Beam Therapeutics Panel Discussion for AAPI Heritage Month – Going Back to My Pharma Community to Talk About Our API Experience

Today, I had the honor of being a panelist to talk about the AAPI experience. Thank you to Beam for creating a safe and open space to discuss our unique experiences. Also, thank you for allowing me to teach a Traditional Chinese calligraphy workshop that took place a few days prior!

This discussion took me back to my pharma days and I’m so happy to see that these discussions are taking place—especially during a time of increased violence against the Asian community. This is a big step in the right direction! Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

Thank you to the following panelist for a wonderful discussion:

Christine Bellon, Chief Legal Officer, Beam Therapeutics

Hitha Palepu, CEO, Rhoshan Pharmaceuticals
Andrew Noh, Chief Administrative Officer, Finch Therapeutics Group
Devin Gunasekara, Associate Director, Commercial Finance, Alexion
Rayna Lo, Artist and Former Pharmaceutical Industry Professional

Here are the questions asked & my responses:

How has your experience as a member of the AAPI community shaped your understanding and learning within the Life Sciences Community?

This community has always been so diverse ever since I entered the field over a decade ago. Our cross-functional teams always had people from all over the world and shows that this industry cannot exist in silo. On a micro-scale, our internal teams were rich in diversity. On a macro-scale, our vendors, labs, manufacturers, CROs, operate all over the world and we need them all. This makes sense if we’re making drugs for all people and need the diverse representation in our clinical trials.

Because of this, I assumed all industries were multicultural and rich in diversity. I have a little whiplash with the rise in anti-Asian violence.

How have you responded to the recent reports of AAPI hate as well as the long-standing issues within micro and macro communities?

As a small business that promotes Traditional Asian culture, I felt like I had a responsibility to speak up and take action. This was my time to tell my non-Asian friends that we’ve always grown up with these aggressions towards us. We just happen to be really good at hiding it in order to survive. Within my capacity (because I didn’t want to burden myself even more and the weight of all this hate was already unbearable), I turned to my art. My art is my preferred mode of self-expression. I used my art to raise money for Boston Chinatown—an organization that supports immigrants with resources on how to integrate into society. I felt better knowing I at least did something.

What is it about now, and what is going on in the world, that has prompting AAPI hate as a more prominent issue?

The easiest thing to do is to project blame and assume. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and to look for associations that may not be correlated (virus origin in China so must be Asian caused). It’s our way of trying to make sense of the world. But this comes at a grave cost when our thinking stops there.

We have the capacity to override our impulses and take the time to think more deeply. But this is more difficult to do, especially when the pandemic has devastated the economy and killed jobs. Security has been lost. And when we kick in survival mode, we’re not really taking the time to deeply reflect. It’s a recipe for hate and prejudice.

Also, when you’re in isolation, your thoughts get trapped in an echo chamber. These thoughts don’t have a chance to be expressed in a way that brings about understanding and learning.

How would you respond personally to someone who wants to learn allyship? What does an ally look like versus support?

If you love our food, advocate for us. Our food is our love language to you. Believe our experiences. Recognize the systematic inequalities. Understand that we experience micro-aggressions, even if you don’t. Share our stories. Ask about our stories. The Asian experience is very broad and you’re missing out on the really cool details if we’re just lumped together in one Asian category.

Learn where our products come from. Chances are, they are the product of immigrants and from people all over the world. It is irresponsible to be the beneficiary of our products and culture but not acknowledge where they come from

Also, understand what privilege even means. It’s not the presence of an advantage. It’s the absence of impediments. Everyone wants to stay on course. But some have more tomatoes being thrown at them, which slows them down.

How do you talk to your families/peers about the recent hate crimes against the AAPI community? And what is your personal position relating to this?

First, I want to talk about how difficult even getting a conversation about this is. We were taught to stay quiet. We were taught to not rock the boat. We were taught to keep our head in the book and focus on studies. This generational conditioning has handicapped us because it closed off expression of our feelings. No wonder mental health is a crisis. This is our opportunity to break that cycle and to bring it to surface and this in itself is a challenge. When our peers tell us to not get involved, we tell them that that old way of doing things isn’t serving us well anymore, and that we will be speaking up. The older generations kept quiet in order to survive. We will be speaking up in order to survive.

We have a responsibility to validate these experiences and to override our upbringing by talking about it.

What support systems are in place for the AAPI community in your company? For example, who/where one could talk or reflect their feeling freely and safely? Are there any programs that could enhance the connectivity within Asian communities and among Asian communities and other communities? Do you have any professional support and guidance if someone is feeling they are not being treated equally?

I am a one-person company so I hope I create a safe space for myself to talk about these issues. I hope that we’re all giving ourselves the space and allowing ourselves to reflect on what being AAPI means.

Let’s talk about diversity within the AAPI Community, what are the life experiences that are different within this group that have given you different perspectives?

I can only speak from the differences I’ve learned from talking to my colleagues that have recently immigrated here vs. me being born here. It’s like seeing my parents in a way. My parents were in my colleagues’ position coming here as immigrants. This gave me a sense of my privileges; as I am the beneficiary of my parents’ journey while my colleagues talk about their struggles with integration, visa status, etc.

If you could teach someone one thing about your culture, what would it be?

I want to take this opportunity to say that Taiwan is a country. Before I get into the culture, it’s important to put it on the map first. We’re a country that has been barred from the WHO even though we have had a stellar response to the virus at the beginning of the pandemic. Know that we exist. We’re one of the few countries that still practice Traditional Chinese characters. We invented bubble tea. N95 masks. Cat cafes. We have amazing night markets as well! This is also why I teach Traditional Chinese calligraphy. Taiwan is one of the few countries that still use traditional Chinese characters in their writing. This is an important part of my identity and a way for me to preserve my culture.

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