Please Welcome Guest Post , from my old stomping grounds at U Penn, Caleph Wilson!
Diversity has become a watchword in the scientific community. For the last 20 years colleges, universities, government science agencies and private foundations have worked to increase the numbers of scientists from under-represented backgrounds. Some of these policy changes have resulted in an increase and improved retention of scientists from low socio-economic homes, women and ethnic minorities. Additionally, funding was put in place to support science policy changes and build the infrastructure to produce scientists from communities that have traditionally had no personal interactions with scientists.
I was fortunate to be one of many scientists who benefited from institutions that participated in programs sponsored by one or more of the funding agencies mentioned above. However, there is a concerning by-product of the strides to increase the diversity within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. STEM training is a rigorous process and the environment in which it happens often isolates under-represented minority (URM) scientists. Moreover, many URM scientists do not have substantive dialogs about their work with members of their own communities. This means that an enormous repository of information is not connected to underserved groups. For this reason, many URM scholars work diligently to counter the isolation of science training and connect with their communities.
Incidentally, this blog series was born from DNLee’s well-recognized effort to connect her communities (African-American and inner-city families) to science, and make herself “redundant.” That is why an editor at Biology-Online reached out DNLee and requested her effective voice to provide content that would attract viewers to their site. This is the same reason that SciAm added her as a blogger. Unfortunately, when SciAm’s editor snatched DNLee’s blog post response to being called a “whore” by the Biology-Online editor, the isolation and double-standard rules often experienced by minorities in science came to the fore.
DNLee experienced what many URM scientists have faced. You are acceptable as long as you do not address a combined personal and professional insult in a way that overtly reflects your personal cultural experiences. The pressure to leave your cultural identity behind and only communicate in the mainstream science norms and language represents a powerful situation. It contributes to the isolating nature of science training by URMs.
In order to reverse the trend of isolation and build bridges between scientific and underserved communities, Shareef Jackson, Jamila Bey, DrRubidium, Evette Dionne, DNLee, and I decided to form a group that we affectionately referred to as TheDarkSci and later officially named the National Science & Technology News Service (NSTNS). (NSTNS/@TheDarkSci has since grown to 12 members.) We wanted to address the dearth of science news stories aimed at our communities and about scientists from URM. Our goal was to have a cadre of minority scientists capable of ‘sci-splaining’ health and STEM stories to underserved communities. NSTNS seeks to create a repository of URM scientists and journalists that could speak directly to the communities from which they come. When appropriate, the science topics can be relayed in relevant vernacular or other creative ways without the fear of being discredited or attacked professionally.
One of the major drivers of our desire to push STEM news stories was the recognition of misinformation by special interest groups and distrust of some science. This suspicion is likely rooted in the revelation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the experience of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and other historical accounts of abuses of science or medicine. In the case, of the Tuskegee 400 syphilis infected black men were purposely not treated from 1932 -1972 to study the course of the disease. There are also cases of minority women being sterilized without their knowledge during surgeries. I suspect that the impact of these abuses still reverberate in the health disparities in minority populations.
Even though the abuses like the Tuskegee experiment spawned a revamped ethical protocols and governing bodies related to human experimentation, it would be more helpful to have URM scientist that can engage underrepresented communities. However, the low numbers of URM scientists do not allow underserved communities meet very many scientists in person. I believe that community engagement by URM scientist is the key to effectively tackling the dismal numbers of URM STEM majors.
NSTNS is working to provide a platform that minority scientists can utilize to share our love of STEM with our communities. Moreover, NSTNS supports URM scientists in their efforts to communicate their science in ways that are comfortable to them. Although we are well versed in formal scientific writing and speaking, we can also communicate science in the language of social media and community vernacular. (This linguistic flexibility is often referred to as code switching.) That means that science can reach people that would not usually have interactions with well-trained scientist, or those who might not visit science websites such as Scientific American.
It is our view that NSTNS can link underserved communities to science by helping news editors and journalists present stories that appeal to diverse audiences featuring diverse experts. My goal is to work to open the lines of communication between communities and scientists. In order to understand how to help, I plan to use this formula: Listen, listen some more and listen again. Understanding barriers to engaging STEM topics from the community’s perspective is key to effectively improving the interest in STEM. Importantly, trust in science and medicine can be regained, which will impact education, health and employment opportunities. URM scientists will gain a way to facilitate an appreciation of both their STEM expertise and personal backgrounds.
Caleph B. Wilson, PhD is a biomedical sciences postdoctoral fellow at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the National Science and Technology News Service. In addition to his work as a scientist, he participates in outreach programs to promote STEM, through mentoring, science education and professional development advisement. Follow him on Twitter: @HeyDrWilson