How to get more women and people of colour into graduate school — and keep them there

Case studies show that efforts to address equity in science are doomed if they don’t learn from past mistakes.
Sibrina N. Collins is executive director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan.

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Sequencing DNA at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland.Credit: National Cancer Institute/SPL

Equity in Science: Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education Julie R. Posselt Stanford Univ. Press (2020)

In 1916, Saint Elmo Brady became the first African American to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry in the United States. Eighty-four years later, I was one of only 44 Black chemists in the country to earn a PhD that year. As a chemistry professor in academia, I have seen many efforts to address diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Yet the needle has barely budged. In 2016, in a nation where 33% of people identify as Black, Latin American (Latinx) or Native American, only 9% of all science and engineering doctorates in the United States went to students from these groups.

Some of the reasons behind this are explored in the book Equity in Science. Social scientist and education researcher Julie Posselt warns that we must learn from previous efforts or we are doomed to repeat past mistakes. She focuses on case studies from geoscience, psychology, chemistry and applied physics that serve as potential models for universities and colleges looking to recruit and retain women and people of colour in STEM graduate education. Posselt defines equity work as “reconfiguring structures, cultures, and systems to empower marginalized groups and close disparities”. Institutional change is required to make substantial shifts. She admits it can be very messy.

Equity work begins with facilitating conversations with key stakeholders; data and storytelling have major roles in that process. Posselt provides heart-wrenching vignettes describing unacceptable behaviour towards women and students of colour. “I just wish dirty old men would keep their hands to themselves,” one student told her. “It was like ‘diversity-diversity-diversity’ on the website, and when I came here there was nothing,” said another.

Deep dive

One chemistry department (at an institution anonymized as “High Tower University”) attained gender parity in graduate-student enrolment only after the department took a deep dive to understand why so many women had been denied tenure — in short, because of marginalization and lack of mentoring. This department used a more targeted approach to hire female faculty members who were strategically aligned with its intellectual interests. A star recruit led to more women coming aboard, which led to an increase in the enrolment of female chemistry graduate students.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, faculty leaders designed an inclusive applied-physics programme; it has recruited African American, Latinx and Native American students who have earned PhDs. Tactics included lecturers making visits to institutions that serve undergraduates from minority communities, and creating a ‘family’ environment for these students to succeed. Staff were hired to act as advocates and cultural translators for students. These institutions are US-based, but the lessons can be applied internationally.

Other key stakeholders are academic societies. Pivotal in graduate education, they need to do more. Posselt examines the American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society. Among other things, these organizations recommended that standardized tests called the graduate record examinations be eliminated as a requirement for admission — they have been shown to reflect privilege more than ability.

Posselt draws from quantum theory’s tools for thinking about the dynamics of change in complex systems fraught with uncertainty. She highlights the work of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, but misses an opportunity by failing to mention Elmer Imes. In 1918, he became the second African American to be awarded a physics PhD in the United States. His doctoral work, published in the Astrophysical Journal, provided tangible evidence of quantum behaviour in complex systems. Teaching students about scientists such as Imes broadens their image of who can be a physicist. This is one strategy to transform STEM curricula and to demonstrate how faculty members can respect the contributions of women and people of colour. In short, students should see scientists who look like them reflected in classroom content. Researchers such as Christopher Emdin, a scholar of science education at Columbia University in New York City, have used this approach to attract students from historically under-represented groups into STEM fields. Called culturally relevant pedagogy, it merits more detailed discussion than it gets in this book.

Early in her narrative, Posselt asks a crucial question: how much should graduate programmes reform “to accommodate the diverse career pathways in their fields”? There are simply not enough tenure-track positions, and most PhD holders don’t work in academia. STEM fields have been slow to empower graduate students who choose to use their training to improve or uplift their communities.

Departments and faculty members need to provide safe spaces for students interested in careers outside academia. Students in Michigan’s applied-physics programme said they wanted to secure employment and make a difference in society. The programme involves collaborations with many different departments, showing how physics can improve people’s daily lives. This approach can resonate with and empower graduate students from historically under-represented groups.

There are many more successful doctoral programmes than Posselt can cover. For example, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge is the leading producer of African Americans with PhDs in chemistry. The university has succeeded through targeted recruitment, mentoring and support.

Equity in Science does a good job of highlighting some of the barriers and challenges to equity in graduate programmes, and provides examples of what some do right and wrong. The book supplies specific guidance on inclusive practices. What we need now is a companion volume on getting and keeping scientists of colour in the next section of the pipeline: faculty. As I found after securing that PhD, rising through the ranks of academia as a Black woman chemist is tremendously hard work. What kept me going? Inspired by Saint Elmo Brady’s legacy, I knew I too deserved a seat at the table.

Nature 586, 491-492 (2020)

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