Keynote speaker Opoku-Agyeman highlights the importance of diversity, equity in research


Tiffany Lee, November 8, 2021

Keynote speaker Opoku-Agyeman highlights the importance of diversity, equity in research

When she was a junior in college, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, like many undergraduates, was struggling to pinpoint a major. She’d slogged through a few years of premed courses, but wasn’t passionate about the material and wanted to switch tracks. Economics, a marriage of mathematics and the social sciences, intrigued her.

To learn more about the field, she hopped onto Google. The search results startled her – and helped to shape the career trajectory Opoku-Agyeman finds herself on today.

“I literally Googled ‘economists,’ and I kid you not, a bunch of older white guys who only went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton popped up. Literally only those three schools,” said Opoku-Agyeman, who addressed a group of more than 150 University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty, staff and students via Zoom on Nov. 3, part of the Nebraska Research Days celebration. “As a Black woman attending a public university, I was kind of confused, since economics seemed to be for everyone. But according to Google, only a certain kind of person actually studied economics.”

She later learned the field wasn’t as monolithic as it originally seemed, and today, as a doctoral student in economics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Opoku-Agyeman is on her way to becoming an economist. But she has also become a writer, researcher and activist focused on why diversity matters in research, academia and business. Opoku-Agyeman is co-founder of The Sadie Collective, a nonprofit organization addressing the pipeline and pathway problem for Black women in economics, finance, data science and policy. She is also editor of a forthcoming book, “The Black Agenda,” which features Black voices from a wide range of fields – economics, education, health, climate, criminal justice, and technology – who address policy-oriented approaches in the fight for racial justice in America.

Her keynote presentation to the Nebraska research community, available to view here, focused on how diversity in research isn’t just a matter of checking the right boxes – it’s integral to producing results that help all people.

“What happens when the questions being asked and the answers being sought out only focus on people from one background, whether it be race, class, gender or the like?” she said. “It turns out that those questions are ultimately incomplete. We don’t have the full picture when people from different backgrounds are left behind.”

Opoku-Agyeman discussed how the failure to include diverse voices thwarts our efforts to solve the biggest problems. Take the financial crisis of 2008, for example: Experts now say that if more diverse voices had been in the room, officials could have detected the crisis sooner, blunting its worst effects. That’s because signs of the pending disaster were first apparent in communities of color – but no one was there to highlight the trend and put it on the radar of policymakers.

This example highlights the power of diversity in research to achieve the best outcomes in the real world. Opoku-Agyeman said the No. 1 question she’s asked from researchers at institutions across the country is how they can do better. Her answer is always the same: community. There’s no magic number or formula for determining when a lab has “enough” diversity, she said. Instead, the focus should be on the process of organically bringing people into your research community and engaging with them as researchers and scholars.

“Show me your community, and I’ll show you your collaborators, your questions, your papers, your citations and your chosen mentors or mentees,” Opoku-Agyeman said. “If your community only reflects you, and not the world around you, then how can you conduct research and scholarship that actually serves the world?”

She provided practical ways to grow diversity, including citing the research of marginalized colleagues, inviting them to give presentations and offering research opportunities to students from underrepresented groups, which may include partnering with a university’s existing diversity program, such as Nebraska’s McNair Scholars Program, to provide mentorship.

Opoku-Agyeman also had words of advice for aspiring researchers from underrepresented groups, many of whom did not grow up with parents and friends in academia. For many of these students, the pathway to a research career may seem murky. She encouraged these budding scholars to build and embrace their own identity, and to not shy away from challenges and fear.

“Research is tough, but it is incredibly tougher when you don’t own who you are in the process,” she said. “Your rise and your work begin with you … Your identity is built when you take bets on yourself.”

Diversity Research Days