A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science


Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

Assigning literature in a science class


I don’t know more than a few science undergraduates who regularly read literature.

If I’m training excellent scientists, that means I’m training excellent thinkers and problem-solvers. I’m training people who see things beyond their own perspective. One huge route for that is literature. But my students don’t read literature. So, am I training truly excellent scientists?

There’s a conversation I often have, during lab, or waiting for class to start. I broadly ask, What good books have you read lately? Then I ask, When was the last time you’ve read a non-required book? Through the silence you can hear the sound of crickets (and raccoons fighting over the food put out for feral cats).

When I ask students why they don’t read novels, I always hear that they don’t have time. If I have a good rapport, then I call BS on that claim. I suggest the idea that, maybe, they have the time, but haven’t prioritized reading. I then get some pushback, about how busy they are. This, I cannot deny. Nearly everybody works long hours and has major family obligations on top of coursework.

But, they really still have time for reading.

I’ve asked how much TV they watch, and they say “not much.” Then I ask which shows they are currently following, and how many games per week they watch on TV, and for nearly all students, it’s a long list. We do the math together, and it seems that they’re watching 10 or more hours per week at a minimum. My eyebrows indicate that the lack of literature in their life is a choice.

I’m not a TV-is-bad-for-adults sourpuss, but I am a no-reading-is-bad sourpuss.

One of the great things about academic freedom is that we have broad latitude over what happens in our classrooms. Even if the course needs to conform to a tight curriculum, you have broad interpretive latitude about how you go about things.

There are tons of great novels that feature protagonists who are scientists, or are in settings that are relevant to the course at hand. I don’t think I’d throw students into challenging literary fiction if they aren’t used to it. But I could assign things like The Poisonwood Bible, Angels and Insects, The Monkeywrench Gang, House of Leaves, Dirt Music, Never Let Me Go. These books have people at the heart, not science, but they are infused with ideas tied to science or nature.

I haven’t yet assigned an unabashedly not-a-science-book novel in a class; I’ve assigned non-fiction books like Beak of the Finch in the past. But I’m open to the idea. At least at my university, students don’t get too many novels to read in the route to getting a B.S. in a STEM field. Academic freedom allows me the latitude to decide that reading literature is an important of learning how to do science. Of course, by requiring it, I have to make students accountable for having done it, and make it a large enough part of the grade to make sure they read it. And I wouldn’t scale back any other part of the course, and I’d make sure that all other course objectives are met as always.

Do you know anybody in a STEM field who has done this? If you did this, how much guff would you get from your department mates? What are some other books that you think would be good?

Income inequality predicts science test scores, but not the way you might imagine


More than half of all children attending public schools in the United States are living in poverty. As the unequal distribution of wealth has become new norm, science education has stagnated. Perhaps these two might be connected to one another, reflecting a global pattern among developed nations?

Think again:


This relationship is the opposite of what I expected to find among developed nations.

This is fascinating, and troubling.

After looking at a few other variables, I’ve realized that I can’t even come close to understanding it, yet. Yes, higher Gini index values means greater income inequality: a greater gap between rich and poor.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality; http://www.businessinsider.com/pisa-rankings-2013-12