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 2022

Location: BRB 115

Time: Tues/Thursday 12.30pm-3.15pm EST


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

NONE for Spring 2022


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 ground rules:

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
1/20/2022 TH 1 Intro/Culture <-> Science Feedback Loop/Course Structure/The Instrument Annotate Melisa
1/25/2022 T 2 Linnaeus & His Legacy Starburst Identity Chart (see Perusall) Melisa
1/27/2022 TH 3 Discussion - Davenport Annotation Due Melisa
2/1/2022 T 4 The Gene, the Central Dogma and Mendelian Inheritence Annotate Melisa
2/3/2022 TH 5 Discussion - Sickle Cell Disease Annotation Due Melisa
2/8/2022 T 6 Galton & The Eugenics Movement/Return of Race Science & The Biology of Skin Color Case Study 1 Assigned Melisa
2/10/2022 TH 7 Discussion (Case studies) Melisa
2/15/2022 T 8 Human Genomics & The 1000 Genomes Project Annotate Fred
2/17/2022 TH 9 Discussion Case Study 1 Analyses Due/Annotation Due Adam
2/22/2022 T Schedule adjustment, no class
2/24/2022 TH 10 Measuring Intelligence - Science and Society/Genome Wide Association/Genetic Testing Fred
3/1/2022 T 11 Discussion Annotate Adam
3/3/2022 TH 12 Intro to Epigenetics Fred
Spring Break
3/15/2022 T 13 Discussion - Race and Epigenetics Annotate Adam
3/17/2022 TH 14 Epigenetics in Human Health/Environment and Epigenetics Fred
3/22/2022 T 15 Synthesis/Case Study Feedback/Discussion Annotation due/Assign Case Study 2 Adam
3/24/2022 TH 16 Sources and Types of Stress/Biological Effects of Chronic Stress Fred
3/29/2022 T 17 Discussion Annotate/Case Study 2 Due Adam
3/31/2022 TH 18 Algorithmic Bias Adam
4/5/2022 T 19 Discussion Adam
4/7/2022 TH 20 Data in Healthcare/Race-Correction and Health Disparities Annotation Due/Case Study 3 Assigned Adam
4/12/2022 T 21 Discussion Project Proposal Assigned Adam
4/14/2022 TH 22 Socio-economic-environmental Factors/"Economic Inheritance" - Generational Wealth Felicity
4/19/2022 T 23 Discussion Case Study 3 Due/Proposal Due Felicity
4/21/2022 TH 24 Inclusion in Science/Critical Pedagogy TJ
4/26/2022 T 25 Discussion TJ
4/28/2022 TH 26 Project Presentations TBD
5/3/2022 T 27 Project Presentations TBD
5/10/2022 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 (50% of grade): Students will submit applications of the instrument on 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’ submissions for parts of the final project and learn how to provide constructive feedback on a written abstracts. 

Final Project (20% of grade):  Each student will complete a final project and report (~5 pages) about an aspect of systemic racism in health and science of their own choosing.  The Final Project Assignment will be posted on the course website in the first weeks of class, and class time will be dedicated mid-semester to discussing project ideas and expectations.  The assignment will involve creating a short presentation (possible formats include a podcast, narrated poster, or YouTube video) and submission of a written report detailing the motivation and logic and research behind your project of choice.  Presentations will be shared with the class (exact details will depend on formats preferred by students), and a written report will be due by final exam time.  Reports will be submitted via the Perusall site.

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

Scheduled for 2 hours weekly, based on best cohort availability. In person meetings with the instructor are always available upon request.

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)


Attendance is not used as a criterion for assessment in this course. This a primarily in-person course and lectures and discussion are held at BRB115.
Zoom links and recordings will be made available during/after each session to accomodate the ongoing COVID situation until Feb 18, 2022 and as directed by BU policy.

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

Assignment can be submitted on their scheduled due dates by 11.59.59 EST via Perusalldropboxes or alternately they may be emailed to Assessment and feedback will be provided via Perusall grading function. A late penalty of -10% per day will be assessed, though deadline extensions are available on a case by case basis (the earlier the instructor is informed of conflicts/extension needs, the better).

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; and we expect you to do the same. If you show up without a mask, you will be asked to leave. If you refuse, the class or meeting will be dismissed in order to protect everyone. We also require 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. Do your learning remotely to make it possible for us to safely offer in-person learning to others.

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.


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