How Can We Increase Black Representation in STEM Fields?

Petri dishes

According to Archer, Dewitt, and Osborne’s 2015 article Is Science for Us? Black Students’ and Parents’ Views of Science and Science Careers, Black students are underrepresented in STEM careers. While governments have been focused on increasing STEM participation broadly, in order to ensure that they have a workforce in place that meets their economic needs, have they focused enough on increasing participation among all groups?

Bryan Bryson, an Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), often asks himself how the pipeline gets diverted. “At undergrad institutions, there seems to be a selection for careers that are not academia for people of color.” Many of his classmates from his undergraduate career at MIT chose careers in finance, medicine, or tech.

Bryson acknowledges that the US still suffers from broadly insufficient public science education, but the issue he thinks about more often is why students of color at elite institutions choose careers outside academia. It’s not productive for him to think about the talent pipeline in K-12 education, but he can influence his own students at MIT and educate them on career paths in STEM.

Bryson is mindful, however, of the increased demands that are often placed on professors of color. In a piece for The Atlantic, Patricia Matthew writes that “When faculty of color are hired, they are often expected to occupy a certain set of roles: to serve as mentors, inspirations, and guides—to be the racial conscience of their institutions while not ruffling too many of the wrong feathers.”

This ‘invisible labor’ is time-consuming, so Bryson often finds himself asking what he can do to be an effective advocate for increased representation in STEM without compromising his work. “What are the small things I can have on my plate? One thing I’ve tried to do as a working practice is visibility, participating; being present goes a long way. The other thing—I don’t hide my identity.”

Although Bryson feels respected in his department and in his field, he is sometimes reminded that academia can still be a difficult place for a person of color. “I was giving a talk at an institution and I was waiting in a professor’s office anteroom. They walked back and forth five times before their assistant told them I had arrived. I wasn’t noticed. Some people have to get with it and realize that faculty come in all shapes, colors, types. At this point I sometimes don’t even tolerate it. ‘Your reaction is making me uncomfortable’: that’s what I tell people these days.”

On the other hand, Bryson points out that STEM fields can be particularly egalitarian. “If your data is good, you’re respected. If my paper was just published in a prestigious journal, the peer review process was blind—I wasn’t helped because I was a black man. In America, the struggle is real to be a person of color, and it’s been real since I had self-awareness. In academia, I’m not sure how much it matters. I think it matters a lot to students—it’s great for them to have examples.”

Bryson recalls arriving on campus at MIT as an undergraduate and feeling for the first time that he belonged, that he was not out of place. So many of his classmates were also students of color who were interested in the sciences, in stark contrast to his predominantly white high school in Texas. “I studied in a scientific microcosm where I was in a super diverse research lab. I had faculty who were people of color who I really looked up to. I worked with them and knew them and didn’t necessarily look at them as role models, but now I do. I wasn’t aware of my blackness as much as I am now.”

Bryson goes on to speak a bit further about the importance of mentorship. “I think that people don’t want this job. My job is amazing, but it comes with its own set of stresses. One is dealing with the fact that academia gets a bad rap in terms of work/life balance and what you have the opportunity to achieve. When students ask me about graduate school, I talk to them about what they want to achieve. I tell them there will not be a lot of diversity when you arrive, depending on where you go. That might not change until society changes. I don’t have it in me to fight all the battles. But I do have the time to identify people who want to be where I am and share everything I’ve learned. Over the time of my life, that is something I can impact. Structurally, understanding public schools and institutions that underlie where we are right now is outside of my pay grade and the amount of time I have. I can’t tackle those issues, but what I can do is help the people who are here.”

Bryan Bryson researches tuberculosis and is interested in ways to manipulate the immune system to improve bacterial control.

References

ARCHER, L. , DEWITT, J. and OSBORNE, J. (2015), Is Science for Us? Black Students’ and Parents’ Views of Science and Science Careers. Sci. Ed., 99: 199-237. doi:10.1002/sce.21146

MATTHEW, P.A. (2015), What Is Faculty Diversity Worth to a University? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/what-is-faculty-diversity-worth-to-a-university/508334/.

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