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Diversity in STEM: What is it and why is it important?

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Author: Calais Prince | Category: Beyond The Bench | Cell Biology, Genetics & Molecular Medicine (CGM) | Cell Biology, Genetics and Molecular Medicine | November 20, 2015

Calais Prince is a graduate student in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program. Prince is currently working in Dr. Leslie Myatt’s lab where they are studying the effect of pre/early pregnancy obesity on placental function.

Diversity in science acknowledges the potential for greatness in individuals who are underrepresented. It builds relationships and improves our creativity. It improves our work environments and strengthens our interpersonal skills.

I recently attended a writing workshop with the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) scholars. There was an incredibly productive scientist who described her experiences in STEM and what her career path was like as a Chicana in academia.

She provided personal examples in which peers discredited her abilities, mentors questioned her intelligence, and colleagues with fewer credentials were promoted ahead of her. Some of the challenges that she discussed are comparable to my own experiences.

Conversely, she was able to whether the proverbial storms because she was able to build a support system outside of her immediate environment. She also had the wherewithal to allow her science/research to speak for her capabilities.

Her story reminded me that many individuals from underrepresented groups share similar journeys while advancing through STEM fields. It also spurred me to put together a few thoughts regarding diversity in STEM, what it means to our field/industry, and how diversity affects the individual.

Diversity refers to variation/differences and consists of many facets, but I will specifically focus on differences pertaining to social identity (socioeconomic status, ethnicity/race, gender, etc.). There are considerable efforts in place to increase diversity in science.

For example, funding opportunities through the National Institutes of Health (F30, 31,32; R03, R25, etc.), the United Negro College Fund/MERCK, and the National Science Foundation have been established to promote and support funding of historically underrepresented groups in the sciences.

These efforts are necessary and appreciated as they provide a means of support and provide credence to the capabilities of underrepresented Ph.D and M.D./Ph.D students to a stimulating field. I agree with the sentiment that is conveyed in the message that “we need to do more because only 1 in 11 Ph.Ds are awarded to minorities in science and engineering” (National Science Foundation, 2009).

However, I argue that it would be imperative to begin exposing students earlier in matriculation to research/STEM careers, possibly in elementary school. When underrepresented students recognize and acknowledge that a career in STEM is a viable and rewarding option, we solidify the future of the sciences.

In addition to starting the conversation sooner with students, I think it would be equally beneficial to prepare mentors in order for them to be able to work with a diverse group. Preparing and training mentors will foster an enriching and welcoming environment for diversity.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of encouraging a diverse environment from the perspective of the individual.

From a very young age, I had opportunities to interact with students from a variety of socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. These opportunities expanded my academic and social aspirations as I learned: how to relate to peers that were different from my neighborhood friends and develop my love for science.

I attended a diverse elementary school where we frequented the Field Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry. I also attended a diverse high school where: I volunteered at the 

Museum of Science and Industry, volunteered at several animal clinics throughout Chicago, and taken several AP courses. Were it not for the experiences early in my academic career, I would have been ill equipped for undergrad and graduate school. 

Although we are making headway, at times, we forget about the needs of the individual. From the lecture that I attended, it was clear that increasing the number of students/faculty from underrepresented groups is not enough. Changing our attitudes will potentially attract and retain underrepresented students/faculty. 

The "Beyond The Bench" series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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