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AAAS Community Superhero Chris Bolden Chats with Dr. Shirley Malcom on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in STEMM, and What’s Next

Shirley Malcom and Chris Bolden, side by side.
Dr. Shirley Malcom and Dr. Chris Bolden pictured side by side.

Many in the AAAS Community are talking about and reflecting on ways to combat systemic racism as well as unconscious bias. Earlier this month, AAAS Community Superhero Chris Bolden, Ph.D. interviewed Shirley Malcom, Ph.D., on strategies and ways institutions and members of the AAAS Community can help support diversity, inclusion and equity in their fields.

Malcom is Senior Advisor and director of SEA Change at AAAS. An ecologist by training, she currently works to support transformative change in teaching and learning, research and practice, to improve the quality and increase access to education and careers in STEMM fields. Bolden is a T32 Translational Injury postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Surgery/Center for Translational Injury Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He is passionate about microbes, diversity and education.

Check out the transcript of their chat below.


Chris: How are you doing on this Thursday morning?

Shirley: I’m doing really good this morning, I’m just busy. I’m so excited to have this chat with you.

Chris: Thank you for being here! How are you maintaining mental sanity during this pandemic?

Shirley: The way I’ve maintained my mental sanity is by taking everything one day at a time. Things are fluid right now, decisions are being made every day, and I have to be on top of my game. For me, I also had the opportunity to start working from home part-time a couple of months before the pandemic started. While my coworkers were beginning to adjust, the transition didn’t take a huge toll on me because I’d had time to adjust.

Chris: You have such an amazing track record, what was something early on that was a struggle area and how did you overcome it?

Shirley: The time in particular is during my undergraduate career. I was a freshman at the University of Washington taking General Chemistry lab. My first lab quiz I got an 9 out of 20. My second lab quiz I got a 7 out 20. Obviously, I was not heading in the right direction. So, I went to visit my TA. He was the only African American graduate student in the entire department. Someone asked why I didn’t go to my faculty member for help. I had just come out of Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1963. They expected me to go to this white guy for help? My expectation was for him to say that I didn’t belong there anyway, because those were the policy messages that came from Birmingham for people that looked like me. I had only been out of Birmingham for 4 months. I instead convinced my TA that I was not dumb and simply didn’t have the resources before to truly grasp the material. So, he finally bought it. We started studying, and I could feel myself improving and becoming more confident with the information. The next lab exam I got an 18 out of 20, and he was happier than I was. It was then that I learned that we were underprepared, not incompetent. I now knew that talent is developed.

Chris: As we look at fall, many universities have done away with standardized tests for acceptance. Some have addressed concerns for this though, too. What are your thoughts on this initiative? After this year, do you expect universities to require these standardized tests again?

Shirley: I honestly don’t see the concern with this shift because we have the information to address it, if there is an issue. I sit on the board of trustees for Caltech and we have decided to drop the SAT and ACT requirement for undergraduate admissions not only for Fall 2021, but also Fall 2022. We are facing extraordinary times, and students' pathways for college application preparation have been disrupted. During these times, availability of testing centers and open seats have significantly decreased across the country. We can’t punish the student who is unable to get to a testing site and deny the opportunity of an American education.

It is important to note that the standardized test may only show a portion of the academic potential of the student.  The quality of the student has not been impacted. It is the universities’ responsibility to build the talent in these studies. Students will still be required to submit their grades and have a competitive GPA for acceptance. The transcript will help build the picture from the GPA to the courses they’ve taken. To make a decision on whether to do away completely with standardized tests for acceptance, it may be too early to make a concrete decision. If we are going to go back to requiring standardized tests again, we have to show the data that demonstrates a difference was made in an assessment of the student’s ability to succeed. To make that decision we will have to look at the data from the performance of the students entering in the next couple of years and compare it to previous student performance.

Chris: Some universities are switching into hybrid or fully online this fall. What can universities do to motivate and educate their STEMM students? What accommodations can be made to ensure the success of these students?

Shirley: To motivate our students in these times, we must tie the information in the classroom to the outside world. This is an amazing opportunity to go above the textbook. This is the chance to be really innovative with our pedagogy, especially in our foundation courses. To adequately accommodate our students, we must take in some considerations such as access to technology. Not all of the students have access to the internet or broadband capabilities, even in 2020. These are hurdles that we will eventually overcome. One thing I recommend for faculty is to ensure compassion with our pedagogy. Make accommodations and learn from your students as they learn from you.  At the beginning of the semester, I would recommend universities to survey their students about their accommodated needs. This would help ensure we are not letting valuable talent fall through the cracks.

Chris: There is a dramatic need to increase our diversity in STEMM, what are your thoughts on what can be done to reach students living in rural communities?

Shirley: There is too much talent being underutilized and forgotten in these communities. We have to stop leaving this talent behind. We have so many public health concerns that need new ways of thinking to solve them. We must find a way to advance this talent to their highest potential. We are at a time where we desperately need novel tools to fill in our missing gaps of knowledge.

We must find a way to project into these communities and demonstrate the importance of their contributions. The problem exists with our connectivity. A lot of these communities are just now getting broadband internet, so distance learning is still a hurdle in itself for these communities. The best method is to instill how the science they are doing can impact their community. This provides a better connection and relevancy with their work.  Universities will need to utilize alumni who have come from these communities to help feed them in.

Chris: At the institution level, many students from underrepresented backgrounds experience imposter syndrome because they feel as if they do not fit in to the look of the average student, what advice would you give those students about persistence?

Shirley: You would be surprised how little it takes to encourage someone. My first piece of advice to them is that you belong, and we need you. Your talent cannot go to waste. Many people walk around with a bag full of doubt for no reason. There are people in positions now that have no idea of what they are doing or even how they got there. Find yourself a mentor; that will also help reassure you. It is your university’s responsible to foster your talent, but you must also keep pushing.

Chris: As the director of SEA Change, institutions often look to your program’s leadership and expertise to make their campuses more equitable, accessible, and inclusive. In your experience, what do institutions struggle with the most? What can be accomplished from the student bodies and faculties to usher in change?

Shirley: Institutions often struggle with the implementation of their initiatives and retaining diverse faculty. Many universities are great at developing an office or task force to initiate the change, but resources are not adequately allocated to completely make the change. Faculty and students can usher in change by making their voices heard on their campus. Student bodies are different from my day. There are more diverse faces in the student body with multiple ways to tackle issues. This is the chance for the faculty senate and student body to usher in change by going to the administration and voicing their concerns over outdated policies. An excellent option is to create a town hall where faculty, staff, students, and administrators set out to address issues head on. The same goes for the university retention problems.

Recruiting and retaining requires engagement and intentionality. Search committees should develop intentional recruitment strategies to find the pool of applicants. The effort is dropped shortly after their hire. It makes little sense to recruit the faculty if they leave after a few years. Data has shown that faculty of color often leave predominantly white institutions due to a lack of support and engagement with the institution. Over my years of experience, this can take the form of undesirable course assignments, a devaluing of their scholarship, poor support and collaboration on research efforts and microaggressions in the work environment. This requires a systematic change from the structures within the university.

Chris: In the past few weeks, a lot of universities have implanted new initiatives for diversity, inclusion and equity. What is something that they must be aware of?

Shirley: This is an important and multi-layered question. Many universities are recruiting the faculty, but few are retaining them. Departments put a lot of money into recruiting them, but everything else stops after that. The same goes for the diversity initiative. It’s great on paper, but the actual execution and follow through is not. When diverse faculty are hired, they are usually put into unique situations. They are used for photo opportunities and often assigned to diversity and other inclusion committees. Students also flock to these faculty for research, mentoring and even advisement. The faculty will perform all of these roles while steadily trying to obtain tenure. However, even with all these responsibilities and strong reviews from students, none of this is considered in their tenure and promotion. We have to step back and look at this process. Is the infrastructure at the university or even department level, able to support these faculty?

The university also must look at their diversity initiatives in the same light. When diversity positions are created, are we actually making sure that the position is held with regard at the university. In particular, are we allocating resources and effort to this initiative. Are we giving the position enough power to actually make the change? These are what must be considered early on to ensure the initiatives are implemented.

Chris: AAAS has been around for more than 100 years. Why do you think this organization continues to be so relevant?

Shirley: This organization continues to be relevant because AAAS took up the leadership role early on during its foundation. AAAS has made the right decision, not the easy decision. A prime example of this is during the 1955 annual meeting. This meeting was held during Jim Crow era in Atlanta. During this time, presenters/members were forced to stay in separate hotels based on race. Taxi service to sessions were limited based on skin color. After this meeting, AAAS made the difficult decision to no longer hold any meetings in the south until further notice. This was a clearly difficult and distinct decision to be made during this time. Decisions made to be on the right side of history like this are why the organization continues to be relevant.

Chris: What opportunities do you see for further growth?

Shirley: I see many opportunities for growth to do the right thing. In education right now, we are seeing an influx in the numbers of critical thinking individuals being awarded degrees. We must capitalize on this momentum and not only strategize on initiatives but implement them wholeheartedly. To further increase the number of individuals and retain them, universities should become involved with SEA Change.  SEA Change is a movement toward institutional transformation beyond small-scale interventions. The goal is to focus institutions on identifying and addressing the policies, processes, programs, and practices that perpetuate exclusion and create systemic barriers to true diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Chris Bolden

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