Diversity Continues to Elude Science Departments

It is no secret that some racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the math, engineering, and the sciences. According to data from the most recent census, 31 percent of the American population is either black, Latino, or Native American. But only 17.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 6.9 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in the sciences went to those groups, and those minorities held only 5.9 percent of full-time professorships.

Swarthmore is no exception. According to faculty, the school is lacking when it comes to diversity in science departments. “I do not think the natural science and engineering departments, in general, have diverse students or faculty,” said Lynne Molter, chair of the engineering department.

Tom Stephenson, the college provost and a chemistry professor, agreed. According to Stephenson, the school could do a better job of recruiting minority faculty. “I think Swarthmore’s not doing nearly well enough,” he said. “I think we could be more deliberate about how we recruit faculty.”

Twenty percent of Swarthmore’s current tenure-track faculty identify as members of racial and ethnic minority groups. While there is no recent data that gives a breakdown of minority students and faculty by department, past studies have showed disparities. Stephenson, for example, said a prior report indicated that the attrition rate in the sciences was higher among groups that are historically underrepresented.

For many students of color, this makes studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields more complicated. “There can be some difficulties just because you feel like they’re not a lot of students of color,” said Alana Burns ’13, a biology major who identifies as black. “It’s a little hard because you feel like you’re the only one.”

Charles Armstrong ’13, who graduated early with a minor in biology and also identifies as black, goes further, arguing that the lack of racial diversity in the sciences leads not just to a sense of isolation, but also to unfair treatment. “There’s this kind of social divide. If you feel like you can’t culturally relate to different students, you might not want to have them work with you in the lab,” he said.

This can create difficulties. “In the group study sessions, I’ve felt especially excluded and watched other students feel excluded,” he said. As a result, his study groups are usually quite small and consist of him and other racial minorities. The small size, he says, leads to less assistance. “We’re kind of triaged at the bottom in getting the proctors’ help for problems.”

Chanelle Simmons ’14, a chemistry major, expressed similar sentiments, saying she has to assert herself more than white students. “They are very scrutinizing towards me,” Simmons, who identifies as black, said. “You always have to prove something to them.”

“I can’t make a statement and say, ‘Oh, we’re not being treated equally,’ because I don’t have concrete evidence,” Simmons continued. “But I definitely perceive a difference.”

Armstrong agreed. “I think that with any type of school or institution where you get minority students of a certain kind, there is this underlying assumption that they come from a different background,” he said.

This misconception is not, he says, the whole problem. Indeed, he feels that students of color often do have different backgrounds. “Minorities aren’t always equally prepared as their counterparts,” he said.

But he argues that the prognosis can keep students further behind. “Even if that assumption pans out, I don’t think the solution is remedial chemistry.”

Being a minority, according to Burns, also leads to pressures and judgments from other students. “I was talking to one of my friends, and I was worried about what I need to be doing to prepare for medical school,” she said said. “And she was like, ‘Oh, you’re a black woman, there aren’t a lot of black women doctors out there. It should be easy for you.’”

Not everyone, however, feels minorities face unequal treatment. “In my experience, I haven’t really seen that,” said Akida Lebby ’16, a prospective neuroscience major who identifies as black. “I haven’t really experienced any type of discrimination towards me.”

While Lebby has noticed that professors treat students differently, he does not attribute that to racial prejudice. “Some professors will cater towards one group a little bit more because people are different and people have their own biases,” he said.

PJ Trainor ’16, a prospective math major and computer science minor with Latino heritage, agreed. “I don’t see anything that would be unfair,” he said, adding that from what he has seen, at least in the math department, the school seemed to be accommodating of everyone. “Everyone has a lot of opportunities to work with other people,” he said.

While Burns said she has not had any incidents of being treated unfairly, she sees why some students feel that way. “It’s just difficult when you feel like you’re the only person there,” she said. “Any time something happens, it can make you feel like it’s because of race.”

According to Stephenson, this itself is a problem. “It almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not,” he said. “If [students] walk away from an interaction with a faculty member and think that, in some ways, impression becomes reality. If that’s a widespread impression, then that’s an issue we need to work on.”

Michael Brown, the chair of the physics and astronomy department, had similar opinions. “We have to be more open and more supportive, particularly of first-generation students,” he said.

Burns thought that further diversifying the science department faculty could, at least partially, solve problems of perception and fairness. “I feel like if they had some more diversity, it would definitely help,” she said, adding that having minority professors can give students of color more role models. “It sort of helps to see that someone else has made it and maybe you can too.”

She also believes that creating networks of support for students of color could be helpful. “It’d be good if there was a student group of minorities in the sciences so you can get together and say, ‘Oh, there’s other people doing this.’”

According to faculty, concerns about diversity are issues that the school is working on. “We’re trying to work on making faculty aware of unintended actions,” said Stephenson, adding that the school has hosted workshops about issues of race and diversity.

Indeed, the college has received grants to try and diversify the composition of students in the sciences. Last year, the college received a four-year grant for $1 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in part to help increase diversity among students who study science.

Molter emphasized steps that engineering was taking. “I can only speak for our department, but we advertise [for positions] through … the National Society for Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, in addition to the sub-disciplinary publications within Engineering,” she said.

But according to Armstrong, this is a problem that minorities will need to address themselves. “We can demand an external solution, but I think it’s hubris to expect one,” he said. Minorities who are interested in the sciences, he said, need to take on the challenge themselves. “I think the solution has to come from within.”

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