IRHS - Institutional Racism in Health and Science

BF/BI510: Institutional Racism in Health and Science

Historically, scientific theories and methodologies have been inappropriately, and sometimes fraudulently, employed to provide justification for establishing and maintaining social, economic, and racial hierarchies, resulting in centuries of dehumanizing and unethical practices toward certain groups, especially against Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Unfortunately, many of these pernicious ideas persist, such that they hinder opportunities of BIPOC in Science and exacerbate their health outcomes. 

This course traces the historical roots of racism in science through to its modern manifestations, examines the harmful consequences on victims’ health outcomes, and presents ideas, approaches, and practices to ameliorate and eradicate the presence of racism in our institutions.

Semester: Spring 2023

Location: BRB 121 (5 Cummington Mall)

Time: Tues/Thurs 12.30PM - 2.30PM


Instructors Top

Lead Instructor

Melisa Osborne, Ph.D. (she/her)

Research Scientist and Segrè Lab Manager, Bioinformatics Program

Research Assistant Professor, Graduate Program in Bioinformatics

Teaching Fellow

Mae Rose Gott


Course Objectives Top

The pedagogical goal of this course is to develop student competencies in discriminating between fact-based conclusions and unsupported pseudoscience and constructing empirical knowledge for themselves.  We will focus on the empirical process behind interrogating and dismantling disinformation and pseudoscience in the specific context of racism.  Students will learn the skills needed at each step of inquiry and walk through a stepwise process:

  1. learning about the biological background on scientific topics
  2. learning to critically analyze data and critique conclusions in primary sources
  3. learning to engage with one another and talk to others about their critical analyses
  4. learning to apply this critical reasoning to other topics outside of race.

Beyond racism, scientific reasoning has been and still is used to form the basis for discrimination against many different groups.  Beyond the context of this course, students will gain the skills needed to apply this same process to look at issues of ableism, sexism, and gender discrimination.  BF/BI510 will prepare students to look at the scientific and popular literature and dismantle systemic inequity from its foundations. 

Course Principles and Classroom guidelines

In this class:

Classroom norms:

Prerequisites Top

Graduate Student Prerequisites: MSc./PhD. program standing in Bioinformatics, or MSc./PhD. program standing in Biology, or MSc./M.A. standing in BU Wheelock, or consent of instructor.

Undergraduate Prerequisites: CAS BI 107/108 OR CAS BI 126 and senior standing, or consent of instructor.

Course Schedule Top

Date Day Lec # Topic Assignment Instructor
1/19/2023 TH 1 Intro/Culture <-> Science Feedback Loop/Course Structure/The Instrument Melisa
1/24/2022 T 2 Linnaeus & His Legacy Starburst Identity Chart Melisa
1/26/2022 TH 3 Discussion - Davenport Annotation Due Melisa
1/31/2022 T 4 The Gene, the Central Dogma and Mendelian Inheritence Melisa
2/2/2022 TH 5 Discussion Annotation Due Melisa
2/7/2022 T 6 Galton & The Eugenics Movement/Return of Race Science & The Biology of Skin Color Melisa
2/9/2022 TH 7 Discussion (Case studies) Annotation Due Melisa
2/14/2022 T 8 Human Genomics & The 1000 Genomes Project Melisa
2/16/2022 TH 9 Discussion Case Study 1 Due Melisa
2/21/2022 T Substitute Monday
2/23/2022 TH 10 Measuring Intelligence - Science and Society/Genome Wide Association/Genetic Testing Adam
2/28/2022 T 11 Discussion Annotation Due Adam
3/2/2022 TH 12 Pernicious myths about biology and athletics Melisa
Break Spring Break
3/14/2022 T 13 Intro to Epigenetics Melisa
3/16/2022 TH 14 Discussion - Race and Epigenetics Annotation Due Melisa
3/21/2022 T 15 Brainstorming Session Melisa
3/23/2022 TH 16 Sources and Types of Stress/Biological Effects of Chronic Stress Melisa
3/28/2022 T 17 Discussion Melisa
3/30/2022 TH 18 Algorithmic Bias Case Study2 Due Adam
4/4/2022 T 19 Discussion Project Proposal Due Adam
4/6/2022 TH 20 Data in Healthcare/Race-Correction and Health Disparities Adam
4/11/2022 T 21 Discussion Adam
4/13/2022 TH 22 Socio-economic-environmental Factors/"Economic Inheritance" - Generational Wealth Felicity
4/18/2022 T 23 Discussion Case Study 3 Due Felicity
4/20/2022 TH 24 Using Education to Change Scientific Practice TJ
4/25/2022 T 25 Using Education to Change Scientific Practice TJ
4/27/2022 TH 26 Project Presentations Peer review in class TBD
5/2/2022 T 27 Project Presentations Peer review in class TBD
5/7-5/11/23 FINALS WEEK Final Project Due

The Instrument Top

The Instrument

“The Instrument” is a tool we are developing in this class to help identify hidden biases in a text. It is a structured approach to reading a text that has the following phases:

  1. Annotate - label key words, phrases, or sentences with a controlled set of hashtags

  2. Analyze - answer a set of short answer questions designed to identify key aspects of the text

  3. Synthesize - write a short narrative reflection about the article guided by a set of scaffolding questions

We will apply The Instrument to readings throughout the course. A more detailed description of The Instrument is found here.

Grading Top

Weekly annotations in Perusall (50% of grade): Students will submit annotations of the weekly readings that will be used to assess participation and engagement.

Three case study reflections (20% of grade): There are three case studies assigned to readings throughout the semester.

Peer review activities (10% of grade): Students will review their peers’ final project presentations during class time in the final week of the course. Peer reviews will be submitted using a simple google form.

Final Project (20% of grade):  Each student (either individually or in a group) will complete a final project

Final Project Top


In this class, we cover many different themes that show how systemic racism is manifested in our institutions and society - especially in science and medicine. It can be discouraging to hear about how entrenched inequity is in modern systems and to learn about how extensive the history that established the system is. For the final project, we want you to think about what equitable science and medicine means to you and build a project that is around addressing or learning more about that topic. You will apply the methods you used in your case studies to a larger project. Select one of the themes covered in class, or pick one of your own, and select 3-5 articles or other sources to integrate together into a coherent synthesis project. Sources may include scientific articles, journalism, editorials, books, podcasts, or other media. The format of your report is flexible, ranging from traditional research paper to more creative forms as described below. This project aims to leverage your own experiences (personal and in this course) and create something that can be shared broadly (with your approval).

Potential Guiding Questions

What is the story you are telling with your synthesis?

What are you using to tell your story? Data? Science?

Who is your audience?

What do you want your target audience to learn from your project?

A new way of thinking about your topic? Facts? A new way of looking at the world? A story they feel compelled to share?

How will you make sure your message is clear?

What examples are you choosing to use? Metaphors? Images? Audio or video excerpts?


Project Proposal: 1 page summary of project topic (see Blackboard for submission dropbox and full guidelines)

Project Presentation to the class: short (10min) presentation to the class about your topic and takeaways (informal; last week of class)

Peer review: Google form feedback to your peers regarding the in-class presentations (in class; bring a device to fill in google form in real time)

Final Project Submission: Submit your final project (Blackboard)

Potential Formats

Option 1: Traditional Research Paper (~5 pages for written report)


Option 2: Non-traditional Synthesis of Learning. Possibilities might include (but are not limited to)

Book - Students create a children’s book, mini-textbook, handbook, comic, or other kind of book. These can be done on paper or created with apps like Book Creator.

Google Tour - Using Google Tour Builder, students can create customized tours that combine photos, text, and targeted locations on Google Earth. These could be used to create tours that explore current events, historical periods or phenomena, science or geography topics, global research topics, students’ personal histories or future plans, or completely fictionalized stories that take place in various locations around the world.

Infographic - On paper or using a tool like Piktochart, have students create an infographic to represent or teach about an idea or set of data. Museum, Library, or Multimedia Collection: Have students curate a collection of artifacts representing a curricular concept, along with their own written captions, in a Google Slides presentation. Two fantastic resources for gathering these artifacts are the Smithsonian Learning Lab and the Google Arts & Culture website.

Podcast - Have students use the recording tools mentioned in the “Audio” section above or an app like Anchor to record a podcast where they express an opinion, tell a story, or teach about a content-related topic. If students have a lot of material, they can break their podcast into multiple episodes and do a series instead.

Sketchnote - Have students create a sketchnote to represent a content-related topic using paper or with a drawing app like Sketchpad.

Video - Students can create their own videos as creative, informative, persuasive, or reflective pieces. These can be public service announcements, commercials, mini-documentaries, instructional videos, short feature films or animations, or TED-style talks. Tools for creating these can range from quick response platforms like Flipgrid, to screencasting tools listed in the previous section, a tool that creates stop motion videos like Stop Motion Studio, or simple online video creators like Adobe Spark.

Website - Using tools like Weebly, Wix, or Google Sites, have students develop a website to document a long-term project or teach about a particular idea.

Criteria for Success

This project will…(1) ask you to show your knowledge (2) encourage creativity, risk taking (3) require peer feedback, incorporation of your peers ideas & critiques

This project will NOT… (1) have a standard checkbox rubric (2) be a ‘recipe’ style assignment where all projects look the same (3) be an assignment that only your professor sees and then gets filed away in a folder

Required Texts Top

Course texts are available for purchase via the Boston University bookstore and are on reserve at Mugar Library. Scanned PDFs of chapters are also available through Perusall.

Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini. Beacon Press, Boston, MA 2019. ISBN-13: 978-0-8070-2842-1

This course will use open access primary research articles as the for many required readings. PDFs of all articles will be made available on the course Perusall website.

Resources/Support/How to Succeed in This Course Top

Office Hours

By appointment.

Office of Disability and Access Services

The Office of Disability and Access Services (25 Buick Street, Suite 300) is responsible for assisting students with disabilities. If you have a disability, you are strongly encouraged to register with this office. Lecture hall and discussion rooms are accessible and ADA compliant.

Learning and Testing Accommodation

Boston University complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. If you are a student who needs academic accommodations because of a documented disability, you must present your letter of accommodation from the Office of Disability and Access Services directly to the instructor as soon as possible. If you have questions about documenting a disability or requesting academic accommodations, contact the Office of Disability and Access Services. Letters of accommodations should be presented as soon as possible to ensure that student needs are addressed from the start of the course. Instructors are not able to provide accommodations without documentation from Boston University’s Office of Disability and Access Services.

Support from the Instructor

Finally, if you tell me that you are having trouble, I will not judge you or think less of you. You do not owe me an explanation of your health (physical or mental) or the health of your loved ones; but you are welcome to tell me and I will listen. Even if I can’t help you directly, it is likely that I know someone who can. If you need help or more information, please ask, and I will work with you.

Community of Learning: Class and University Policies Top

Diversity, Inclusion, Anti-racism

This course is a judgement free and anti-racist learning environment. Our cohort consists of students from a wide variety of social identities and life circumstances. Everyone will treat one another with respect and consideration at all times or be asked to leave the classroom (physical or virtual).

The instructors of this course pledge to:

  1. Learn and correctly pronounce everyone’s preferred name/nickname

  2. Use preferred pronouns for those who wish to indicate this to me/the class

  3. Work to accommodate/prevent language related challenges (for instance I will avoid the use of idioms and slang)


Per university policy, this class is held in person. However, attendance is not used as a criterion for assessment in this course.
Zoom links and recordings will be made available during/after each session to accomodate all learners.

Policy on Religious Observances

Due dates can be revised for documented religious observances according to the specifications of the University Policy on Religious Observance ( Please make sure to communicate about religious observances as far in advance as possible (and no later than one week before the observance, per university policy) so that accommodations can be made.

Assignment Completion & Late Work

Assignments will be submitted on BU Blackboard and are due by 11.59.59PM on the listed due date.

Illness and Assignment Deadlines

We hope that all of you will remain healthy throughout the semester and are able to fully engage and participate in the course. If you do unfortunately become ill, we require that you follow the protocols mandated by the University under those circumstances. The course attendance and engagement policies already reflect substantial flexibility to allow for absences of short to moderate length due to illness. Please make sure to contact your instructor about any absences that will last beyond a couple of days. In the case of a prolonged illness that is not already covered by the course absence policies, we will work with the CAS Dean’s office to determine the best course of action for any given student.

Academic Conduct

The community at Boston University has adopted the following Academic Conduct Code: “All students entering Boston University are expected to maintain high standards of academic honesty and integrity.” Obviously, the full text is more detailed. The expectation is that you will adhere to this code, as your instructor pledges to do as well. For more information, please visit this website: In keeping with this code, cheating, plagiarism, or any other form of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated (ACC III) and will be referred to the Dean’s Office.

Proper use of Online Resources

Students at Boston University are required to abide by all regulations regarding academic integrity and conduct, including the proper use of technology and digital resources. Course materials are provided by faculty for your personal use in the course only. Any other use of these materials including, but not limited to, posting of materials online in forums or websites, is a copyright violation and a violation of the academic conduct code. Additionally, materials submitted for course credit (papers, exams, etc.) are similarly not permitted to be used or posted.

COVID-19 Responsibilities and Regulations

We are all in this together, and we are committed to offering the best learning experience possible given the need for safety. To do this, we need your help. We must all be responsible and respectful. Faculty, staff, and teaching fellows will wear masks during class and other meetings to protect you. While masks are not required in classrooms (per University policy), the University recommends that people, especially those at risk of serious infection, use high-quality masks in crowded locations or if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID. We also ask that you follow the safety practices recommended by the CDC outside the classroom, including all state and university guidelines regarding sheltering in place while feeling ill, testing, quarantining, social contacts, and gatherings. If you cannot follow these guidelines, be responsible and respectful: do not show up for in-person learning. Do not put your classmates, staff and instructors in danger. We will work to our utmost to accomodate you if you need to miss an in-person session due to illness.

See also:

The syllabus, course descriptions, lab manual, and all handouts created for this course, and all class lectures, are copyrighted by the course instructors. The materials and lectures may not be reproduced in any form or otherwise copied, displayed or distributed, nor should works derived from them be reproduced, copied, displayed or distributed without the written permission of the instructors. Infringement of the copyright in these materials, including any sale or commercial use of notes, summaries, outlines or other reproductions of lectures, constitutes a violation of the copyright laws and is prohibited. Please note in particular that distributing, receiving, selling, or buying class notes, lecture notes or summaries, lab reports or related materials, or similar materials both violates copyright and interferes with the academic mission of the College, and is therefore prohibited in this class and will be considered a violation of the student code of responsibility that is subject to academic sanctions.


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License