Representation in science | @theU

This piece first appeared on Utah Museum of Natural History Blog.

Imagine a scientist. What do they look like to you?

For many, The first picture that comes to mind is someone like Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin – a serious, older white man who might have glasses or a chemistry beaker. Images of these historical figures are often considered synonymous with science and have been promoted time and time again. And it’s a shame. The classic image of someone like Carl Sagan is only a representation of a scientist or who could become one, an image that masks the struggles and successes of scientists who do not buy into our first impressions. Especially for black students and scientists who have faced unfair and unfair barriers in science, part of the conversation shift is realizing that representation matters.

Researchers have known for years that centering images of scientists like Newton and Pasteur is incredibly daunting for people with different racial and gender identities. “Research indicates that many young people may be deterred from pursuing STEM fields because of strong stereotypes about who best fits and belongs in these fields,” write social scientists Ursula Nguyen and Catherine Riegle-Crumb. By interviewing nearly 1,000 black and Latino college students, researchers found that thinking outside of the stereotype of who a scientist is — including a scientist’s interests and identity outside of their research — helps students relate to themselves. feel more positive and encouraged to study science on their own. Being able to see a scientist like you can be extremely important for young students, an indication that they can pursue and succeed in the fields that fascinate them.

But a more complete and diverse picture of who a scientist is is does not solve all the problems within the discipline. Many students and scientists from marginalized backgrounds still face challenges related to systemic racism, gender stereotyping, and inequality. Opportunities to become a scientist are not distributed evenly or equitably, even among professional scientists. A 2020 study found that scientists seeking to hire postdoctoral researchers for their labs were biased against black applicants, as well as Latinx applicants and women. Another post from 2020 found that black doctoral students in STEM fields regularly encounter microaggressions and discomfort due to persistent stereotypes and inequalities. With increased scientific diversity must also be accompanied by science that is more welcoming to the widest range of people who participate in it.

There is no single answer to these persistent challenges. Greater representation to counter scientific stereotypes is one step, but so is change inherent biases and barriers within scientific institutions. Students and scientists need not just a place in their field of study, but an effort toward equal opportunity, equal pay, and other tangible means of support. “There is some interesting research looking at STEM fields where people think we have made progress on diversity; that is, there are more people from underrepresented groups, especially underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, compared to the 1980s,” notes Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, “but it does not mean that we have achieved equity or inclusiveness; just more faces of underrepresented groups, what is called symbolic diversity. Making science accessible to all is a major task that requires everyone’s effort.

The constant quest to understand nature, from the cells of our bodies to the composition of distant stars, is a human endeavor. The process requires people from a variety of backgrounds with different perspectives, especially in human-centric fields like medicine. And it’s not just something to temporarily celebrate or treat as past history. Especially for black students and scientists who face disproportionate and unfair barriers in their fields, there is a lot of work to be done by scientists, colleges and museums. “It is absolutely time for change, and not just in our desire to see change,” says economist Kaye Husbands Fealing. “We have to be active, and I think we know some of the things we can do, even if we don’t know everything.”

Photo: Astronaut Mae Jemison is one of many black STEM pioneers. Credit: NASA

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