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Academic Science Rethinks All-Too-White 'Dude Walls' Of Honor

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A few years ago, TV celebrity Rachel Maddow was at Rockefeller University to hand out a prize that's given each year to a prominent female scientist. As Maddow entered the auditorium, someone overheard her say, "What is up with the dude wall?"

She was referring to a wall covered with portraits of scientists from the university who have won either a Nobel Prize or the Lasker Award, a major medical prize.

"One hundred percent of them are men. It's probably 30 headshots of 30 men. So it's imposing," says Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist with the university and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, 'What kind of message are we sending?' " - Leslie Vosshall, neurobiologist, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Vosshall says Maddow's remark, and the word "dude wall," crystallized something that had been bothering her for years. As she travels around the country to give lectures and attend conferences at scientific institutions, she constantly encounters lobbies, conference rooms, passageways, and lecture halls that are decorated with portraits of white men.

"It just sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men," says Vosshall. "I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, 'What kind of message are we sending with these oil portraits and dusty old photographs?'"

She's now on a committee that's redesigning that wall of portraits at Rockefeller University, to add more diversity. And this is hardly the only science or medical institution that's reckoning with its dude wall.

At Yale School of Medicine, for example, one main building's hallways feature 55 portraits: three women and 52 men. They're all white.

"I don't necessarily always have a reaction. But then there are times when you're having a really bad day — someone says something racist to you, or you're struggling with feeling like you belong in the space — and then you see all those photos and it kind of reinforces whatever you might have been feeling at the time," says Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a medical student at Yale.

He grew up reading Harry Potter books, and in that fictional world, portraits can talk to the characters. "If this was Harry Potter," he muses, "if they could speak, what would they even say to me? Everywhere you study, there's a big portrait somewhere of someone kind of staring you down."

Yale medical student Nientara Anderson recently teamed up with fellow student Elizabeth Fitzsousa and associate professor Dr. Anna Reisman to study the effect of this artwork; the results were published in July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"Students felt like these portraits were not just ancient, historic things that had nothing to do with their contemporary experience," says Anderson. "They actually felt that the portraits reinforced contemporary issues of exclusion, of racial discrimination — of othering."

Yale has recently been commissioning new portraits, including one of Carolyn Slayman, a geneticist and member of the Yale faculty for nearly 50 years, as well as one of Dr. Beatrix Hamburg, a pioneering developmental psychiatrist and the first black female Yale medical school graduate. And there's an ongoing discussion at Yale about what to do with all those old portraits lining the hallways.

One option is to move them someplace else. That was the approach taken at the department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan. Ally Cara, a Ph.D. student there, says its seminar room "featured portraits of our past department chairs, which happened to be all male."

"When you're having a really bad day — someone says something racist to you, or you're struggling with feeling like you belong in the space — and then you see all those photos." - Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, medical student, Yale University

The 10 or so photographs were lined up in a row. "When our interim chair, Dr. Santiago Schnell began his service a couple years ago, he wanted to bring a more modern update to our seminar room," Cara says, "including bringing down the dude wall and relocating it."

The photos are now in a less noticeable spot: the department chair's office suite. And the seminar room will soon be decorated with artwork depicting key discoveries made by the department's faculty, students, and trainees.

"We really want to emphasize that we're not trying to erase our history," says Cara. "We're proud of the people who have brought us to where we are today as a department. But we also want to show that we have a diverse and inclusive department."

Changes like this can be a sensitive subject. At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, one of Harvard's teaching hospitals, there's an auditorium that for decades was covered with large portraits of 31 men.

"It made an impression," says Dr. Jeffrey Flier of Harvard Medical School, who first saw the wall of portraits back in the 1970's. But recently, he walked in the auditorium and "was taken aback because, instead of this room filled with portraits of historically important figures from the Brigham, the walls were empty."

The portraits were relocated to different places around the hospital. And while Flier says he understands why there needed to be a change, he prefers the approach taken in another Harvard meeting place called the Waterhouse Room.

It had long been decorated with paintings of former deans, says Flier, and "all of those individuals were white males. I am among them now, hanging up there as the most recent former dean of Harvard Medical School."

But right up there with Flier's portrait are photographs of well-known female and African-American physician-scientists, he says, because his predecessor added them to the walls of that room.

"You don't want to take away the history of which you are justifiably proud," says Flier. "You don't want to make it look like you are embarrassed by that history. Use the space to reflect some of the past history and some of the changing realities that you want to emphasize."

But some argue that the old portraits themselves have erased history, by glorifying white men who hold power while ignoring the contributions to science and medicine made by women and people of color.

One rare exception, and a poignant example of the power and meaning of portraits in science and medicine, can be found at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, a black technician named Vivien Thomas worked for a white surgeon named Alfred Blalock. Even though Thomas had only a high school degree, he joined Blalock's lab in 1930; the pair spent decades developing pioneering techniques for cardiac surgery together.

The last time the two ever spoke, Blalock was in poor health, and in a wheelchair. Together they went to see the portrait of Blalock that had recently been hung in the lobby of the clinical sciences building, which had been named after him.

Soon after that, Blalock died. And a few years later, Thomas received word that a group of surgeons was commissioning a portrait of him. "My first reaction was that surely I must be dreaming," Thomas wrote in his autobiography, which he originally entitled Presentation of a Portrait: The Story of a Life.

When the portrait was presented to the hospital in 1971, Thomas told the assembled surgeons that he felt proud and humbled. "People in my category are not accustomed to being in the limelight as most of you are," Thomas said. "If our names get into the print, it's usually in the very fine print down at the bottom somewhere."

In his memoir Thomas wrote, "it had been the most emotional and gratifying experience of my life." He wondered where the portrait would be hung, and thought someplace like the 12th floor, near the laboratory area, would be appropriate. He was "astounded" when Dr. Russell Nelson, then the hospital president, stated "We're going to hang your fine portrait with professor Blalock. We think you hung together and you had better continue to hang together."

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The members of Shine MSD are on a mission. MSD stands for Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died in a mass shooting. Shine MSD is a group of Parkland students and parents who are promoting healing through the arts. As World Cafe's Talia Schlanger reports, they're getting help from a special trumpet called the Instrument of Hope.

TALIA SCHLANGER, BYLINE: You know what a trumpet sounds like. And you probably know what one looks like, too - shiny brass.

JOSH LANDRESS: We lacquered it in black. The shiny areas that you see are the polished brass and then clear lacquered over that. We wanted it to really stand out in kind of pop so you could see - hey, these are the parts - are actual bullets...

SCHLANGER: Josh Landress made it.

LANDRESS: ...Bullets that were shot and fired out of a gun cut up and pieced together. And this is the lead pipe...

SCHLANGER: Landress is pointing to the long, straight part of the instrument that comes out of the mouthpiece. Picture a bunch of empty bullet casings lined up end-to-end leading towards the bell where the sound comes out.


SCHLANGER: And you've drilled a hole through (inaudible)...

LANDRESS: Yeah. It's drilled all the way out...

SCHLANGER: ...So that the air goes in?

LANDRESS: ...So that the air can go through. And it makes it a playable instrument.

As you can see, it's just a spinning piece of brass. So what I'm going to do now is I'm just going to cut some of the metal.

SCHLANGER: As you can imagine, making a trumpet out of bullets was complicated...

LANDRESS: So you can see the brass kind of flying off of it...

SCHLANGER: ...Which is why Josh was a little hesitant when he got a call from a guy named Matt McKay from an advertising and PR company called Publicis.

MATT MCKAY: That is spelled P-U-B-L-I-C-I-S.

SCHLANGER: McKay is the executive creative director at Publicis Worldwide. He heard about the Shine students from Parkland and offered to donate his time to help spread their message.

MCKAY: The message being, don't forget about these horrific events that happen - something happens. The news is all over it for days and days and days. And then all of a sudden it's just back to the same, old thing. And there's a small amount of people that get impacted by these things that can't go back to the same, old thing.

SCHLANGER: Two of the Parkland students who formed Shine are Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Pena. Garrity says that they were in drama class on the day of the shooting.

SAWYER GARRITY: The day right after, a lot of us went to Andrea's house. And we just like...


GARRITY: And we just, like, painted. And we don't really talk much. We're just, like, painting. And like, I think that was kind of the first realization of art being therapeutic.

PENA: Yeah.

GARRITY: ...Because that was the first thing we did. We were listening to, like, "Glee" music and, like, playing random playlists and just, like, painting. And that made us feel even just a little bit better.

SCHLANGER: That weekend, Garrity and Pena started writing a song together called "Shine."

GARRITY: I know Andrea and I - we both turn to music. It's something we both turn to when we're feeling any emotion. And I think what happened at our school - we were just, like, feeling so many emotions that we didn't know how to deal with. And so we just kind of poured it all into the song. And if we didn't do it when we did it, we didn't write that song right then and there when we were feeling everything, the song wouldn't have been as genuine and as raw and as real as it is today.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) You - you through my city away. You tore down the walls and opened all the gates.

SCHLANGER: That's Pena and Garrity singing. They were able to record the song with their classmates at a professional studio in Florida thanks to a producer who donated his time and equipment.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) We're not going to let you in. We're putting up a fight. You may have brought the dark. But, together, we will shine the light. And whoa. We will be something special. Whoa. We're going to shine.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Shine.

SCHLANGER: Then their parents got involved. And they formed the nonprofit organization named for the song.

GARRITY: It's really hard because what Shine's doing is we're advocating for healing through the arts...

SCHLANGER: Sawyer Garrity.

GARRITY: ...Like, healing from trauma and stuff when we still haven't healed from that. And we're still learning how to deal with that. And I have people coming who say things to me like, oh, you guys are what we want to look to when we want to see how to heal through trauma. But I guess Shine is kind of looked at as, like, hopeful and stuff. But it's hard to stay hopeful all the time, especially when you go through, like, what you go through.

SCHLANGER: The Shine students travel the country when they can, spreading awareness by performing and sharing their story. And, at the same time, the trumpet they inspired, the instrument of hope, is on its own tour. It made it into the hands of David Streim, who plays trumpet in singer-songwriter Amos Lee's band.

DAVID STREIM: The responsibility and the honor of playing something like this - it's a pretty incredible feeling just holding it.


SCHLANGER: The trumpet recently made its debut on Broadway.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Oklahoma!" is honored to feature this Instrument of Hope today as one of the stops on his tour across the country.


SCHLANGER: And it wound up in the hands of Matt Cappy, who's played with everybody from Tony Bennett to the late Aretha Franklin to The Roots.


MATT CAPPY: I present to you the Instrument of Hope.


SCHLANGER: Every once in a while, the Instrument of Hope returns to its maker, Josh Landress. and on one of those occasions, the Shine kids were also in New York and got a chance to play it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I can't do it.

LANDRESS: Don't give up.

SCHLANGER: The visit meant a lot to Landress.

LANDRESS: They were laughing and having fun. To see that happiness come from them from a rough situation was really moving and kind of made me a little choked up. And to also hear their stories, it's so powerful. I couldn't imagine.

SCHLANGER: And maybe that's why they call it the Instrument of Hope. For NPR News, I'm Talia Schlanger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.