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An Inclusive Design Process for Breakthrough Research

Thoughtful, creative lab design presents opportunities for all lab staff to work at their highest level

Christiana Moss, FAIA

Christiana Moss, FAIA, is principal and cofounder of Studio Ma in Phoenix, AZ.

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Prior to designing new residential colleges for Washington University in St. Louis, Studio Ma assembled a team to devise engagement tools and capture comprehensive input from undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and staff. The results provided a valuable picture of lived experiences on the Danforth Campus and shaped a plan to address underlying inequities through future design.
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The scientific research community is among the most diverse that institutional and corporate organizations serve. Shouldn’t laboratory planning, architecture, and design reflect that diversity in ways that are rigorous and highly intentional?

In fact, commitment to inclusion and diversity by research-based organizations can lead to boundary-busting scientific advancement. According to a recent analysis published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, diverse research groups publish more frequently, are cited more often, benefit from complementary skill sets and—in the biomedical and public health fields, in particular—are better equipped to identify and address disparities in their communities across the board. Other studies show that rates of research breakthroughs and achievements accelerate considerably when research teams are composed of the best minds regardless of background, ethnicity, or ability, and when collaboration among principal investigators (PIs) and team members is uninhibited by power dynamics. 

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Barriers to greater inclusion and diversity are systemic, and as such, are not always obvious to laboratory design teams. Laboratories and their support may not have obvious barriers to inclusion, but in their design and planning, these obstacles do in fact arise for brilliant minds from underrepresented groups. This leads to the loss of their contributions, to the detriment of science. The question, then, is how the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion should shape laboratory design.

The answer starts with engagement with those who may be impacted. This was the consensus of academic and institutional professionals who gathered virtually for a panel held earlier this year called, “Equity Matters: Campus Planning and Design for Inclusion.” While specific challenges varied from campus to campus and from population to population, all agreed that a commitment to studying and fostering inclusion and diversity is itself a major step forward toward true equity on institutional campuses. At Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), Studio Ma recently undertook a large-scale analysis to pinpoint opportunities for continuously improving the experiences of underrepresented students, including in campus facilities. The analysis, which included surveys, focus groups, and emotional heat-mapping—a technique for identifying where certain users encounter negative experiences or even barriers to access—revealed real and valuable ways to address these largely solvable challenges through intentional and creative design intervention. University World News published the approach.

The upshot: the role of lab managers and their design teams now includes a dimension focused on equity and on creating opportunities for inclusive environments that serve the unique challenges faced by underrepresented lab occupants. To make the medical and scientific research fields more equitable and welcoming, research organizations can follow the lead of universities and engage more broadly in the analyses, engagement techniques, and most importantly, the best design practices that serve to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Techniques for listening

WashU has found that its DEI efforts are yielding significant and promising results. Over the last five years, the portion of first-year students of color has grown from 12 to 21 percent, with a similar shift in the Pell Grant-eligible population. The results speak, in part, to WashU’s efforts to more effectively offer underrepresented students the same campus life experience that traditional students enjoy—in other words, pursuit of equity as a goal has led naturally to greater diversity. 

Conceived within the framework of a student-led design approach, the Memorial Union building at Arizona State University serves 30,000 students daily. The renovated student center now meets needs that were formerly overlooked: study areas for nonresidential students, as well as spiritual spaces for underrepresented faiths on campus, such as an ablution room.
Bill Timmerman, Studio Ma

Behind the latest wave of DEI efforts is a focus on campus architecture and planning. The comprehensive studies draw on exacting techniques to establish how underrepresented students react to specific campus buildings and spaces. They also examine operational and physical factors that lie beneath perceptions of inequality. 

Utilizing town halls, focus groups, and live polling to collect ideas for improvement directly from those student populations, the team—led by WashU’s then-vice chancellor for student affairs, Dr. Lori White—accessed valuable student feedback. Another method called emotional heat mapping involved tasking students to apply emotional labels on a scale to various campus zones and buildings. Scales might range from unsafe to safe, or from “annoyance” to “joy.” The team gathered data in real time through a mobile app that allowed tracking of student geolocations to be linked to emotional responses. 

The comprehensive picture that emerged of the emotional landscapes of the campus revealed target areas that could benefit from design intervention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many students from underrepresented groups recommended giving attention to health care services, which they felt suffered from issues of access. The study indicated several such key disparities on the physical campus, and students also suggested that improvements to orientation and wayfinding programs were needed.

At the core, this approach is about listening to the impacted individuals. Institutions and organizations can leave emotional heat mapping apps aside and concentrate on surveys and focus groups. Where the organization may lack the skill sets needed to conduct this kind of engagement, consultant groups are available—including many design and planning firms with specialisms in laboratory programming and experience with client-community engagement.

The day-to-day experiences matter

The key to achieving stated goals for equity and diversity is to reveal the physical and operational elements that trigger feelings of disparity, isolation, or marginalization. It is critical to consider the holistic view of the experience of members of the research team, and not just their time spent performing benchwork. This means considering everything including the commute to and from the research facility, the interactions with security, and the architecture of amenities, support spaces, and anything else the researcher interacts with over the course of the working day. Collecting data on the actual experiences of team members will lead to ideas for concrete changes and help to create an environment in which the experiences of individuals from underrepresented communities begin to look and feel more like those of others.

Members of the team who are devout adherents to their faith often encounter challenges related to long hours spent at the research facility, away from the home or the house of worship, where a strict schedule of prayer or other ritual is more easily supported. Solutions for this will vary depending on the campus, facility, and the makeup of the research team, but a fair model for a working approach can be found at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus in the recently reimagined Student Union. The facility now features “spiritual zones”—small spaces that provide support for students of faith. These include a meditation room for various kinds of prayer and an ablution room where Muslim students can perform ritual acts of washing before prayer.

Organizational leaders should also be mindful that the experiences of African American and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) team members may echo their experiences within highly segregated cities and communities. Physical security measures employed to protect sensitive and proprietary research may present unintended barriers to researchers of color, or otherwise may induce feelings of exclusion or anxiety by some who see security checkpoints as a means to keep people from certain backgrounds and groups from gaining entry to the campus or facility.

Within the laboratory space itself, issues of equal access will certainly pertain with respect to researchers with disabilities. Keeping in mind that not all disabilities are apparent at a glance; the same process of engagement and listening is key to making correct decisions before addressing accessibility through design. Harvard University’s Culture Lab is currently undertaking a pilot project titled Universal Design for Inclusive Research Labs, aiming to “increase the number of undergraduate students with disabilities in research labs and increase the implementation of Universal Design principles in existing and new research environments.” The program may provide valuable insights for various kinds of organizations striving for inclusion and equity.

The ideal research team

Keep in mind that the overarching goal is facilitating and accelerating scientific advancement. The process of engaging with and listening to team members is partly intended to improve their experience directly, but crucially, the organization should be thinking about creating an environment that draws a more diverse recruitment pool. The WashU undertaking described earlier resulted in increased diversity within the student population from 12 to 21 percent. If this level of improvement can be achieved within the organization, then the level of publishable research should increase—and with it, the rate of breakthrough discovery.

Whatever changes organizations make, the input from researchers in underrepresented demographics should provide the roadmap that facilities and planning projects follow, with guidance from careful analysis performed by leadership in consultation with architectural professionals and other relevant consultants. Keeping an ear to the ever-changing needs of underrepresented communities, evidence shows, is the best path forward to achieving an adequately diverse team—which, in turn, should yield significant improvements in performance.