News: News Archives
Columnist Provides Forum, Advice for Young Minority Scientists
Sonya Summerour Clemmons is a columnist for the broken-hearted. But the scientists and engineers who write to her are not complaining about the perils of love, but of their frustration at working in a world that at times seems downright hostile, and at other times merely inconsiderate.
"Dear Dr. Clemmons," reads one letter to the columnist on AAAS's www.miscinet.org, "I am a black male with a bachelor's degree in biology from a prestigious university and 6 years of graduate training in molecular biology and genetics. I recently took a position in industry and to my dismay, I was let go after working at the company for only 7 days…I am upset because I know that I lost my job for reasons that had nothing to do with my qualifications or ability to do the work."
Clemmons, who has a PhD in bioengineering and extensive experience as a minority scientist in academia and industry, says the young scientist ran into "the wall at the end of the pipeline." In her response to her correspondent Clemmons recounts her own experiences with prejudice; acknowledges his, and then tells him how to get over it. "The only potential bright spot here is that this negative experience might serve as an impetus for you to figure out how to create your own professional destiny."
Clemmons' column appears regularly on the Minority Scientists Network, a AAAS/Science's Next Wave online publication whose main goal is to provide support to underrepresented minority students who are pursuing careers in the sciences. Other columnists provide guidance to students, mentors, and academic administrators who work with minority students. The site also features profiles and essays in which established minority scientists and engineers recount the moves they took that helped them advance their careers.
"Part of MiSciNet's purpose is to provide information that will help minority undergraduates complete college and hopefully go on to graduate school," says editor Robin Arnette. "African American, Native American, and Hispanic students in science, math, and engineering are inspired by such articles because they see that people of color can achieve."
In the last two years, in particular with the growing awareness of the nation's dependence on technical expertise from non-U.S. workers, policy makers, academics and industry leaders have become increasingly concerned about the need to increase the proportion of minority scientists and engineers in the science and technology workforce. A recent report from the Government-University-Industry Roundtable, published in 2003 by the National Academies Press, notes that, "the training of future scientists and engineers who are Black or Hispanic is a matter of particular concern because these groups have historically been underrepresented in these fields and because they are a large and growing proportion of our country's population." This sentiment is echoed by the National Science Board in its "Realizing America's Potential" document, which was also published last year.
The barriers can be subtle to individuals who do not face them, says Clemmons, who uses her own experiences in responding to her readers. She worked hard in a dual degree engineering program at historically-black Spelman College and at Georgia Tech, receiving undergraduate degrees in physics from the first, and in mechanical engineering from the second. But she says her experience at the larger institution, where most of her professors and fellow students were white, was particularly challenging.
"It was easy to fit in at Spelman, where I felt people cared what happened to me," Clemmons said. "In graduate school, advisors and other students never thought to reach out to me to see who I was. I got to know them, but we never got around to talking about what I liked to do. There was no reciprocity."
In thinking about how a PhD advisor might remedy such a situation, Clemmons suggests that he or she should set the tone so that the doctoral students feel comfortable, regardless of their backgrounds.
"The professor needs to establish an open community," says Clemmons, who received her PhD in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, and is now working on an MBA at the University of California, Los Angeles. "You want an environment where people are free to be themselves."
For those unlucky enough to experience an inhospitable environment whether at school or at work Clemmons' columns focus on what the individual can do to survive both professionally and personally.
"The best advice that I can give is to urge you to seek out situations in which you can flourish," writes Clemmons to the biologist who lost his job after only seven days. "Associate yourself with people and companies that value you as a person; as an individual. This is easier said than done, I know. But you must try in order to maintain your sanity. The hard truth in the private (and to a lesser extent, the public) sector is that no one is going to hire you or retain you as an employee due to your merits if they can't lose sight of the fact that you are a black male--regardless of how stellar your credentials may be. The fear factor will take over every time."
According to Arnette, the audiences for MiSciNet include underrepresented minority students undergraduates and graduates faculty, mentors, and administrators responsible for minority recruitment and retention programs. The publication is a collaborative effort of two components of AAAS Science's Next Wave and the Education and Human Resources Directorate. It is published by AAAS and by its journal, Science.
15 January 2004