A Note from the Editorial Board:
Reflections on Inclusive Science Communication
SPARK was founded to, and continues to, produce scholarship that is dynamic and inclusive. Recognizing that BIPOC scientists need a place to tell their story, in this issue we asked our contributors the question: How do we create more inclusive science spaces? Our team of editors who come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds in history, curriculum and instruction, international education, dance, microbiology, and chemistry, reflected on their experiences with science: from our first interests, to how we were excluded, to ways we forced ourselves into science spaces.
Growing up watching B-rated Sci-fi movies with my dad was my first introduction into science. I loved them! However, I was confused as to why the characters on TV never looked like me…? In high school and college the same confused feelings were always present; it felt like science wasn’t for Black boys. It could’ve been how my White male science teachers all seemed to be one clone that only taught to the imagination of the White male students who’d one day become a version of those clones. Or, when learning the history of various science developments, it all seemed to coincide with the destruction of BIPOC lives and communities. I chose to lean into the world of literacy; writing had the power to bend worlds at my will so bodies that looked like mine had a space and place to be unbothered in… I’m wondering, what y’all’s relationship to science is? Any ideas on how we go about creating more inclusionary spaces in science so that we can be unbothered?
As a Black African woman, I think before discussing inclusionary spaces in science, we should talk about the exclusion and the PUSHOUT that happens before we even get to higher education institutions. After learning about plant science and the human body as a child, I wanted to become a plant or brain scientist (which I never did). I did get admission into a nursing school, but didn’t go. When you are younger, you don’t understand this pushout or exclusion that deters certain groups from the STEM route. The field, perceived as a place for intelligent, privileged, and precisely a White boys’ space, has systematically and strategically pushed out Black, Indigenous, people of color, and other ethnic minorities and continues to treat them as an anomaly when they finally get in. Inclusionary spaces in STEM will only exist once we ensure everyone is encouraged and provided with the necessary resources to get into science programs. This makes me wonder what it is like to be in STEM as a BIPOC person. How do you locate yourself in this space that continually tries to push you out?
As a Native and Mexican girl in Minneapolis growing up on welfare, and the child of a prison inmate, my success was never assumed. I was loved at home, but was prepared for the world that my family saw meeting me, not necessarily one in which I would become a chemist and be accepted into the University of Minnesota as a Ph.D. student. When I began college I was a single mother. I felt I had to go big with an academic credential because it was the only way that I would ever be valued by a society that only saw me as a statistic. Chemistry was supposed to be the hardest major, so I chose that. Nobody could question my value if I became a chemist, right? I was wrong. STEM has a socio-economic, gender and racial diversity problem, chemistry in particular. I do not feel I have a home in that space and, as Sunga pointed out, I often feel like a social anomaly, both in STEM and in my own community, a feeling I became resentful of. BIPOC peoples are not always comfortable in STEM spaces and I wonder how inclusivity in STEM can be increased to represent the diversity of life…
Like Tavia, I am a BIPOC woman in STEM. When I was young, I enjoyed flipping through children’s encyclopedias. There was so much to discover, so little I knew about the world. Even now, so many things we don’t know– that’s what science is all about, filling gaps in humanity’s knowledge. Science wasn’t my only interest; I’ve always loved art. I thought it would be fun, but not practical to make a living with art. Growing up in poverty, I wanted to do work that rewarded me financially as well as emotionally. Biology was my favorite subject and a career in science sounded like a more practical dream. And, it would affirm to my younger siblings that it was possible for us to break out of poverty via higher education. Slowly, I drew away from drawing and strode into science during my years in community college and undergrad. My art became limited to when I had the time. When I heard about SPARK, I decided to write and illustrate a short nonfiction comic for it (I really liked the end result). Science communication is so important, and art is a great medium for it. It surpasses language barriers. What would you rather look at: a wall of text about a new discovery, or a colorful picture diagram about it?
Definitely a colorful picture, Teresa! It’s interesting to hear Sunga and Sean discuss a career in STEM as an impractical option to pursue. Meanwhile Teresa and I actively pursued STEM, despite the barriers (and other passions) because it was the most practical option—we saw it as a shot at long term financial stability. But there-in lies the problem: barriers. They are as subversive as preconceived notions of what kind of person can be successful in STEM. I never saw a scientist that looked like me so it never occurred to me that I could be smart enough to be a scientist. As an adult I recognized it as a form of internalized racism and sexism, but as a child, it just didn’t look like science was an option. It was not until my mid-20’s that I began a STEM career, the point when many of my future colleagues were completing their bachelor degrees.
Barriers are not only difficult to overcome but also difficult to define at times, sometimes looking like opportunities. While attending a research meeting at Yale, a faculty member asked me, without context and in front of everyone, about my ethnic background. “I am Ojibwe.” I said. He exclaimed the project could be even better funded due to my inclusion. While this situation was professionally beneficial to me as it broke some competitive financial barriers, it was uncomfortably extractive and I felt tokenized.
So the question is, how do institutions and allies help uplift those facing barriers to build DEI initiatives or opportunities without turning those opportunities into moments of exploitation and potential barriers themselves?
Your question Tavia, makes me think of decolonizing decolonized spaces. It has become easy for institutions, allies, and even the “DEI” experts to say the “right” things while continuing to be performative and leaving BIPOC scholar scientists feeling tokenized. Spaces have claimed to be inclusive and participatory of historically marginalized groups while not addressing how White supremacy and colonialism remain prevalent in their structures. When BIPOC scholars enter any graduate space, they navigate various marginalization and systematic barriers designed against them. Departments must ensure they have the resources to support BIPOC scholars considering that BIPOC scholars are not a monolith and have different needs. They must ensure uncomfortable conversations about inclusion happen. It is time to shift from hiring DEI experts who will “handle” inclusion work and do a departmental reflection on this, but you and I know that this work can only happen when these home departments and allies are willing to advocate for this inner reflection of departments and their values. How can non-STEM individuals increase inclusion and reduce pushout using our relationship with STEM?
We can increase inclusion and retention by talking more about how science-related work is done even by those with a non-science degree, as well as the value of those with diverse personal backgrounds. As a child, my dream job was to be a paleontologist. Fueled by images from Jurassic Park, the prospect of working with dinosaurs (their bones, at least!) seemed like an awesome gig. As I got older, I became interested in studying history (in part because of my deficient math skills, a common experience for BIPOC students in inner city schools, but that’s another story). Still wanting to work with “hard–sciences,” I found other avenues to be involved with STEM. While doing my BA in history, I interned with a science history journal. In this role I was able to help historians, some of whom were scientists as well, disseminate their research. Many other types of work exist within science that benefit from non-STEM backgrounds. For example, the nature documentaries on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. The producers of these documentaries have managed to transform obscure and complex natural processes into digestible one or two hour sessions that leave viewers asking themselves science-related questions long after the credits roll. Yet, if you stick around for the credits, you’ll see that camera operators, script-writers, video editors, and even composers all help in making an engrossing and informative final product.
When I meet other BIPOC people in STEM, it feels like we have some form of shared experience subconsciously to bond through. COSP and my student group, the Association of Multicultural Scientists, have been great to work with to build a sense of community and to create friendships. I feel that it’s very important to encourage inclusivity so that we slowly change University of Minnesota spaces to make them as comfortable and understanding as the student groups that exist for BIPOC students. Initiatives like SPARK are a great way to amplify the voices of diverse students university-wide.
This edition of SPARK aims to get our readers thinking about the producers–broadly defined–of scientific knowledge. By drawing attention not just to the diverse identities working in labs and in the field, but also to the non-scientists who help convey that information to a broader audience, SPARK acknowledges that it takes more than just scientists to bring scientific knowledge to the wider public. I believe us “non-scientists” have insight and skills valuable to help get the message out about underrepresented groups in science, like we did in this issue. And in the end, maybe this is how we make academic science more inclusive? Instead of seeking to exclude as many as possible we find as many entry points as possible. SPARK works towards the latter, opening and holding up these entry points.