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AAAS Policy Fellows Discuss Ways to Increase Diversity in S&T Workforce

By 10th grade, Kiki Jenkins decided she wanted to get a doctorate degree. Zoology—at least at that time—was her field of choice when her job as a junior zookeeper at the Baltimore Zoo sparked her interest in endangered species. “I thought I would be like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey but live in a hut on the Serengeti,” Jenkins said. After a series of science enrichment programs and fellowships to support minorities entering science fields, Jenkins earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and then a doctorate in marine conservation.

S&T Policy Fellows who organized the workshop: Kiki Jenkins, Anne Fischer, José Zambrana and and Tiffani Bailey Lash. Not pictured: Janis Johnston.

Jenkins’ personal experience with resources for minorities in science and technology fueled her passion to support diversity and prompted her to organize a career-building workshop on the issue for her colleagues in the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. The event attracted nearly 50 participants for a half-day workshop 10 June at AAAS.

During a short speech at the workshop, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) encouraged participants to “not be ashamed” and to “have tenacity” in their efforts to promote diversity. Johnson said that equality and diversity on review panels, on faculty, and in graduate school are all ways to expand who is participating in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. “You’d be surprised how much more you expand yourself when you include others,” she said.

Johnson emphasized that the United States cannot compete without a workforce that is diverse. “That’s the population that’s growing—they have to be included and challenged,” said Johnson. “We need the brain power right now.”

Jenkins organized the “Championing Diversity in Science and Engineering” workshop with four of her colleagues—Anne Fischer, Janis Johnston, José Zambrana and Tiffani Bailey Lash. The Fellows designed the workshop according to responses they received from a survey on diversity issues sent out to their class of 161 Fellows. “We tried to find the blank spots,” said Jenkins, a Fellow at the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For instance, many Fellows indicated that they did not know about disability as a diversity issue, and others had concerns about work-life balance.

But what really stood out in the surveys is that the Fellows wanted to share their experiences and stories. “People wrote paragraphs in their surveys, so you could tell they wanted to talk,” Jenkins said. Accordingly, the organizers recruited three panelists to discuss diversity and designed three discussion groups each focusing on a different aspect of diversity: race/ethnicity, gender, and disability. And, the organizers compiled a thick, white binder of networking and funding resources for “championing diversity.”

“We wanted to give participants the tools to go out and, in their professional lives, not necessarily to devote their careers to being an advocate, but to know what the issues are and be a champion for diversity in their interactions with others,” said Fischer, an S&T Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation.

“This workshop is an excellent example of AAAS Fellows leading efforts for change that influences not only policy, but also the paradigms of operation within their own disciplines and institutions,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the S&T Policy Fellowships. “Such efforts also help create a more aware, engaged, and diverse Fellows’ network.”

Daryl Chubin, director of AAAS’ Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, provided introductory remarks and chaired the AAAS workshop intended to help AAAS Policy Fellows—considered future science policy leaders—promote diversity. “We are all creatures of universities, socialized into science as a merit-based culture,” Chubin said. “Yet characteristics of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and age still matter in the perceptions, expectations, and behaviors that influence decisions that shape opportunities, and ultimately, careers.”

Later in the workshop, Chubin led a discussion session on gender diversity in S&T. The discussion swayed toward work-life balance issues, summarized by organizer José Zambrana at the end of the workshop. “Academic structure doesn’t help in getting out to have a family then returning to academia,” said Zambrana, an S&T Policy Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The group also discussed how the lack of women in S&T has to do with lack of mentoring and networking. “There’s no equivalent of a woman’s ‘old guys’ club,’” Zambrana said.

Panelists Larry Crowder, Toni Torres and Shannon Franks shared their experiences as diversity advocates in S&T during a 10 June AAAS workshop.

Panelist Toni Torres described how, in order to increase diversity in academia, there must be an “institutional stake in diversity” and “we must establish academic excellence regardless of where the student comes from.” Torres is the executive director of academic advising, retention, and diversity at Drexel University, which has climbed in national rankings while doubling enrollment over the past 10 years.

Torres discouraged reliance on SAT scores as a predictor of academic excellence, adding how Drexel is developing other tests to use as predictors. “We have to retool the faculty to understand what students are bringing,” Torres said. She also said that financial aid is a key to sustaining diversity in academia, explaining how financial need was the most common reason for freshmen with high grade-point averages to drop out of Drexel.

“Show, don’t tell,” was panelist Larry Crowder’s advice on how to boost diversity in academia. “You have to start doing things and once they’re successful, people will want to be a part of it.” Ten years ago, Crowder began the Global Fellowships in Marine Conservation at Duke University, where he is a marine biology professor. “Oceans are international, and their problems can’t be solved from the United States by old white guys,” said Crowder, joking how he himself is an “old white guy.”

Crowder likened diversity in STEM fields to biodiversity in an ecosystem. “It comes down to valuing what people know and what they can do,” he said. “It always made sense to me to seek a wide variety of people who come from different places,” said Crowder, describing his efforts to build diversity in his Duke laboratory. “I was trying to create a community here and for them to argue with each other.” By joining people with different backgrounds and skills, he aimed to have his students educate each other and add vibrancy and robustness to the graduate program.

During a discussion session later in the workshop, Crowder encouraged participants to wait until they get tenure before getting involved in advocacy. “You’re earning the right to be heard,” he said.

Bringing attention to disability—an often overlooked aspect of diversity—panelist Shannon Franks discussed the challenges he faces as a scientist who is paraplegic. “I concentrated on what I could do, not what I can’t do,” said Franks, a faculty researcher in the geography department at the University of Maryland.

Franks became disabled when he was in a car accident during his first year of college. “The biggest challenge is what happens when you get a disability,” he said. A month after his rehabilitation ended, he asked his doctor what he was going to do with his life. “The doctor said that ‘the person you were before the injury is the same person you are after,’” Franks recalled. “I knew I wanted as much opportunity as possible in life, and that education was important.” Franks returned to Northland College in northern Wisconsin and completed a degree in environmental sciences and physics.

During college he found a passion for remote sensing projects during an internship with NASA. Franks received the internship through AAAS’ ENTRYPOINT!/ACCESS program that coordinates internships for young scientists and engineers with disabilities. In the 12 years of the program, 540 interns have been placed at organizations including NASA, IBM, Google and Lockheed Martin. More than 90% of ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS interns have gone on to careers in technical fields.

“It’s about building diverse relationships,” said Laureen Summers, AAAS program associate for EntryPoint!/ACCESS. During a discussion session, Summers described how people with disabilities are natural scientists. “We’re so nosey,” quipped Summers, whose speech and movements are affected by cerebral palsy. “We’re always trying to figure things out: how to get around, how to use language. We’re naturally challenged to explore and find new ways around traditional barriers.”

Yolanda George, deputy director at AAAS Education and Human Resources programs, moderated a discussion session on race and ethnic diversity in the S&T workforce. She described how ongoing contact with prospective students, advocacy with admissions committees, and financial aid linked to admissions are effective ways to encourage underrepresented minorities—blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans—to go to graduate school in STEM fields. Early and continuous attention to research productivity, including publishing and presenting research at professional meetings, is an important factor in graduate school retention and doctorate degree completion.

“If students feel like they’re outside the intellectual community, they’re more likely to leave,” George said.

Having multiple mentors and finding mentors with the same demographic group can make all the difference too. If no such mentors live nearby, students can seek them through e-mentoring websites like MentorNet.

In its inaugural year, the 10 June “Championing Diversity” event was one of over 20 professional development workshops held for the S&T Policy Fellows. The workshops cover skills that the Fellows—predominately doctorate-level scientists and engineers—rarely acquire in their graduate training. Public speaking, negotiation, project management, and facilitating meetings are among the topics covered in workshops throughout the year-long fellowship.

“The skill-building workshops serve to expand the Fellows’ professional capacity,” said Daniel Poux, associate director in the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships office. “Career enhancement sessions are also conducted at least four times a year, covering a range of issues like creating a personal career plan and strategies to network successfully.”

Founded in 1973, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships inform scientists and engineers about policymaking while supplying scientific expertise to decision-makers. The fellowships place more than 100 Fellows each year in assignments at government agencies or congressional offices. The current class of S&T Policy Fellows numbers more than 150, including the Fellows who renew their assignment for a second year.