Calling scientists of all colors

Black, Hispanic, and Native American scientists and engineers are needed to solve important problems
AUG 24, 2017 — 8:00 AM EST
jet, dropsonde

DaNa Carlis flew in a jet about 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) above the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii, to gather weather data. Here, he is about to release an instrument called a dropsonde to measure factors such as temperature and wind speed.


This is the first in a two-part Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

When Gillian Bowser was a kid in Brooklyn, N.Y., she loved exploring the borough’s botanic garden and museum. She remembers them as “the two most magical places on Earth.” And a favorite spot was the garden’s display of tiny bonsai trees. They were so small that they seemed to be made for fairies.

At first, Bowser wanted to be a medical illustrator, a person who draws the human body. She liked sketching animals. But in a medical illustration class in college, she proved better at drawing dragons than people. Her teacher suggested that perhaps medical illustration wasn’t the career for her. Maybe she should consider science, her teacher said. So Bowser joined a biology lab and studied the African striped mouse. This rodent with orange-tinged ears “was the cutest little booger,” she says.

Gillian Bowser (right) and two students conduct a BioBlitz in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. The goal of the project is to identify as many species as possible in 24 hours.
William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

In time, Bowser became an ecologist, someone who investigates links between animals, plants and their surroundings. She has worked with a “wacky variety” of species, including prairie dogs and desert tortoises. For one project, Bowser and two colleagues wanted to know where U.S. elk and bison got their nutrition in winter. So the team collected snowballs of frozen urine the animals left behind in Yellowstone National Park. Other people working at the park gave the researchers a fitting nickname, she recalls: the “Pee Amigos.”

Today, Bowser is a research scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She monitors butterflies and other insects in national parks around the world. One of her projects is in the Andes Mountains of Peru. There, she studies how a glacier’s retreat affects insects such as dragonflies and bumblebees.

Being a scientist is a great job for curious people, Bowser says. “If you like asking questions, science is the perfect field,” she says. “We’re always exploring.”

Bowser is African-American, and one of about 700,000 black, Hispanic and Native American scientists and engineers in the United States. They do everything from predicting weather to writing computer programs that simulate biological molecules. These minorities are what researchers call “underrepresented” groups in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The reason: Even though the combined number of black, Hispanic and Native American people in the United States is high, they hold relatively few of the degrees and jobs in these fields.

STEM fields need smart, talented people. They need many such people — and it helps when these workers have a broad range of different experiences and perspectives. So when members of minority groups are left out, research may not advance as quickly or as effectively. Consider the main story line in the book and movie Hidden Figures: A black female mathematician makes important contributions to a NASA team by performing very complex computations needed to ensure the safety of astronauts.

Some research even suggests that when groups have to solve problems, diversity is more important than skill. So increasing the number of minorities in STEM could help the world tackle hard issues better, such as climate change and disease.

“We need the best talent we can get,” says Shirley Malcom. She heads the education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. She argues: “We need people who are coming at problems from a lot of different directions.”

Story continues below video.

Science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields will benefit from inputs that reflect a diversity of viewpoints, experiences and cultures.

A different standard

Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. But their numbers in science and engineering are far lower. These American minority groups earn only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM. They hold 11 percent of the jobs in these fields. And they obtain a mere 8 percent of PhDs in science and engineering.

Why might this be happening? Well, maybe students from these backgrounds just don’t like science and engineering. But “that’s not true,” Malcom says. For instance, consider the results of a 2016 survey. It suggested that black, Hispanic and Native American first-year college students were nearly as interested as white and Asian students in STEM majors. The data were collected by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

So several other factors might instead explain the trend. Students in underrepresented minority groups simply may not be encouraged to study science and engineering. If their schools don’t offer good STEM classes, the students may arrive at college less prepared than their classmates. And people may assume — without even realizing it — that black, Hispanic or Native American researchers aren’t as smart as white researchers. This thinking, called implicit bias, also can make employers less likely to hire a minority scientist or engineer.

Minority researchers often are judged by a different standard, Malcom says.

That sounds pretty depressing. But many hard-working, passionate minority scientists and engineers have succeeded. For some, they meet an inspiring mentor or teacher. When they run into trouble, they ask for help. And new programs at universities are now attempting to jumpstart students’ progress.

Story continues below video.

Bowser led a BioBlitz to encourage minority students to participate in science.
Colorado State University

Someone to look up to

The path to science can start with a strong role model. That was the case for DaNa Carlis. He grew up in Tulsa, Okla. His best friend’s father was a doctor — the only black physician Carlis knew. The doctor often bragged about how smart he was. “You would think he was Einstein,” Carlis says. “But to me, he was Einstein!”

jet, wetsuit
DaNa Carlis flew on a jet mission over Hawaii to gather data for weather prediction. Here, he is trying on a wetsuit just in case the plane goes down.
D. Carlis

Carlis eventually became a meteorologist, a scientist who studies weather patterns. For one project in Hawaii, he helped write computer programs to predict events such as flash floods. These dangerous events can occur after heavy rains. He now works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Md.

Seeing his friend’s successful dad made Carlis feel confident that he could excel in science. “If you see it, you can be it,” he says.

If kids don’t know any scientists of their race or ethnicity, they may have to get creative. For example, they might read books or watch movies about minority scientists, such as Hidden Figures.

Students also can find programs where they might meet role models. For instance, Black Girls Code offers workshops around the country to teach girls about computer programming. Many federal science agencies run summer activities and internships. Bowser co-founded a program called the Rocky Mountain Sustainability and Science Network. Many minority college students have taken part. Students in it have, among other things, shot videos in national parks of butterflies, bees, flies and spiders.

Staying on track

Sometimes, just a small nudge can help minority students succeed. That’s what school administrators at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta have found.

In 2003, the school’s black and Hispanic students were about 20 to 30 percent less likely to graduate within six years than were white students. Some of these minority students were the first in their family to attend college. So they might have had less guidance from parents than would their peers from more educated families. Many also had gone to high schools that didn’t prepare them well in science and math.

Timothy Renick wanted to close that gap. He is in charge of GSU programs for student success. Renick’s team analyzed 10 years of student records. They linked about 800 types of events with problems later in school. For example, science students who got a C in their first chemistry class had only a 40 percent chance of graduating on time.

That list of events became the core of a new plan. In 2012, GSU started tracking all those factors for every student. If one of the 800 incidents occurred, an advisor quickly offered the student tips. For instance, a student who failed a math test might be directed to the math tutoring center.

Renick compares GSU’s new program to the global positioning system, or GPS, that can provide driving directions in real time. In the past, no one noticed if students made a wrong turn. Many of those students eventually failed classes or dropped out. But the new tracking system corrects their path right away. “If you discover after one block or one turn, ‘Whoops, I made a mistake,’ the GPS will make a couple of adjustments,” Renick says. “You’ll be right back on the right road.”

This program attempted to do the same thing for GSU students. And it worked! Black and Hispanic students started graduating at equal or even higher rates than white students. The number of STEM degrees earned by black students increased by 69 percent. The number granted to Hispanic students more than doubled.

But what should students do if their college doesn’t offer this support? They may have to seek help on their own. They could ask a dorm resident advisor, academic advisor, teacher or older classmate for guidance. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Renick says. “You just need to be a little bold.”

Building up your brain

Struggling in science and engineering is normal. Melisa Carranza Zúñiga remembers that feeling. She is a computer scientist who is currently participating in a training program offered at Google in Mountain View, Calif.

Zúñiga fell in love with computers when she was only a few years old. Her dad encouraged her to play with one at home. “They seemed like magical big boxes of mystery,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how awesome they were.” She decided to be an engineer.

computer, graphics
Melisa Carranza Zúñiga (left) worked on a computer program that simulates biological molecules. She incorporated devices called graphics cards, which are used for video games, into a computer to speed up its calculations.
WFU/Ken Bennett

But her first classes in college were tough. “I was completely confused,” she says. “I was so sure I would have to drop out.” Still, Zúñiga kept studying hard. She did all the exercises in her textbooks. She worked with classmates. And she asked her teacher for help. By the end of the first semester, she had gotten the hang of it.

Zúñiga went on to earn a master’s degree in computer science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She worked on a software program — a computer model — that simulates the formation of biological molecules called proteins. This program might one day help researchers design better treatments for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. In July, she started an engineering residency program at Google.

Students shouldn’t feel discouraged if they have trouble, she says. “If you’re feeling dumb, it’s a good sign,” Zúñiga says. “You’re learning something new!”

Ramon Lopez seconds that assessment. Today he’s a physicist at the University of Texas at Arlington. But during his second semester in college, he got a bad grade on a calculus test.

“I decided that there were two possibilities: Either I was really stupid or I had studied very poorly,” he recalls. “And I decided, I don’t think I’m really that stupid, so it must be that the way I had studied was wrong.”

He changed his study habits and worked carefully through the problems in the book. On the next test, he got an A. “Students should always begin by believing in themselves,” he concludes. “And it should take a lot of evidence to prove otherwise.”

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton compares struggling in science to exercising. He is a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. When your legs burn, he notes, you’re getting stronger. And wrestling with a hard science or math problem builds intelligence, he says. “You’re working out your brain.”

Graduate school often poses the biggest hurdle to a student in STEM. It requires advanced research, difficult classes and teaching college students. Many science and engineering grad students want to give up at some point.

“The first year, it’s just crazy,” notes Lopez. “You’re just trying to figure out: ‘How am I going to survive this?’”

And the work isn’t the only problem. Students may feel isolated in a new place where they don’t know anyone.

Minority students should seek a graduate school where they feel comfortable, Lopez says. He suggests that they ask current students whether people are friendly and teachers are supportive. If their cultural identity is important to them, students should look for a school located where they can find the food they like and meet people with similar backgrounds.

The need for community

Much of the world’s cutting-edge science and engineering work happens at what are known as research-intensive universities. Sometimes, though, even the most talented minority graduate students decide they don’t want those jobs.

Kenneth Gibbs, a biologist, has studied this issue. He works at the National Institutes of Health* in Bethesda, Md. Part of his job at its institute of general medical sciences involves studying science education and diversity. Gibbs’ team surveyed 1,500 people who had just received PhDs in biomedical sciences. They asked the participants how interested they were in working at research universities. Then they compared responses between graduates with similar levels of accomplishments, confidence and support from advisors.

Black, Hispanic and Native American graduates were 40 to 54 percent less likely than white and Asian men to be very interested in becoming professors at research universities. White and Asian women were 36 percent less likely than their male counterparts to express strong interest. (Women also are underrepresented in science.) The researchers published their results three years ago in PLOS ONE.

Underrepresented minority researchers might feel like they won’t fit in at a research university. Few of their colleagues may be of the same race or ethnicity. Perhaps others at their graduate school have treated them in a biased way or did not value their work.

“People need to feel as though they belong,” Gibbs points out. Universities should build better communities for scientists from underrepresented groups, he says.

Where a school is not supportive, minority researchers may need to look for peers online. Some people connect on Twitter. They can search for terms such as #BLACKandSTEM or #SACNAS (the name of an organization for Chicanos, Hispanics and Native Americans in science). “You won’t be alone if you go down this path,” Gibbs says.

A chance to make a difference

The number of black, Hispanic and Native American scientists and engineers is growing. For example, in 1995, underrepresented U.S. minorities earned about 4 percent of PhDs in STEM. Within two decades, that fraction had roughly doubled. But when people imagine a typical scientist, many still picture a white man.

Jani Ingram doesn’t fit that picture. She is a chemist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She’s also a member of the Navajo Nation. (The Navajo are one of many Native American tribes in North America.) Growing up, she liked math and sports. Now, she studies the effects of mine pollution on a Navajo reservation.

Navajo, sample
Jani Ingram and her students collect samples on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. They are studying how pollution from an old uranium mine has affected the area’s water, soil, plants and livestock.
Ingram Lab

Earlier this year, Ingram visited another university. A white male scientist showed her around. Then another woman met them for the tour. She kept calling the man “Dr. Ingram.” Finally, the man pointed at his guest and said, “No, this is Dr. Ingram.”

The woman “was so surprised,” Ingram recalls.

Her Native American students have had similar encounters. When they go to scientific meetings, some people seem to think they are conference center staff members instead of fellow researchers.

These incidents are tough. And it’s natural to feel mad. But Ingram advises simply pointing out, politely, that they were wrong. “Usually, the person gets embarrassed,” she says.

Black, Hispanic and Native American students still face obstacles in STEM. But determination can go a long way. Their reward is a career tackling some of the most pressing issues the world faces. “This is a chance for you to use your brainpower to solve important, hard problems,” Gibbs says of a STEM career. “Don’t lose sight of that.”

NEXT WEEK: “Disabilities don’t stop top tech and science experts

* Disclosure: Author Roberta Kwok has written articles for the National Cancer Institute. It’s one of the National Institutes of Health, as is Gibbs’ institution.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

academic     Relating to school, classes or things taught by teachers in formal institutes of learning (such as a college).

Alzheimer’s disease     An incurable brain disease that can cause confusion, mood changes and problems with memory, language, behavior and problem solving. No cause or cure is known.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

biomedical     Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

citizen science     Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.

code     (in computing) To use special language to write or revise a program that makes a computer do something.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

computer model    A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

computer science     The scientific study of the principles and use of computers. Scientists who work in this field are known as computer scientists.

diversity    A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

ethnicity     (adj. ethnic) The background of an individual based on cultural practices that tend to be associated with religion, country (or region) of origin, politics or some mix of these.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

federal     Of or related to a country’s national government (not to any state or local government within that nation). For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are both agencies of the U.S. federal government.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

glacier     A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.

global positioning system   Best known by its acronym GPS, this system uses a device to calculate the position of individuals or things (in terms of latitude, longitude and elevation — or altitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. The device does this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach it.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

implicit bias     To unknowingly hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice — or, conversely, holds some unrecognized prejudice against it.

internship     A training program where students learn advanced professional skills by working alongside experts. People who participate in these training programs are called interns. Some intern in medicine, others in the sciences, journalism or business.

major     (in education) A subject that a student chooses as his or her area of focus in college, such as: chemistry, English literature, German, journalism, pre-medicine, electrical engineering or elementary education.

Master’s degree     A university graduate degree for advanced study, usually requiring a year or two of work, for people who have already graduated from college.

mentor     An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.

meteorologist     Someone who studies weather and climate events.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

National Institutes of Health (or NIH)    This is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. A part of the U.S. government, it consists of 21 separate institutes — such as the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (which both conducts internal research and finances research by others into basic biological processes and that may lead to better disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention) — and six additional centers. Most are located on a 300 acre facility in Bethesda, Md., a campus containing 75 buildings. The institutes employ nearly 6,000 scientists and provide research funding to more than 300,000 additional researchers working at more than 2,500 other institutions around the world.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA)     A science agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Initially established in 1807 under another name (The Survey of the Coast), this agency focuses on understanding and preserving ocean resources, including fisheries, protecting marine mammals (from seals to whales), studying the seafloor and probing the upper atmosphere.

Native Americans     Tribal peoples that settled North America. In the United States, they are also known as Indians. In Canada they tend to be referred to as First Nations.

network     A group of interconnected people or things.

nutrition     (adj. nutritious) The healthful components (nutrients) in the diet — such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals — that the body uses to grow and to fuel its processes. A scientist who works in this field is known as a nutritionist.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

peer     (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

PhD     (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

physicist     A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

prairie     A type of fairly flat and temperate North American ecosystem characterized by tall grasses, fertile soils and few trees.

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors.

resident advisor    An older college student who lives in a dorm to advise and aid younger students on how to succeed as a student living away from home.

rodent     A mammal of the order Rodentia, a group that includes mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters and porcupines.

simulate     (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

software     The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

Twitter     An online social network that allows users to post messages containing no more than 140 characters.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.

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Report: K. Eagan et al. The American freshman: National norms fall 2016. Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. April 2017.

Meeting: T. Renick. Big data and analytics as tools for closing the achievement gap. American Association for the Advancement of Science 2017. February 18, 2017. Boston, Massachusetts.

Journal: K.D. Gibbs et al. Biomedical science Ph.D. career interest patterns by race/ethnicity and gender. PLOS ONE. 9(12): e114736, published online December 10, 2014. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114736.

Journal: L. Hong and S.E. Page. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 101, November 2004, p. 16385. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0403723101.

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