Beyond “The Pipeline”: Reframing Science’s Diversity Challenge

Written by Dr. Kenneth Gibbs Jr.

One of the most commonly used metaphors for describing the solution for growing and diversifying America’s scientific talent pool is the “STEM pipeline.” Major policy reports have called on the U.S. to enlarge it so it does not fall behind other nations. Scholars and the popular press have highlighted the need to fix pipeline “leaks” that result in the disproportionate losses of women and minorities. While this metaphor has been helpful in focusing attention on careers in science, I am increasingly convinced that it fails us because it limits our view of the problems and their solutions. Further, these failures are actually hindering efforts to enhance scientific diversity—that is, cultivating talent, and promoting the full inclusion of excellence across the social spectrum.

Limitations of the “Pipeline”
The “pipeline” refers to the educational pathway—from elementary school through college, graduate school or the postdoc—that students complete in the pursuit of a STEM career. There are (at least) two big limitations with the metaphor. First, it reinforces the notion of a strict, linear sequence for becoming a scientist where none exists. There are of course certain benchmarks and competencies that need to be reached for one to be a capable scientist. However, if science wants to benefit from the talents of people from all backgrounds, then diversity efforts must focus on making sure there are more pathways that allow capable, hard-working people to join and participate in the field.

Second, and maybe most importantly, the linear nature of a “pipeline” means that the only way to enhance scientific diversity is to increase the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds entering the system. That is, pipeline framing focuses attention on the number of scientists from underrepresented (UR) backgrounds, and takes focus away from whether the environments and systems in which they are educated and work are supportive and promote inclusion. A major presupposition of pipeline framing is that if more girls and women, minorities, or whatever UR groups were interested in science and progressed through the system, scientific workforce diversity challenges would be solved. While numbers are of course part of the issue, a study I recently published with my colleague Kimberly Griffin suggests that the reason for the lack of diversity is much more structural in nature.

Disparate Career Trajectories Among PhDs
Professor Griffin and I
have spent the past few years studying science PhD recipients. By definition, PhDs are committed to science—no one does that much schooling if they’re not. Moreover, having reached the end of the educational “pipeline,” a PhD recipient has navigated any potential barrier to access, retention, or persistence. Thus they provide an excellent group from which to test the idea that by increasing the number of trained people from UR backgrounds, we can enhance diversity.

In our work, published in PLOS ONE, we surveyed a large sample of PhDs in the biomedical sciences (my home discipline). We asked them about their career preferences over time, as well as factors known to be important in pursuing a scientific career—mentoring, self-confidence and graduate school experiences. We also included objective measures—for example, the number of scientific publications they had produced and the types of institutions where they were educated. If the “pipeline” framing was correct, then one would assume there would be no differences in career trajectories of these Ph.Ds. across lines of race/ethnicity or gender after accounting for any potential differences in these important factors.   However, our results showed just the opposite.

When statistically accounting for any difference in these important factors, including objective measures, women and scientists from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds were 36-54 percent less likely than White or Asian men to express interest in a career as a faculty member in a research university upon the completion of graduate school. Further, URM women PhDs were twice as likely as scientists from all other groups to express high interest in a career outside of research.

Let that sink in.

Among science PhDs who are otherwise similar on important metrics such as publication record, mentoring support and self-confidence, we still see differences in the career pathways they show interest in pursuing. This, in my view, means that simply focusing on getting more people into and through the educational system will not be sufficient to solve science’s diversity problems. Instead, efforts must focus on creating a system that highly trained and talented scientists from all backgroundswant to be a part of.

Toward Systemic Reform
To be clear, I support programs and initiatives that aim to increase the numbers of students generally, and from UR backgrounds specifically, entering scientific training. I have benefitted from many programs that support young scientists.  These include the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, the Leadership Alliance, the National Science Foundation’sGraduate Research Fellowship Program, and many more.

Having more scientifically trained people, no matter what career pathway they take, is in my view incredibly important. However, efforts to increase the numbers of women, minorities and other UR groups in the sciences should be coupled with reforms that make sure the institutions training them, and the funding agencies supporting scientific research, promote inclusion.

In addition to focusing on the number of individuals the system produces, policy efforts must also focus on making sure that all scientists have high quality experiences and are well supported throughout their education, training and career.My hypothesis is that if scientists from all backgrounds felt that they would be well supported in the scientific enterprise—particularly the universities where the bulk of federally-funded research is conducted—then we would start to see greater levels of diversity.

Diversity is a byproduct of a highly functioning system that supports scientists from all backgrounds. Hence, we need to go beyond “the pipeline” and begin to tackle the institutional and systemic structures that lead to the loss of talent from diverse backgrounds in the sciences. In subsequent posts, I’ll share more on reasons why I believe these differences exist, and how we might begin to tackle them.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated. To see more of our work, follow the links below:

“Biomedical Ph.D. Career Interest Patterns by Race/Ethnicity and Gender”

“What Do I Want to Be With My Ph.D.? The Roles of Personal Values and Structural Dynamics in Shaping the Career Interests of Recent Biomedical Science Ph.D. Graduates”

About the Author: Kenneth (Kenny) Gibbs, Jr., PhD, is a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the NCI. He’s a lab scientist turned science policy-ist whose research focuses on strengthening the research enterprise through promoting inclusive excellence. Follow him on Twitter @KennyGibbsPhD and@STEMPhDCareers.

Article reposted with permission from the author. Originally posted in Scientific American Voices Blog.

From STEM to STEAM: Diversity and the integration of the Arts into STEM


By: Nathan N. Alexander

Historically, STEM has been used in the United States as an acronym to situate and link the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In original form, the term was generated as a means to situate education policies and as a tool for curricular innovation and national competitiveness, among other items. Similar terms, such as MINT, which stands for ‘Mathematics, Information Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Technology’, have not experienced the success, in terms of usage, of the STEM acronym and thus are not commonplace in discussions on education. More recently, however, the term STEAM has become more readily apparent in education policy literature. In general, STEAM seeks to transform education policy and encourage the integration of the arts and design into K-20 education, primarily as a means to drive innovation. The STEAM movement seeks to broaden the conception of the STEM fields, which have been traditionally situated as hard and unreachable subjects for some youth. One implication of this movement is an assured increase in situating diversity in the now STEM fields, but only in instances where integration and implementation are well thought out in advance.

The public education agenda in the United States has positioned STEM as a centerpiece in debates about important and requisite skills for national competitiveness. More broadly, institutions such as the National Science Foundation have presented guidelines on what constitutes as STEM field, which have contributed to more discipline specific ways of thinking and less multidisciplinary and integrative frames. As a result, and in K-12 education, these guidelines have been situated, separated, and couched in terms like college readiness and 21st century learning that lacks a holistic perspective on student learning. For example, in American society one is thought of as an “arts” person or a “science” person; it is rare that these two exists or are fully embraced all at once. Much of this way of thinking is the result of a political ideology and government agenda set to maintain competitiveness versus generate a healthy and holistically educated youth. It is no surprise, then, that historically STEM has its roots in debates about the number of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Less surprising is that these debates existed with a specific regard to immigration. Namely, the question, “How do we get the best workers here in the U.S?” In light of the fight for national competitiveness, a focus on specific communities and subsequent issues of diversity in STEM increased.

Low expectations and high barriers for STEM have historically made entry into these fields difficult, especially for marginalized and underrepresented students of color, as Dr. Chloe Poston has previously discussed. In K-12 education, STEAM has been situated more broadly as a framework for education, as opposed to a curriculum or curricular tool. Georgette Yakman, one founder in the STEAM Education movement describes the framework as one that allows representation of the whole world. Previous posts here at The Poston Collective have discussed the need for more integration across disciplines. For example, Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial noted how STEM and Social Science go Hand in Hand. Elsewhere, significant debates exist around the emphasis on STEM. The majority of these debates focus on whether STEM has provided proper and substantive content to teaching and learning in K-20 contexts. Beyond how it is written, additional debates arose from how STEM is interpreted. Further questions about rigidity and inclusiveness continue.

Is STEAM one potential puzzle piece to reducing persistent issues of diversity?

In my opinion, good teaching already accounts for STEAM. However, the STEAM community formalizes the process and takes on Science and Technology by interpreting Engineering through the usage of the Arts, which are all based in Mathematics. I use this post as a call to urge us all to better understand the STEAM movement in detail and to identify the nuances that will be presented in the months and years to come. While innovation and growth of this sort provide fair opportunity to engage new ways of doing, it is too often that new issues of diversity and access follow. STEAM will only provide the contexts to “paint” a new picture of diversity given well-planned and situated integration that will include all students and not only those with access to, for example, more information and resources. Further, unlike its STEM counterpart, this new movement should not be focused solely on increasing national competitiveness but instead as one potential way to increase diversity and justice for communities that have been traditionally left out of the STEM fields.

Full STEAM ahead!

Could Tuition-Free Colleges and Universities Help Diversify STEM?

Money pig graduate

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

In recent months, several legislative proposals have been presented that might signal the end of times for college tuition. These proposals have been put forth by legislators in Michigan, New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi, and would allow students to get a college education at the state or community college of their choice for “free”.

Michigan House Bill No. 5315 (affectionately called The “Pay It Forward bill”) would provide up to 200 in-state students interest-free loans for college tuition at either a 2- or 4-year institution. Once a student has graduated from their institution and attained a position that puts them above the federal poverty line, they are required to pay a fixed percentage of their adjusted gross income into a fund, which will provide for financial aid of future college students. The amount the student would pay depends on what type of school they attended; 2% for community college students, and 4% for public university students. Students would be required to pay this percentage for five years for every year they attended school under the program. This means, a student who attended a Michigan school for five years, would pay 4% of their income into the fund for 25 years.

In New York, the idea is to provide New York residents free tuition to attend a university, college or community college within the SUNY (State University of New York) system. In return, students are required to complete 250 hours of community service a year while enrolled, and commit to stay in New York for five years after graduation, presumably to keep well-educated talent within the state. While costing the state close to $1 billion dollars to implement, the co-sponsors of the NY bill say it will result in $3 billion dollars of community service hours, as well as increased sales and property tax revenue created by students starting their post-graduate lives in the state.

While these proposed programs in Michigan and New York, as well as the programs in Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi, might encourage students from all walks of life to consider college as an affordable option, the question arises of how this would really change the college population. I argue that these programs would also have the effect of increasing diversity in STEM fields.

One obvious effect of these programs is that free tuition would allow more low-income students to access schools with high quality STEM programs and cutting edge research. These students would get to interact with and be mentored by world-class researchers and faculty, generating many future opportunities to which they may not have previously had access. It would also make the path easier for students who need a little help to strengthen their knowledge of hard sciences, but can’t afford to pay for community college alone. According to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success, African-American, Latino, and Native American community college students are more likely to attend schools which do not participate in federal student loan programs. In some states, particularly in the south, more than a fifth of community-college students are denied access to federal loans. This means that in order to gain education, students must pay tuition for these schools out of pocket. Community college tuition has been steadily increasing, as more students see them as a viable alternative to traditional colleges. By removing this barrier to education, students can focus maintaining the program’s GPA requirements and getting the most out of their college experience.

Similarly, removal of the intimidation factor of soaring loan interest rates and crippling debt may encourage other students to follow their passion. The average student might choose a degree in a field that they are not particularly enthused about because they know that their future career will pay enough to keep them living comfortably while they repay student loans. Conversely, scientists generally choose their field for the love of science and knowledge and not the money. Most postdocs can describe in detail the profound sense of dread they experienced upon receipt of their first college loan repayment notice from Sallie Mae. By eliminating the threat of unmanageable future debt, underrepresented students may feel more comfortable pursuing degrees in STEM and even academia.

Another benefit to the programs would be the retention of homegrown talent. While I do advocate seeing the world a bit before settling down, many urban areas would benefit from educated locals staying around. These students could help to make a difference in their own communities, by demonstrating that college is possible and by using their education to make changes. Providing an incentive to attend a great college and work in one’s home state could be particularly tempting to talented students who already have familial obligations. The opportunity to attend these schools close to home for “free” may make the offer one that is too sweet to resist.

I would also posit that by increasing underrepresented minority access to high-quality programs, more role models in STEM would begin to appear. Aspiring scientists of color would see many people who look like them in top positions, demonstrating their passion for their work, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would become much less of an anomaly. This might inspire younger students of color to pursue their dreams of being an astrophysicist, starting a booming technology startup business, or becoming a star of their own engineering television show. And thus, the cycle would continue, until “underrepresented” is no longer an accurate description of people of color within STEM careers.

For now, this idea of a “free” college education is still within the legislative proposal stage. There are still kinks to work out including: whether/how students should be evaluated for acceptance into the program (GPA, essays, application?) Should schools also be subjected to a rigorous selection process in order to be allowed to participate? Another issue is the seeming dependence (at least in Michigan) upon graduate repayment of loans to sustain the program over the years. How will the governing body ensure that graduates will be able to repay their interest free loans (ie secure employment that puts them “above the poverty line”), and that their repayment will be sufficient to aid future students? Despite these questions, this concept of a free education is still very interesting, and one that just might change the face of STEM and academia.


As an aside, there are still free (Really. It’s FREE free) educational options for the curious. One such option is to complete a MOOC. MOOCs (massively open online courses) are free online course taught by video lecture to thousands of people at a time. Topics range from “Developing your Musicianship” (Berklee College of Music) to “Programming Cloud Services for Android Handheld Systems” (Vanderbilt University). The Poston Collective has written about these useful mini-courses before, and you can read more about them here. While these free courses generally don’t result in a traditional degree, they are often taught by industry leaders and can be a great way to keep up with a dynamic career field. Many esteemed institutions of higher learning including Stanford, Harvard and MIT have released free MOOCs.

A PhD in Zen: Six ways to keep your sanity while in a PhD program and beyond


Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Having recently graduated with my PhD in Psychology (2nd best day of my life!), I now look back on my time in the trenches with a sense of fondness only given to those for whom time has granted the favor of forgetting pain. I think back to when I started graduate school: young, driven, fresh-faced and certain that at any moment, I would be outed at the imposter I was. I think back to when I started to get my intellectual footing, especially the moment when I realized, “Hey… I know more than I thought. Maybe I do belong here.” And I revel in the moment before my PhD defense (best afternoon of my life!) when I looked out at the audience, taking in the sea of purple-clad supporters, and I knew that I had already won the battle of a lifetime.

I see the evolution of the woman and academic I am today, and although I’m grateful for the journey, hindsight shows me plenty of ways I could have made the path much less rocky for myself. In today’s post, I’d like to share six ways to make the PhD process a little bit easier on your sanity. Some of these revelations I stumbled upon early on in my matriculation, while others I am still working on. And that’s OK. I will be the first to admit I am a work in progress, but I have strong hopes that my progress will help someone else. So, here is my post I affectionately call “Dr. Alexander did that, so hopefully you wont have to go through that.”

1. Don’t be afraid to say “NO.”

This little gem took me until my third year to get comfortable with, and I wish I had realized its virtues much sooner. Many academics are born overachievers. We’re used to being at the top of the class, juggling all sorts of extracurricular and social activities, and handling it all with an impeccable sense of style. All of us are taken by surprise by the whirlwind of research, classes and teaching that make up the graduate school experience. We are horrified  these professional obligations will suck up virtually all of our time like a black hole. On top of all of this, there are still many outside tasks we are expected to do: to develop professionally, to maintain relationships/friendships, and to gain experiences that will help us gain employment after school.

Despite having precious little free time, many of us may feel that telling someone “I can’t do it” or “No.”, is a sign of weakness, or that you will be “letting them down”. Each of these requests for our time and energy seem equally imperative; as if everything will fall apart if we don’t say yes. We tell ourselves that we can do it all, much like we’ve done it all before. However, what we often fail to realize is that despite being able to “do it all”, we simply cannot “do it all well”. By piling obligations on to an already overflowing plate, we are setting ourselves up in the worst case to fail. Even in the best case, we resign ourselves to a stressful, less than stellar performance on all of our tasks. This results in more stress and a greater decline in performance until it all falls apart.

It all seems like a vicious cycle that is difficult to break, but it’s actually pretty simple: Focus on the important things, the things you are in school to accomplish (PUBLISH good work, create a strong professional NETWORK, GRADUATE with a PhD), and be willing to let the less important things go. I promise that life will go on, and that you will be grateful for more space to breathe. If you have done your prioritizing right (and you must trust that you have), you will find yourself in a happier existence and with much higher quality output. And isn’t that what grad school is all about?


2. Do make time for YOU.

I can’t emphasize how important this is. In order to be the best scientist, engineer, anthropologist, writer, educator you can be, you must have a sense of who YOU are now. What kinds of things YOU like to do. It is easy to get lost in the things we have to do (work, classes, teach) and forget about the things we LIKE to do. Graduate school is an exercise in endurance, and when things don’t go your way during a bad day, month (year. Sigh.), it can be easy to lose motivation to keep going. By creating space in your day to regroup from rough patches, it gets easier to get up each day and try it again. I advocate doing at least small thing for yourself each day, whether it is a coffee break with a good friend, yoga practice, running, watching the game, playing with your kids, etc. This time should be non-negotiable; it happens regardless of what is going on in your life. I’ve found that work setbacks are much easier to handle when I know I have this un-changing “me time” to look forward to. I’ve done different things at different times during my PhD career, but most recently, my “me time” was watching my favorite tv show, Scandal, with friends. I allowed myself to watch this show religiously, and I wouldn’t have traded the weekly opportunity to step outside of my dissertation and academic speak, for the world. Prioritizing “YOU time” will also give you the chance to step out of your circumstances, and remind you that there is life outside of the job.

Another important way to prioritize yourself is to care for your body. It’s something we hear often, but when you are still working in lab at 11:00 at night, and your stomach is grumbling, it’s hard not to reach for that bag of chips or slice of pizza. Believe me, I struggle with this as well. But when you think of your body as the machine that allows you to do the stellar work you envision, it’s clear that preventative maintenance is key. Eating well and exercising to take care of and strengthen your body is just as important as strengthening your brain. Find out what fruits and vegetables will help your body and brain move mountains (hint: blueberries!) and eat them. Go for a walk while you wait for an incubation or if you have writers block. By making the care of your body a priority, you signal to the world that you value the thing that makes you who you are, and that you are willing to keep it in tip-top shape, by any means necessary. The added energy and general feeling of well-being doesn’t hurt either.


3. Don’t be afraid to take a day (or two) off

Sometimes in your quest for a PhD, things just will not go your way. You will have frustrating days, weeks or months that are just bad from start to finish. Your experiment, which has worked perfectly 15 times previously, suddenly decides that it doesn’t want to work any more. You realize that after months of data analysis, you made a mistake, and have to do the whole analysis over again. Or maybe you just feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that your advisor has given you to do, and are paralyzed because of it. Setbacks like these and others can make it seem like giving up is the right and only thing to do. I mean, if you were smart/good/skilled enough, you wouldn’t have these issues, right? Wrong. You may just need some time to reflect and relax. We often feel like there is no time for us to rest, that there are just too many things to do and not enough time to do it. But, I think we forget being in the hustle and bustle of graduate school, we generally have the opportunity to determine our own hours. As a result, if it means producing better work in the long run, we can (and should) take off when we need it. Whenever I felt like things were getting to be too much, or I just needed a break from the struggle, I went home. I took what I liked to call “Mental Health days” where I took the day off for personal reasons, and just spent it resting and doing things I wanted to do. I caught up on tv shows. I painted my toenails. I took a walk in the park. I had “Me time”. Sometimes it was simply an afternoon, and sometimes I took a whole day off. This opportunity to rest and reflect on what was going wrong in my life and how to fix it was often enough to get me motivated and willing to give it another try. Often times,  when I returned to work, things worked themselves out or I came up with new ways to work around stumbling blocks. Either way, my mental health days kept me moving along the PhD path.


4. Do have outside interests

There is nothing worse than dreading an event you feel obligated to attend, because you know all conversation will revolve around two questions “SO, what do you study/do?” and “How is your research going?” You know that the “partiers” will talk about their scientific problems and intellectual achievements all night, while you stare listlessly off into space, counting the minutes until you can reasonably excuse yourself and dash off into the night. It is almost like academics look at social events as a way to gauge our own progress; specifically who is doing better/worse than you and to show off our intellectual prowess. Stop. Drop. And please, please, PLEASE shut down the shop.

It is ok (and even desirable) to discuss things other than what is going on at your lab bench. In fact, it may surprise you that talking about other things you’ve done (like the hike you did last weekend, or the painting you are working on, or even how upset you were at who died on the last episode of Game of Thrones) are much more interesting to others than what’s going on in your petri dish. Even more surprising, talking about the happy things you did during “Me time” can actually help you to relax and let the solutions to your work problems reveal themselves.

In my humble opinion, academics don’t invest enough time in things outside of academia. Try a hobby or learn a skill unrelated to your work. Always wanted to be a roller-girl? Join a derby league. Miss your days of kickball domination on the elementary school playground? There are lots of adult kickball teams. Want to do more personal reading? Start/join a no-science allowed book club with your friends. All of these outside activities and more will give you the opportunity to develop yourself as a person and as a well-rounded academic. Plus, it will make you a much more charismatic party guest. Who can say no to that?


5. Do develop a stable support system

Last week, Dr. Poston wrote an excellent post on how to build a support community within your PhD program. Check out the post here. It is so important to not only develop a stable support system, but to make sure you choose all types of people to be a part of it.  I feel my experience was made richer by having friends from all walks of life and at different stages PhD process. Some of my most cherished graduate school friends were in other departments very different from my own. But we all shared a common experience on some level. The ability to talk about (or not talk about) any issues I was facing as an academic, as a woman of color at a PWI or as a scientist, and know that I was understood and accepted at the most basic level was precious to me.

Their contributions weren’t just personal. My support system was also essential for my professional development. I appreciated the commonalities, but I relished the differences between us, the ability to step out of my little corner of the scientific world, and learn something new from my peers about the world of Africana studies, or chemistry, or political science.  Sometimes, what I learned would inspire me to make changes to my work, for the better. I also knew that if I needed someone to listen to a practice talk or read over a grant proposal, I always had someone who was ready and willing. They helped me decipher cryptic emails from professors, and develop the perfect way to broach uncomfortable topics with colleagues. Their critiques and praises helped me take my work from something I had just “done”, to something I could be proud of.

I would also emphasize the need to maintain connections with people outside of the university/professional settings. If you have a significant other, don’t be afraid to share with them the kind of support that you need. I relied on my boyfriend, Michael, to celebrate the occasional victories and to help me through the inevitable tough times. I also relied on my family and friends who weren’t in school, who reminded me that there was a good life waiting for me on the other side of the PhD. All of these people were indispensable, and none of them would allow me to give up, even when I wanted to. I truly believe I wouldn’t have this degree if I hadn’t chosen these specific people to be part of my support system. And I believe you will find that careful selection of the members of your support system will go a long way in helping you succeed in as a PhD student and throughout your career.


6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I mentioned in my last post Hashtags and (Mental Health): A shared experience, the difficulty many POC have with asking for help when we need it, and the complex reasons for this. Despite this struggle, it is vital that we in particular learn this essential skill. No matter what your parent, your best friend or even your pastor says to the contrary, you and only you know your limits. There is only so much that you can do to maintain your mental, physical, and emotional health, and there are plenty of licensed people, who are ready and willing to help you shoulder the load. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

In this article, we’ve talked about various ways of making your time in a PhD program progress smoothly, and I have emphasized the importance of knowing and prioritizing yourself. We can only be at our best professionally, when we know ourselves and what we need. This includes knowing what you need from your support system, your advisor, or your therapist. I’ve asked for help with a tricky protocol and had a coworker suggest a tweak that made all the difference. I’ve met with a therapist when I needed help working out personal issues. I’ve asked my friends to read over a proposal or an abstract before submitting it. Each of these experiences has reinforced the importance of understanding where my limits lie, and the understanding that asking for assistance shows strength and not weakness.

Be encouraged that no matter the problem, there is a solution, and if not, there is always a way around the obstacle. Trust that people are happy and willing to help you, and that you are not in this struggle alone. I still struggle with becoming comfortable with asking for help, but knowing that there are others out there who are ready and willing to help me, makes the asking easier. I would encourage you to try it, and to see whether your personal and professional life doesn’t change for the better.

That’s all I’ve got for now. What do you think? What are some other strategies that you’ve found to stay sane during your PhD and beyond?

The Case for Continued STEM Outreach Despite The Job Market

2013 NOBCChE Science Bowl Participants

Written By Dr. Kimberly Mulligan

Students in U.S. public schools spend on average less than 25% of their day in school, with a majority of that time focused on meeting performance standards in subject areas such as English and mathematics. In a comparison of 65 top industrial nations by the Program for Student Assessment (PISA), American students placed 23rd in math and 31st in science achievement. Jobs in the STEM fields are predicted to outweigh non-STEM jobs over the next 10 years and according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at its current rate are needed to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology. The number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees in the U.S. must increase by 34% annually over current rates in order to meet these goals (February, 2012).

Students who are most likely to major in STEM fields and continue on to earn college degrees are those whose curiosity about STEM careers is piqued at an early age (Tai, R. H., Planning early for careers in science, 2006). At the K–12 level, student interest in STEM can be enhanced through hands-on learning activities, projects with real life context and relevance, collaborative work, and information regarding potential careers. Interest in STEM is also dependent on contact with role models and mentors who are working in these fields. The 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found that a majority of teenagers report that they do not know anyone working in STEM fields, nor do they understand what people in those fields do. This emphasizes the need at the K-12 level for students to be exposed to STEM careers by STEM professionals volunteering in their schools, enhancing STEM content knowledge, and serving as mentors if there is any hope of drawing them to these careers.

So how does this effect groups traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields? According to the National Science Foundation women make up 46% of the total workforce but hold only 24% of jobs in technical or STEM fields while African-Americans and Latinos each comprise 13% of the total workforce and only 3% of the technical workforce. The reasoning for this varies but includes the fact that minorities and women are not encouraged to pursue STEM careers, STEM careers are often portrayed by individuals who do not look like they do, and there is not a broad public awareness of the future demand for these industries. Furthermore, in a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights entitled “Encouraging Minority Students to Pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Careers”, it was found that minorities enter college with the same level of interest in STEM fields as their peers. However success in STEM majors depends on the student’s academic credentials and how these credentials compare to other students in their classes (October, 2010).

What must we do to combat these deficits in the STEM pipeline, especially for students of color? As a child, I loved science. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have proudly proclaimed, “A pediatrician!”. While both of my parents are college educated, neither of them have degrees in a STEM field. However, once I expressed my interest they did everything in the power to nurture my love. They enrolled me in after-school and summer programs and sought out men and women of color who could serve as mentors. Creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to gain hands-on experience and be mentored by individuals that look like them is crucial for broadening their participation in STEM. Beginning as soon as kindergarten, we must engage, excite, and encourage these students curiosity in STEM-related careers. STEM can benefit from the differing perspectives that diversity brings to the table. Therefore we must provide support and resources to adequately prepare these students to successfully pursue degrees in these fields.

Climbing the STEM Wall: Low Expectations and High Barriers

Written By Dr. Chloe N. Poston

Today in an excellent talk outlining the success of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Meyeroff Scholars Program, Dr. Michael F. Summers described the two major reasons why science and engineering struggles to retain the interests of qualified African-Americans: Low expectations and high barriers.

Low Expectations: Throughout his presentation, Dr. Summers shared several examples of ways in which scientists inadvertently reveal their lower expectations for people of color. For example, two students working in the same lab presenting related work are placed next to each other in a poster session. Student A has a steady stream of interest, with over 20 people stopping to discuss his poster. Student B only has one or two people stop by. The difference? Student A was a white male; student B was a black female. In another example an accomplished black female investigator was mistaken for the projection technologist just before her Keystone Symposium talk. The preceding examples illustrate the extracurricular hurdles that under-represented populations must endure.

In the case of the poster presentations, it is most plausible that scientists at the conference stopped to talk with Student A because he looked just like them. This is not an overtly racist move on their part. People are naturally drawn to people with whom they perceive some commonality; even if it is simply appearance. In addition the expectation at a scientific meeting is to see what is traditionally the largest population in science: white males.  The trouble with this approach is that means Student A gets to sharpen his presentation skills and share his work with over 20 people. He is more likely to make a connection that could lead to a summer program or even employment. Meanwhile Student B, who is equally capable, feels like she just wasted 2 hours sitting in the presentation hall. Similarly, at the Keystone Symposium, no one was accustomed to seeing an African-American woman as an invited speaker. It simply wasn’t expected.

In order to prevent these gaffes, which can be extremely detrimental to the confidence of a young scientist, the expectation of scientists must change. We should start to expect to engage with a very diverse group of young people in scientific settings. Dr. Summers’s challenge to this problem was for each person in the room to strike up a conversation with someone who they’d otherwise not expect to see at a large scientific meeting. If nothing else, that action would make us more aware of our unintentional bias.

High Barriers: If a young person is interested in becoming a scientist, there are high hurdles to jump. A high performing, college freshman must march up to a professor and inquire about the opportunity to perform undergraduate research. Many professors don’t have the time or resources to properly mentor an undergraduate researcher which means these spots are scarce. The students who know exactly what they want to do and how the game is played are the ones who get these limited positions in labs. A bright student who might think science is interesting, but doesn’t know that undergraduate research is required for a competitive graduate school application, will have no idea to ask about research opportunities. In many cases, it’s not until their junior or senior year that these student begin applying for external summer research opportunities. These attempts are difficult because they are competing with peers who have had continuous research experience at their home institutions.

Because decisions are primarily based on merit, those who seize the earliest research opportunities are the ones who will have the most competitive applications for summer research experiences, eventually locking out students who weren’t sure about a career in science at the onset of their undergraduate matriculation. These same students are likely to be first-generation college students or members of under represented populations who wouldn’t have parents to tell them how to become a great scientist.  The barriers eventually become insurmountable, leading to low retention rates and reduced diversity in science and engineering.

The University of Texas at Austin has taken a novel and effective approach to addressing this problem. The College of Natural Sciences has created the Freshmen Research Initiative or FRI. Instead of long tedious predetermined labs associated with general science courses, students in FRI perform scientific research to fulfill lab course requirements. This means that college freshmen learn about lab techniques, the design of experiments, and how to work with a PI to produce a scientific publication. Because the students are answering cutting edge research questions, they are more likely to identify themselves as a scientist and less likely to change majors. Students simply have to sign up for the course, as they would anything else. By lowering the barrier of entry into laboratory research, this program has demonstrated a significant improvement in retaining students in science and engineering and increasing the diversity of their STEM graduates.

Improving diversity in STEM at the undergraduate level requires us all to have higher expectations and lower barriers to entering scientific research. Above are two examples where this is working. What else can we do to help change the game?