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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.