Science Beyond the SciLi: Representation in Science

Though this is Science Beyond the SciLi, the issue of representation permeates the walls of the SciLi, the greater Brown campus and the rest of the scientific world. Read on to learn about some students’ perspectives on representation within the scientific community, from the SciLi basement to the Nobel Committee.


Last weekend, the Brown Political Forum held a community forum to discuss “Representation in Science,” in collaboration with the Neuroscience DUG. A panel of five students, the “conversation starters,” reflected on their experiences in different fields of science at Brown and beyond through the perspective of their identities. The attendees also had the chance to break into small groups to discuss these issues and share personal experiences.

While minority groups, including women, racial minorities and members of the LGBT community, are underrepresented and disadvantaged in many fields, the statistics in science are particularly grim. Hispanics make up 7 percent of the STEM workforce, and blacks make up 6 percent. Women hold a quarter of STEM jobs, and in many fields this number is actually declining. I could go on and on listing the cold hard facts, but students’ personal stories are just as telling.

At the forum, the student panelists recalled experiences of professors and peers making judgments based solely on their identity.

Katie Byron was intending to declare computational biology as one of her concentrations, and she went to the concentration fair to discuss this with a faculty member. He responded, “Are you sure you’re up for taking all those math classes? Have you thought about just doing pure bio?” While the professor may have thought little of this afterwards, these kinds of comments are internalized and can bend the trajectories of students pursuing science.

Another panelist, Richard Park, a Korean-American queer first generation college student and first generation American, described an experience with a professor who said something along the lines of, “Because you’re a biomedical engineer, you’ll be capable of finding a woman.” His response: “Um, I don’t really want to find a woman…” These are just a couple illustrations of biases, unconscious or conscious, that people hold about who is represented in the sciences.

Jamelle Watson-Daniels, a physics and Africana studies double-concentrator who identifies as African-American and female, recalls attending a physics lecture her sophomore year. She said, “It was the first time I saw a black physicist, and the first time that I realized I hadn’t seen a black physicist.”

That the people who study science look a certain way reinforces the conception of who belongs in the sciences. Guess when a black professor in a STEM field was first given tenure at Harvard? One person in my discussion group guessed 1985. The answer is LAST YEAR, when astrophysicist John Johnson received tenure. At Brown, there are only three black STEM faculty members.

Another issue that often goes less addressed than race and gender is mental health. Panelist Heather Aruffo talked about her experience pursuing a chemistry degree while struggling with mental health issues and a learning disability. While she has gotten much more support in the last year than she did during her first two years at Brown, these issues are still very stigmatized. This is particularly true in the sciences, where if you don’t “get it” right away, you don’t belong. Multiple students described experiences of deans and others pushing them to switch concentrations instead of offering support.

Panelist Dan Parker started off saying, “Look at me. I’m a white guy.” As someone who is part of the majority identity in the sciences, he realizes that he has the privilege of stepping in and out of the issue. Before becoming active in conversations around these issues, it didn’t occur to him that some people might be scared to ask questions because of others’ preconceptions. He said, “I never had to think, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t ask a question, because if it’s stupid, people will think all people from Michigan are stupid.'” This drew a laugh, but if you replace “people from Michigan” with “women” or “people of color,” it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

So many more issues and questions came up at the event than can fit in a 1000-word post. So, here are just a few:

  • The structures of sciences in academia were set up in the 1800’s. Why haven’t the structures changed?
  • What is the role of affirmative action in research programs and graduate school admissions in the sciences?
  • Why are the sciences thought of as “smart” fields?
  • How does the identity of the scientists influence the scientific work that is done?
  • In what ways do biases exist in distributing funding for scientific research?
  • How should we teach the work of prominent scientists who were also racist, sexist, or held other biases?

Get some friends together, maybe in a SciLi study room while procrastinating a problem set, and discuss.

Now that we have identified all of these issues, how can we approach this problem of representation in science? We discussed a few concrete solutions that we can begin to work on here at Brown.

  • Work with people who don’t look like you. Especially in the sciences, students tend to form clusters with people who have similar experiences. Actively reach out to others who have different identities, and ace that problem set together.
  • When something problematic is said, interrupt the “natural conversation” and respond to the assumptions made. Biases are so entrenched that often people may not realize they are making assumptions, and if they go unchallenged, the discourse won’t change.
  • Create a Diversity Perspectives in Liberal Learning course requirement. We at Brown eschew requirements, but we already have the WRIT requirement—one more couldn’t hurt, and would definitely raise awareness of the existing issues regarding representation.
  • Work with programs like the New Scientist Program and Inertia. The former helps underclassmen, particularly those from minority backgrounds, navigate the scientific community at Brown. The latter advocates that Brown direct resources towards attracting black students and hiring black faculty in STEM fields.
  • Continue the conversation. Attendees noted that they could think of many peers and faculty members who could have benefited greatly from the forum. We need to create spaces for conversations about representation both inside and outside the classroom.

One panelist concluded with a poignant fact: In countries where people think that science is a male-oriented discipline, there are fewer females in science. This relationship is a vicious cycle, but it also presents hope: if people learn that the sciences are not just for males—or white people, or straight people—the statistics can change.

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