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Perspective: What's the Point of Diversity in STEM Without Inclusion?

I was first drawn to STEM from a young age, intrigued by the idea that we should question and explore our natural world.


This drive to question motivated me throughout all of my schooling from elementary school to college, where I spent many years conducting neuroscience research at my home institution and others. However, when in these spaces I consistently grappled with the fact that I rarely saw anyone who looked like me actually doing science.


The underrepresentation of Black women in STEM felt like a barrier, but it was one that seemed to move with me rather than one that I would be able to overcome. It was clear that there was some issue preventing people from the same marginalized groups as me from flourishing in STEM in the same way other, more privileged groups historically have. In maneuvering these scientific spaces as an intern, undergraduate student, and now a Ph.D. student, it has become more and more obvious that a lack of inclusive practices on campuses and in laboratories are at some fault for the lack of retention of underrepresented minorities (URMs), only perpetuating the issue.


Over the years, I’ve experienced institutions opening the doors wider to allow myself and other URMs to physically enter these spaces as students and faculty, but do very little in terms of ensuring that the space itself is welcoming for us.

Intentional or not, universities and those in power have been distorting the entire point of Diversity, Equity, and most importantly, Inclusion. Over the years, I’ve experienced institutions opening the doors wider to allow myself and other URMs to physically enter these spaces as students and faculty, but do very little in terms of ensuring that the space itself is welcoming for us. The consequences of this oversight can be dire for Black and other URM faculty and students.


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I experienced a taste of how inclusive STEM could be while an undergrad at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, studying neuroscience. Though a small, liberal arts college, Agnes Scott provided me with space to show up as a Black woman scientist; I was not expected to check my identities at the door in order to do good work. It also felt that not only was I appreciated in the laboratory space, but the work of other trailblazing URM scientists was genuinely celebrated. I remember the many dedications to the contributions of the Black scientists during Black History Month, one of the many attempts to mainstream these types of conversations. My blackness wasn’t something that was overlooked (i.e. “I don’t see color”) but was rather embraced by my research advisor and labmates, most of whom were also people of color. There was a heightened sense of empathy across the students and faculty, and I truly believe it made me a better scientist.


Though a small, liberal arts college, Agnes Scott provided me with space to show up as a Black woman scientist; I was not expected to check my identities at the door in order to do good work. It also felt that not only was I appreciated in the laboratory space, but the work of other trailblazing URM scientists was genuinely celebrated.

I wouldn’t call Rockefeller University a polar opposite of Agnes Scott, but there are some clear differences that contribute to my thoughts on diversity in U.S. higher education. The women’s college I attended tried empowering individuals to engage in necessary conversations, even the tough ones. As a student from marginalized groups, I was encouraged to critically think about how my identities have shaped the experiences I’ve had in life. We talked about racism, we talked about microaggressions, and at one point, we invited the four female Black vice presidents at the college to talk about oppression.


Compare that to Rockefeller, where there has been one Black full professor in its entire 120-plus-year existence, despite its presence in New York City, the metro area with by far the largest Black population in the United States. I have found little space for talking, at least with regard to the conversations I remember having at Agnes Scott. Sure, there are student-led efforts and the occasional diversity talks that are poised to incite change or encourage conversation, but the overwhelming campus-wide culture is one of complacency. Conversations regarding diversity and inclusion usually spurred by marginalized students are often shut down by faculty and the administration, or not taken seriously. Highly questionable statements about the boundaries of campus free speech, banning the transgender athletes from participating in sports events, or even defending the use of “blackface” by their white colleagues, and abusive behavior by “respected” scientists/faculty go unchecked by anyone but the students, who are met with nothing but roadblocks when trying to address these acts. As one of the 15 Black students on this campus, it’s been difficult to not see my campus’s DEIJ efforts as more performative allyship rather than transformative action. Some may say it is unfair to compare Agnes Scott and Rockefeller as they are two completely different environments intended for different purposes, but the stark differences in my personal experiences at each institution have incited a lot of thinking about how spaces can be inclusive or hinder people of certain identities.


Compare that to Rockefeller, where there has been one Black full professor in its entire 120-plus-year existence, despite its presence in New York City, the metro area with by far the largest Black population in the United States.

To me, the most glaring and consistent threat to inclusion in STEM programs is the dreaded “minority tax”. Minority taxing is a nefarious way in which organizations and groups can claim commitment to increasing DEIJ, but relinquish all of the work onto the people that these should be benefitting, the marginalized individuals.


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As a third-year student in Rockefeller’s Ph.D. program, I reflect on my experiences here thus far, and the alarming patterns my experiences fit into. I vividly remember interviewing for graduate programs and the looks of cheer and excitement from various administrators and Principal Investigators (PIs) as I explained my desire to contribute to the diversification of their university. I can recall the lack of discussions about my science, paired with the insistence from my interviewers that the school was “waiting for someone like me”. And during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, I remember being contacted to write letters to the administration before even starting my program, which began months after and subsequently being ignored by some of these people once I arrived on campus. Rather than feeling included in the structure of the university as a student, I felt recruited, enlisted, and expected to take on DEI tasks when others did not want to or did not know how. As if I knew.


Critically reflecting on these experiences illuminates the all-too-common overutilization of Black students or faculty for diversity efforts at institutions of higher education.


The false idea of meritocracy in STEM contributes to this phenomenon by suggesting to others in the field and the general public that successful scientists are only successful because of their own drive and motivation, not because the system provides a cushion for them to become successful.

For example, Black STEM faculty and students often report having to spend a disproportionate amount of time dedicated to diversity efforts, and due to personal moral obligations will step into these roles. Unfortunately, due to the stringent culture of academic science, diversity efforts are seen as extra and even unnecessary and thus are not held to the same standard of respect as laboratory work. This imbalance puts Black and other URM faculty and students at many disadvantages due to appearing “unproductive” or experiencing higher levels of burnout due to having an excess of responsibilities compared to others.


The false idea of meritocracy in STEM contributes to this phenomenon by suggesting to others in the field and the general public that successful scientists are only successful because of their own drive and motivation, not because the system provides a cushion for them to become successful. The system upholds the idea that URMs are expected to take time away from making scientific progress in the lab to focus on changing the culture of STEM, whereas our white counterparts are allowed to disengage in order to focus on “more important work” that they will be revered for later on.


Dr. Bria Castellano, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, puts it simply:


“At first glance this is great to get the perspective of the communities that the institution is trying to uplift, but at the same time the bandwidth and resources of BIPOC/URM students gets depleted and leads to increased rates of burnout.”






After almost three years in my program, it is clear that there have been implicit, uncommunicated expectations of me from peers, faculty, and administrators. I have found myself scrambling to complete experiments to ensure that I have time to tour program recruits around the labs and campus. I have compromised my own mental and emotional well-being to have conversations with administrators on campus that gaslight me or only speak to me with condescension. In a way, I am hypervisible. I was available at all times, to talk about all things, to whoever wanted me to – usually, those that were not putting in any visible effort themselves. On top of this, I am still expected to perform at the highest level of scientific rigor to uphold the reputation of the University and the science we produce, the priority of my Ph.D.


The combination of these experiences made doing the things I love to do, supporting the next generation of scientists and having productive conversations to incite change and action, debilitating at times.


Sometimes it feels as though, as a Black woman, it will never be enough for me to just be a good scientist.


Admittedly, this overwhelming pressure to perform has made me question why I was even invited into this space as a scientific researcher. It is one thing to be physically in a space, but it is another to feel like I belong; moreover, it is another to belong in the same way everyone else belongs when you are one of ‘the only ones’.


It is one thing to be physically in a space, but it is another to feel like I belong; moreover, it is another to belong in the same way everyone else belongs when you are one of ‘the only ones’.

Morally, I am drawn to supporting marginalized communities and hope that my efforts contribute something to the overall goal of making STEM accessible to all. At the same time, overextending myself in order to fulfill additional expectations, or having to face disrespect in many forms in addition to having to be a good scientist makes it very difficult to want to stay in the field.


Outside of the realm of time allotment and minority taxes, identity in these programs comes at a cost. The historically microaggressive culture in STEM programs poses threats to students from URM backgrounds. Many non-white students and trainees report being unsupported, overlooked, ignored, or even antagonized by white faculty and peers. During my Ph.D. journey so far, I’ve felt isolated, dejected, and underqualified in my program many times due to stereotype threats, comments questioning my intelligence, or strange looks from people while just existing on campus. Many of these pressures do not exist for non-URM students in the same way, leading me to ask, why are there efforts for URM students to join an already existing space, but little effort to actually make space for us? Do they just not realize? Or do they just not care?


Morally, I am drawn to supporting marginalized communities and hope that my efforts contribute something to the overall goal of making STEM accessible to all. At the same time, overextending myself in order to fulfill additional expectations, or having to face disrespect in many forms in addition to having to be a good scientist makes it very difficult to want to stay in the field.

On behalf of the other URMs that are trying to take up space in STEM fields, we deserve more. Not only that, we deserve better.


We deserve the chance to deep dive into a scientific question as if we have all the time in the world to do so like our peers.


We deserve the chance to experience science without having to fight to be respected.


We deserve to be seen for all of our abilities, not just those that serve the institution.


We deserve to be seen.


 

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Lauren Neal

Lauren graduated with a B.S. in Neuroscience from Agnes Scott College, and is now a Ph.D. student in Biosciences at The Rockefeller University studying the communication between the brain and ovaries of the deadly Aedes aegypti mosquito. She received an HHMI Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study and a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. Lauren is an Executive Board member of RockOUT, The Rockefeller University’s LGBTQIA+ Affinity Group, and a member of the Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative.