCCC campuses is located 20 minutes down the road from our university, and many students transfer from SCCC to our school. SCCC is a two year institution that offers flexible class schedules as well as a wide variety of degree and certificate programs. SCCC recently received a $1.5M grant to aid low-income STEM students who graduate and transfer to a four year university, or immediately enter the workforce (Borruto, 2022). This will undoubtedly provide financial and academic support to underrepresented students. While this grant is an incredible opportunity for SCCC students, we feel, as a top tier research institution, that SBU can also help non-traditional students in our community.

Stony Brook University established a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program that brings together undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty in interdisciplinary teams that work on extensive research projects that include design, innovation, and entrepreneurship. VIP teams value collaboration and help to strengthen leadership skills among students. VIP teams encourage vertical mobility and these teams offer opportunities for students to grow as a team member.

After meeting with our P.I, Dr. John Gergen, who serves as the director of undergraduate biology at Stony Brook University, he informed us about a program that was in the very early stages between Suffolk County Community College and our university. We saw this as an opportunity to help non-traditional students from SCCC participate in research at SBU. This unique program will unite the VIP program with iGEM, where students from SCCC can enroll in VIP 102 and VIP 295 to receive credit. This VIP team will integrate our schools’ iGEM team and will encourage a long term, multi-year project allowing students sufficient time to learn all aspects of the project before the crucial work that begins four months before the Jamboree. We have been working alongside Dr. Gergen to work on the logistics of this program including contacting faculty from our school as well as SCCC to determine what is needed for implementation. This program will not only serve to expand future SBU iGEM team projects, but it could also offer those from our local community college the chance to utilize the resources and support that we are fortunate enough to receive.

Other Inclusivity Initiatives

Through discussion with various individuals we learned that there is significant lack of representation of minority communities in healthcare and in STEM fields in general (Kennedy et al. 2007). According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), among active physicians, 56.2% identified as White, 17.1% identified as Asian, 5.8% identified as Hispanic, and 5.0% identified as Black or African American. Only 0.3% identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native (AAMC 2018).

This is also true in STEM fields more generally. According to the National Science Foundation, Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American, and American Indian or Alaskan Native workers are severely underrepresented in STEM fields:

STEM workforce, by degree level and race or ethnicity: 2010 and 2019 (National Science Foundation 2019).

In response to what we learned, we decided to integrate an inclusivity aspect to our project. We wanted to help promote diversity in STEM for minority students. To accomplish this, we reached out to organizations and clubs aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. We also started a podcast designed to empower underrepresented students and teach them about how to pursue their passions in the sciences.

EOP/AIM Students

The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Advancement on Individual Merit (AIM) at Stony Brook was started in 1968 to provide access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students who possess the potential to succeed in college, but whose academic preparation in high school has not fully prepared them to pursue college education successfully. During the summer, we engaged with these students, teaching them about synthetic biology, our project, and iGEM more generally. On July 26, EOP/AIM students in the incoming freshman class came to our laboratory, took a tour, and we spoke to them about iGEM and how they can get more involved. We spoke to students from a variety of backgrounds, and emphasized the various aspects of our iGEM project, and how welcoming the Stony Brook iGEM team is to all students.


The Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) encourages and prepares more historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged Stony Brook University students for entry into scientific, technical, health, and health related professions, including many areas where licensure is required. We were a part of a panel for this club, and collaborated closely with them. Our discussions culminated in a presentation to a group of incoming freshmen students at Stony Brook University on what iGEM is, what we are doing this year, and how the students can get involved with iGEM or other research on campus. In the end, we also provided general tips for success on campus and in STEM. There were up to 40 participants, and during the presentation, several faculty members and students were interested in iGEM. We developed presentation materials which were made freely available after the event, and can be viewed at the link below:

Butterfly Effect Project

The Butterfly Effect Project is a nonprofit, community-oriented organization that aims to empower young girls by giving them the tools to achieve emotionally stable and self confident futures, in hopes of bringing forth a generation of women who are strong, independent and knowledgeable. The Butterfly Effect Project aspires to ensure that every girl enrolled in the program has a fair chance to broaden their horizons by eliminating obstacles such as mobility, cultural differences and finances. On August 4, approximately 20 high school girls from the program came to Stony Brook University. An iGEM team member helped give them a tour of the campus, spoke about their experiences on campus and as part of iGEM, and discussed the importance of synthetic biology and general STEM research, while also teaching the students more about what synthetic biology, iGEM, and our project, are.

Society for Women Engineers

Part of a national organization, the Society of Women Engineers aims to motivate women to become leaders in their careers as engineers, expand the idea of engineering as a means of improving the quality of life, and increase the diversity of the engineering profession. SWE is an organization that represents both student and professional women in engineering and technical fields. SWE at Stony Brook actively assists its members in professional development through workshops, company tours and lectures. We collaborated with this organization in order to host educational workshops about the iGEM competition, and discuss how modeling and engineering principles are crucial to synthetic biology. On August 29, we hosted a workshop with an audience of up to 50 people. We developed presentation materials which were made freely available after the event. We also performed a strawberry DNA extraction, according to a guideline we found online, developed by the NIH. Our presentation and activity materials can be viewed at the links below:

Society for Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE)

Stony Brook Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers is a professional organization that welcomes students of all ethnic backgrounds. It strives to empower and prepare Asian Scientists and Engineers for success in the professional workplace. They accomplish this through professional and social events, mentorship programs and participation in National and Regional conferences. We collaborated closely with them as part of their annual pre-conference, which included a symposium with many different clubs and professional organizations. We spoke about our individual backgrounds and abilities, and gave a lecture on iGEM and synthetic biology more generally. Over 40 different students attended this event. The comprehensive presentation we created with other organizations after the event was made freely available after the event and can be viewed at the link below:

Making Our Own Research More Inclusive

We also sought to help further the development of more inclusive research studies that aim to address the needs of minority populations. After researching what leads to non-inclusive trials, and how to overcome these obstacles, we created a guide on how to design more inclusive research studies and distributed it to researchers and scientists. Our guide can be used by researchers to ensure that clinical trials are more inclusive to those from underrepresented communities, so we have the opportunity to tailor therapeutic interventions and provide better care for all. Our six principles are:

  1. Create an inclusivity panel.
  2. What are the barriers?
  3. Are research personnel representative of the population?
  4. Re-evaluate trial design to eliminate logistical barriers.
  5. Engage the community.
  6. How are the exclusion criteria inhibiting inclusivity?

To see involvement in a trial from underrepresented communities, it is essential that the inclusivity of participants be considered from the preliminary design stage through the conclusion of the trial. The lack of inclusion of African Americans, Indigenous peoples, and other people of color mirrors the health disparity that is seen by these communities, through limited access to healthcare, and implicit bias by providers that may affect treatment.

We also aimed to make our own project and research more inclusive. In order to accomplish this, we expanded the implications of the dry lab portion of our project:

We sought to help increase the genetic characterization and understanding of this disorder in African American communities. After reaching out to our local African American communities, and hearing about how widely and deeply impacted they were by issues such as protein S deficiency and VTE, we wanted to take a step forward in research that was designed to address their needs. We decided to specifically model the PROS1 V510M mutation, a mutation that causes protein S deficiency and is found primarily in African American populations. This can serve as a foundation for additional research and characterization of this genetic variant, and acts as a starting point for studies that better address the needs of the African American population. You can see the results of our work here.

This initiative in the modeling aspect of our project was our team’s attempt to help kickstart greater understanding of the genetic interplay behind protein S deficiency and specifically how it affects communities of color. We recognize that our contribution was small, and that there is still a lot of work to be done. We hope that our efforts will convince healthcare providers, scientists, and researchers to look into these issues and be more conscious of the applications of their work and which communities they are addressing.


AAMC. “Figure 18. Percentage of All Active Physicians by Race/Ethnicity, 2018.” AAMC, 2018,

Average Salary in New York City. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2022, from,NY

Board of Directors, & People, O. (2015, August 19). Lumina issues affordability benchmark to reset national conversation about college affordability. Lumina Foundation.

Child care costs by state 2022. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2022, from

Hittepole, C. (n.d.). Nontraditional Students: Supporting Changing Student Populations. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from

Household expenditures and income. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2022, from

Kennedy BR, Mathis CC, Woods AK. African Americans and their distrust of the health care system: healthcare for diverse populations. J Cult Divers. 2007 Summer;14(2):56-60. PMID: 19175244.

National Science Foundation. “The Stem Labor Force of Today: Scientists, Engineers, and Skilled ... - Nsf.” National Science Foundation, 2019,

Rao, V., & Flores, G. (2007). Why aren’t there more African-American physicians? A qualitative study and exploratory inquiry of African-American students’ perspectives on careers in medicine. Journal of the National Medical Association, 99(9), 986–993.

The 5 best colleges for non-traditional students. (2017, November 27). Best College Reviews.