– Written by Nucleus –
When the topic of choosing a career as an academic comes up, many of my colleagues view their choice as a selfless one. “I could be making a ton more money doing X or Y with half my education and working half the hours that I do.”
But when the topic arises with many of my colleagues who are Mexican-American, African-American, and other underrepresented minorities in science, they view their career choice not as selfless, but as selfish.
Why the discrepancy?
Golgi, a Mexican-American biologist and laboratory technician, hits the nail on the head with her previous post “Is Pursuing Biology Selfish?” when she broaches the topic of feeling guilty for pursuing a career in academia. Those underrepresented minorities that go on to obtain higher degrees usually do so to 1) obtain a medical degree or 2) become a teacher or social worker to go back and serve their communities. These are incredibly noble and needed professions, and I commend with the greatest respect all those who take such a path. But, how do doctors and teachers obtain their information? When they open their books to study to be doctors and teachers, where does that information they learn come from?
A: Research Scientists!!
For medical and educational professions to progress, we need Research Scientists! This is an indirect, albeit super important, way academic scientists help people. And to further help our communities, we need people from diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives to expand our knowledge base and approach problems in more creative ways. I saw this short documentary at a conference that expands on this very topic.
So, how can we change the notion that pursuing academic science is selfish?
Well, one thing we can do right now is appeal to our need to directly help our communities.
That’s right – I said “our”. I am also from an underrepresented ethnic group in science. I won’t be too specific though – there’s just SO FEW of us, and I don’t want to risk my anonymity or especially those of my fellow Brainy Birds. After all, we want this to be a free, safe space to discuss issues when and how we want. (This reminds me of my new favorite saying I heard the other day – “Respect the pseud’, dude!”)
Ok great, you say. So how do we cater to this need to help our communities? How do we help erase this notion of academic science being a selfish endeavor, thus increasing its appeal to many minorities? I have some ideas – 3 in particular that I’ll list here. Please comment with your thoughts and ideas as well.
1. Change the way we describe the goals of courses and programs. Let’s make it more obvious how our course studies and research programs can serve our communities. Those of us who’ve been at this for a while know that research can yield huge benefits for people. Whether it be obvious, like studying diabetes, breast cancer, etc., or not so obvious, like studying basic cell function or physiology. Or even less obvious, like studying the vibrant mating dance of a rare, exotic bird – understanding biology at every level for whatever our personal reasons may be increases our understanding of how the world works. Expanding our knowledge expands our scope of thought, problem solving abilities, and creativity – all things that can and do benefit our communities. Let’s explore how we can reflect those sentiments – ingrain them – into the descriptions and goals of our courses and research programs.
2. Value outreach. A lot. If I had a dollar for everyone I heard complaining about how they’ve had to come up with/partake in outreach activities to make themselves more competitive for a fellowship or a grant, I could fund my own lab until the end of time. In my head, I slap them in the face and tell them to run home to their over-privileged families and complain over drinks at the country club. Ok, that’s a little harsh. My friend invited me to his country club once for lobster and it was rather delightful. But let’s be real – outreach is INCREDIBLY undervalued in the scientific community. Granting agencies try to change that by making it mandatory, but the way it gets embellished in a lot of grant applications and reports is despicable. How can we change this? At the institutional level, outreach needs to be valued, in my opinion, alongside publication record for consideration of tenure. At the scientific community level, it needs to be sincerely commended, recognized, and admired. Besides this being a good thing to do for the sake of increasing science literacy and interest in general, it will help to fulfill that need (and, importantly, permit us more time and resources) to directly help our communities.
3. Continue fellowships/grants for underrepresented minorities. If I hadn’t been the recipient of funding from a few of these fellowships and grants, I almost guarantee you I would not be in science today – at least, not in academia. I’ve always had one foot out the door – so many interests, so many things I want to do and people I want to help. Getting funding to stay in the game made my decision to pursue academia easier. Agencies and institutions, keep supporting this type of funding and work on increasing it! And Haters, cram it. If you increase your outreach efforts, you, too, are eligible for a lot of these funding opportunities. I know many shiny white majority folk who do absolutely amazing things for increasing representation in the sciences – but if I told you who, I may reveal who this Brainy Birds is. And you gotta remember to respect the pseud’, dude.