The typical American lab is peopled almost entirely with white scientists. That’s not reflective of society at large. A shake-up of the way minorities are recruited, trained and promoted could give minority representation in science the boost it so badly needs.
In 2000, the US population was 75% white, 12% black and 12% Hispanic. But the proportion of minorities that completed biology PhDs between 1993 and 2002 did not match these numbers: only 2.6% of new PhDs were black and only 3.7% were Hispanic. The proportion of tenure-track biology faculty in 2002 was even more disparate: 89% white, 1% black and 2% Hispanic.
These disturbing statistics tell only part of the story. According to first-person accounts, because minorities are often the only one of their ethnicity in their lab or department—perhaps even in their institution—they often feel isolated from their co-workers. Because they lack colleagues from their own ethnic group, they may feel unable to effect institutional changes to address the unique challenges they face.
Personal perspective after the jump.
I have a lot of self-confidence, perhaps more than is warranted. But graduate school can be tough. I’ve served on numerous committees and chaired the biomedical graduate student organization, BioMASS, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to a lot of graduate students. One thing that is quite striking is the large fraction of students who contemplate dropping out for various reason. When you are a minority and don’t see anyone “like” you around the halls and in the labs, this doubt is amplified.
When I first got to Stanford I felt very isolated when I would go weeks without seeing any other Hispanics or even African-Americans. It was pretty common to wonder if I truly belonged here. As a minority who has been told multiple times–both explicitly and implicitly–that I shouldn’t even bother trying, that I’m not smart enough, etc., the doubt weighed heavily on me. I remember one particular African-American woman on the fourth floor of my building that I would see every now and then. I almost always felt like hugging her every time I saw her. When one of my heroes/mentors/friends (an old high school teacher) passed away my first year, it was particularly hard. Things have gotten much better, but it was definitly rough those first months. My meager writing abilities will never be able to adequately express some of the feelings that I felt.
I know from first hand experience, that the Deans, faculty and staff in the School of Medicine have put a lot of effort into increasing the graduate diversity in the SoM. I applaud their efforts and am truly greatful. But the barriers are still large. I believe that it’s more than just a money issue. The problem has to be something that people on every level of the university must recognize and find to be important. I am not convinced that is the case here at Stanford and would guess its the same elsewhere.
I don’t want to diminish the work of the people who have already done a lot to address the problem, but until there is a completely broad interest in addressing the problem, I don’t think we’ll get to the right place. And frankly, there is a lot of implicit discrimination. I can’t tell you how many people simply believe that, say, Hispanics don’t go to graduate school because they don’t value that as an endeavor, that they would rather “play baseball” or something similar (yes, that’s almost a verbatim comment from a fellow graduate student). When you talk to enough minorities, the “values” argument doesn’t seem to carry much weight.
We have a long way to go but I’d like to believe we’ll get there in my lifetime.