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Multidisciplinary Working Group Chair Monica Ramirez Basco is Leading with Hope

If one were to list the most valuable character traits of experts who are called upon to assess problems and identify solutions, it would likely include openness, intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. But perhaps chief among the list would be optimism — the ability to not only view a glass as half full, but to see the potential and possibilities of the space yet to be filled, and the instinct to relish the prospect of doing so in ways that make the world better.

headshot of woman in glasses and black shirt against white door
AAAS Member Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D.

Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, renowned author, and widely respected and recognized educator and administrator. Her decades-long career is replete with examples of leadership roles in the academic, public, and private sectors. Basco no doubt possesses many of the traits of a masterful problem-assessor and solver. Notably, she embodies an indomitable hopefulness that will likely come in handy in her new role as chair of AAAS’ first Multidisciplinary Working Group (MWG), Empowering Career Pathways in STEMM (ECP).

The ECP MWG aims to address barriers that have impeded individuals from entering and remaining in STEMM. The 20 members of the ECP MWG hail from different disciplines, including biosciences, chemistry, ecology, engineering, public health, and education. The group also encompasses professionals who are at different stages of their career, from those working toward their doctoral degree, to seasoned leaders and directors at both academic and non-academic organizations. Basco, whose illustrious career highlights include past positions as Associate Director for Science Policy, Planning, and Analysis at the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health and Assistant Director for Neuroscience, Mental Health, and Broadening Participation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), is at the very experienced end of the spectrum, at a stage in her life that she calls “trying to be retired.”

In her role at the NIH and at OSTP, Basco tackled issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion — with a positive spin. She started, she says, by looking at the problem the way psychologists do, by first conceptualizing it in a way that leads to solutions. In a Jiu-Jitsu-like move, Basco flipped the idea of viewing negative perceptions of diversity as itself being negative. “I took it on as an advantage and looked at the literature that supported the notion that diversity makes us better… that the more creative ideas you have that come from different people and different walks of life, the more likely you are to happen on good solutions,” she says.

Today, this ability to see the positive angles is something Basco is utilizing in her work with the AAAS working group. According to Basco, the ECP MWG’s goal is “to look at the things that keep people from making their way effectively through the career process, from the very beginning of getting into schools and into preliminary jobs to advancing in their careers and challenges in making changes along the path of their career," says Basco. “We’ve been asked to identify transition points that hold people back — what are the things that might keep people from making important career changes that might really help advance their field?” ECP MWG has also been tasked with thinking about how to redefine what a successful STEMM career looks like, and how to expand STEMM to include people like data analysts or science writers who may not hold PhDs but contribute to science.

The group has been given a one-year timeframe. Basco says the plan is to make concrete recommendations that are actionable and could be implemented to make improvements or changes.

Another goal of the working group is to identify exclusionary practices that limit access to STEMM careers, particularly as it applies to members of communities or backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in STEMM. “The underlying themes in this work are the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and accessibility,” says Basco. “How do you diversify those who are trained, who get jobs, who get opportunities to advance, what’s blocking progress and what recommendations could we make to facilitate their advancement and career?”

While the recent Supreme Court ruling (Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFAI) v. President and Fellows of Harvard and SFAI v. University of North Carolina) significantly limits how colleges and universities can consider race as a factor in granting admission, Basco characteristically sees opportunity, not defeat. “We should not lose hope that there is a way for diversity, equity, and inclusion, accessibility, and belonging,” she says. “This decision by the Supreme Court eliminated one of the many tools that we have to improve diversity and inclusion in education and in STEMM, so it’s our mission to think about the other tools that are available to us or need to be created in order to accomplish the same goals.” She adds, “We can’t afford to slow down and get discouraged — we have stuff to do.”

The notion of strength in diversity is one that’s deeply personal for Basco. “I’m a Mexican-American woman who grew up in Southern California and a first-generation college student,” she notes. “I would love for you to state that so that when people read this they can say, ‘Oh, that’s me; I can do that.’”

Like many other members of the working group, Basco believes that individuals in STEMM can inspire one another, be it through mentorship, community, or just sharing stories.

This “we’ve got this” attitude is one that’s likely to contribute significantly to the success of ECP MWG, no matter how massive and broad its mandate. “We’re covering a lot but we’re not going to have any problem identifying important targets because there are just so many opportunities out there to fix things,” says Basco.