The other day, I was walking to my car, headed to Animal Care to check on my animals. As I was strolling down the sidewalk I noticed a young lady, African-American. We gave each a cordial nod and said hello as we passed by. Then I heard I heard her call out and I turned around. She the told me how much she enjoyed my lecture in her Evolutionary Biology class, that I had delivered more than two months ago. She said she really enjoyed it and I thanked her. It’s always good to hear positive things. (And I find I need more positive feedback lately. It felt good to know I wasn’t invisible). She then said that I was the first Black teacher [college] she had. Although I was only a guest lecturer, the experience made her wonder (momentarily) if she should have attended a HBCU - Historically Black College or University – because felt she like she was missing something, exposure to African-American faculty.
It didn’t occur to me that I, a mere post-doc at this great big institution, would be the first Black lecturer that she (or any) student in that senior-level biology class would have had. Surely, all of them – no matter their ethnic background- have seen a Black person on that side of the podium before. Right? I guess not.
Her words were poignant; they also struck a chord. I didn’t attend a HBCU either; so, I completely relate to her experiences. I had one, 1, African-American instructor in college, my freshman English composition teacher. I attended Tennessee Technological University, a medium-sized university, with about 10,000 students in Cookeville – the heart of middle Tennessee in the Cumberland Plateau. There were 3 African-American professors at my college, two in the history department, one in the business school, I think, plus 3 university administrators. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral studies at the University of Missouri – St. Louis that I had my very first (and last) Black Science Professor – Dr. Godfrey Bourne, of Afro-Caribbean heritage. At majority institutions, Black professors are rare and even more rare in science and engineering departments.
Although, this was just one student, her personal account is telling the Higher Education system something very important: Students are crying out for a more representative faculty.
Check out what these Black and Latino Engineering undergrads from Bucknell University say in this CNN Money Report Missing: Minority scientists and engineers
I felt exactly like these students when I was in their shoes. To see someone who looks/sounds like me. Who comes from familiar places and spaces. Who can show me that this path is navigable. But for whatever reason I completely forgot those feelings once I crossed the stage. That was until yesterday.
Perhaps her words were right on time. I was/am still recovering from the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego. That meeting was eye opening. I would say hello, introduce myself, tell people what I work on, and without fail they would ask, “What’s next?” Such a strange question to me. I just started this project, I thought. For a long time I would reflexively respond ‘a tenure-track’ position. But the truth is, I haven’t been very excited about becoming a college professor lately, especially if it meant working at a major or medium-sized research institution. I’ve been flirting with working at smaller institutions – teaching colleges or masters-granting universities. Better, but eh. Even those seemed like incomplete fits. Then as I was talking, interacting and networking with scientists and students outside of my field, things started coming into view.
I love research, being in the field, getting dirty. I love outreach, sharing it with non-scientists online and in real life. I love talking about science. I love introducing people to new or over-looked opportunities in STEM. I enjoy teaching and working with students from K-12 to graduate level. But where does someone like me go – and earn a decent living? K-12 schools wouldn’t allow me to do only do bench research with students. Plus, I’ve been uncertain how I would fit in at the university level. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been chided for my enthusiasm, bubbly personality, or interests in reaching under-served audiences. Which confuses me because isn’t improved teaching and broadening participation a goal? It’s as if the very things that bring me joy (and for which institutions are quick to take credit for my hard work when it’s time to be accountable), AND I also happen to be very good at are also looked down upon by so many. I’m good at all of those things; however, my greatest strength is my ability to see connections across the aisles.
I’ve been introducing people science for a while now. I've converted people who once thought science was boring and irrelevant. I’m like a wingman. Being a member of scientific communities and many affinity groups means I am able to see and create bridging opportunities between different, often disparate communities. As a result I am able to engage new audiences in discussions about science and diversity. I see collaborative opportunities that no one else sees or even dares to imagine.
I have been trying to inspire a culture change in the sciences and research disciplines, but at the local level. Perhaps, I would do better at the funding agency or professional science society level. Funding agencies (like NSF, NIH) and professional science societies (like AAAS) have incomparable influence on individuals and institutions as it pertains to setting professional ethos and the inclusion of individuals from under-represented groups in the sciences at every stage of the pipeline. Such organizations seem to be an ideal place for someone interested in fostering deep relationships between under-served audiences and STEM. These organizations seem to thrive on new ideas and creative energy.
And I have never heard of anyone (not even a big shot R1/2 Researcher) denigrating a program officer/director for being too enthusiastic or eager to help get his/her science funded or promoted. That alone is food for thought.