Where is the Color in STEM?
I remember when I first said to myself ‘I want to be a scientist’. It was junior year of college, and I was submitting applications to summer research internships. I met with my undergraduate advisor to discuss the programs I was going to apply to and obviously to ask for letters of recommendation. We were going over the rough draft of my statement of purpose, and he said to me, ‘you would make an awesome scientist Rukia.’ It was really the validation I needed, and I felt so eager to gain more experience during my internship (yes, I spoke it into existence).
From reading about my path from MD to PhD, you’d know how long it took me to act on my convictions. I thoroughly enjoyed my research internship, but there was a question I kept asking my self during that time, ‘where are the black people?’ The department where I worked was predominantly white, and you could tell their unfamiliarity to my presence. I had braided extensions into my hair when I started the program, and midway through I took them out, and then all the questions came:
“Did you cut your hair?”
“ No, I didn't cut my hair!’
*confused look* “So how was your hair long and now it's short and really curly?”
As you can guess, I had to explain everything about extensions and why black women wear braids and extensions and the whole hoorah. Now, what if I was using this experience as the validation to be a scientist, even if I loved creating knowledge? At this point, I truly understood why representation was so important, especially in STEM, and especially to encourage other young women of color (WOC) to know this could not only be a rewarding field, but a safe one.
According to UIC data, women account for about 30% of scientists around the world. But let's break it down even further, in the US, the National Science Foundation reported that less than 1 out of 10 WOC obtain their doctoral degrees in science and engineering. That's less than 10% compared to about 35% of their white counterparts. This is just in the US, but my guess is this data isn't significantly better in other parts of the world.
I see a major problem here, one that I have personally experienced. We can ask the questions if doctoral programs in STEM aren't accepting WOC applicants, or, are WOC applying in the first place? I had a conversation with a postdoctoral fellow who was on the admissions committee for her old graduate program, and she noted that during the application cycle, the umbrella program in Biomedical Science received only one application from a WOC, one!
Representation matters, and I can't stress this enough. Personally, a major deterrent in pursuing a doctoral degree in STEM was due to the fact that I didn't see others who looked like myself in these programs. I had one colleague who worked in the same lab I did during undergrad, and having seen her apply to PhD programs in Neuroscience and be accepted into Ivy Leagues and other amazing schools, was honestly just an inspiration to me (go Termara!) When I saw that she could do it, I believed that I could too.
February 11th is International Women in Science Day, but even as the word celebrates, I believe that it is important that those with privilege use their platform to advocate for marginalized races and genders. There is so much to be done, and I have vowed to use the opportunity given to me as grounds to inspire, encourage and help other WOC to know that careers in science are attainable and possible. We now have to figure out what’s missing, and how do we help to fix this problem?