A recent University of Massachusetts Amherst study found having academic contact with female professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can have positive influences on students—female students in particular. For girls and young women studying these subjects in school, being able to identify female role models helps them imagine themselves as STEM professionals. The role models enhance their perceptions of such careers and boost their confidence in studying such subjects.

I can certainly relate to this role model effect as an early career professional. My dissertation advisor was female, as well as nearly half of the other members of the Biology Department. All of them are heavy-hitters in their own right, which made it easier for me to envision myself as a scientist and professor. As I was preparing to apply for postdoc and teaching positions elsewhere, I was reminded to fully appreciate the beauty and support of a gender-balanced science department. The environment I experienced in graduate school is not the norm. However, I still can't emphasize enough how profoundly powerful it has been to me (and other female students) knowing these women.

Moreover, when it comes to attracting more minorities to study and pursue careers in STEM, the same formula works equally well. In fact, within the African-American community, there is strong interest in celebrating role models of achievement: African-American history programs at schools and churches, Most Influential African-Americans lists in national magazines, featured stories in the press of African-American Firsts. Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Who can resist celebrating the local kid who came up, so to speak?

For one, such stories are inspiring; but more specifically, for members of groups that have been historically disenfranchised or marginalized, it is also about pride. I am repeatedly humbled by the number and volume of people who congratulate me, or my family, for completing college, studying science and obtaining my doctorate. Among my friends, who are also members of minority groups, they share similar experiences. Some of us may have come from blue collar families, others from middle-class families, but all of us have experienced that call to 'give-back' – that expectation to share our time, our talent, our testimony with others from our group.

You see, more often than not, our accomplishments in our scientific or engineering field meant we (or our parents or teachers) went through a lot of trouble in order to access the pathway to STEM. Of course we studied hard, but we also sought out internships or summer study programs or scholarships in order for us to fully become immersed in the field. We worked hard to excel academically and networked like crazy.

For me, I made myself available to be mentored by anyone who was willing to show me the way. If I were to wait around for an exact prototype—Black, female, from a working class family, interested in animals, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. The truth is most of us Black, Latino, Native American scientists and engineers today did not have the luxury of science, math or engineering professors who looked or sounded like us or came from a similar neighborhood as we did. But let me be clear: having access to such a role model would have certainly smoothed the way.

That’s why, in order to increase representation in STEM, we need to increase STEM service to these audiences. No doubt, one of the reasons why there are too few people of color completing STEM degrees and entering STEM careers is because many simply don’t know about the variety of opportunities available.

However, simply announcing the existence of such opportunities to new audiences is a very small piece of the solution. How such opportunities are marketed to members of under-represented audiences matters just as much and—I have found—for some people it matters more. Put simply, members of under-represented communities want to see themselves in these roles. They want to know who the achievers are.

Too often, African-American achievement is the celebration of people who lived and died long ago. But people want to know who has achieved success now, today, in our community. In order to dispel the myth that Blacks, Latinos or Native Americans don’t do well in science and math, people need to see real people from their communities who have succeeded in science math. Parents and students want to know who, like them, has paved the way to success in science and engineering; and how did they do it. I meet ministers, grandmothers, teachers, social workers, and people from every walk of life who ask me to simply come and spend time with the young people in their lives and let them know about science. Communities want to interact with STEM professionals they can relate to.

Furthermore, as eager as community leaders want to present a positive image to the young people in their charge, I have found that I and my peers (fellow African-American scientists and engineers) are just as eager to share. I believe this same desire is also the reason why so many Black, Latino, Native American scientists and engineers are so focused and driven to careers that include a heavy emphasis on outreach, teaching, and mentoring. I think we’re trying to effect a change, serving as many students are we can and hopefully modify the pigmentation of STEM workforce.

About the author: Dr. Danielle N. Lee is an Outreach Scientist who studies animal behavior and behavioral ecology. She was named the Diversity Scholars Awardee in 2009 by the American Institute of Biological Sciences for her contributions to science and promoting diversity within the field. She writes about science, urban ecology, evolutionary biology, as well as diversity outreach in science, technology, engineering, and math at her science blogs Urban Science Adventures ! ©, winner of the 2009 Black Weblog Best Science or Tech Blog Award, and SouthernPlayalisticEvolutionMusic where she explains evolutionary biology through hip-hop music. You can follow her tweets at @DNLee5.

Photo courtesy of Alecia Hoyt.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.