Diversity Benefits Scientific Progress and Society, AAAS CEO Says

Paola E. Mera | Juan David Romero / AAAS

Paola E. Mera spoke no English, at 14, when her family relocated from Ecuador to the United States. She worked hard in school, reached out to mentors, and received her Ph.D. degree in microbiology in 2009. Only 6.8% of all U.S. science and engineering doctorates were awarded to underrepresented minorities that year, according to the National Science Foundation.

Now a faculty member at New Mexico State University (NMSU), Mera said that she wants to give back to the next-generation of science and technology talent. That’s why she spent a week at AAAS, 18-22 July, taking part in a summer leadership training institute organized by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

NMSU has been ranked as one of the best institutions in the United States for Hispanic students, who make up nearly 50% of the campus population. Many of NMSU’s students are the first in their families to pursue higher education, however, and as of 2014, only 46% were graduating within six years. During the SACNAS Linton-Poodry Leadership Institute at AAAS (named in honor of founders Clifton Poodry and Marigold Linton), Mera began to envision how she might help more of her students graduate, through strategic mentoring.

“I want to help my students see the potential that I see in all of them,” Mera said. “I want to be a catalyst for their success. Too many of my students have never been told, `Yes, you can.’ They have only heard, `No, you can’t.’”

Psychologist Marigold Linton, a SACNAS founder, was one of those students being told she could not succeed, as a young person in the 1950s. “I was a very good high-school student,” said Linton, a Cahuilla-Cupeno and an enrolled member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, “but everyone said, `You can't go to college, Indians don't do that.’”

In 1954, Linton became the first American Indian from a California reservation to attend college. She is reported to be the 17th American Indian to receive a Ph.D. degree in any field.

Her husband, Robert E. Barnhill, SACNAS vice president for science policy and strategic initiatives, said that such experiences were the driving motivation for the leadership institute. This year, the institute drew 30 competitively selected Chicano/Hispanic, Native American, and African American  scientists and engineers at the post-doctoral, early-career, and mid-career levels. Since 2009, the annual event has served 240 aspiring science leaders. The institute’s alumni include, as an example, SACNAS Board member Mary Garcia-Cazarin, a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, current scientific advisor at the National Institutes of Health, and one of Barnhill’s former mentees.

“Diversity helps science itself,” said Barnhill, an applied mathematician and computer scientist. “Big teams are more important than ever. That’s how modern science is performed.”

Robert Barnhill and Marigold Linton of SACNAS | Juan David Romero / AAAS

AAAS CEO Rush Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals, agreed. “Diversifying science is not just the good and humane thing to do,” said Holt, echoing a recent National Academies Press publication, Developing a National STEM Workforce Strategy. “It is essential for the scientific enterprise to prosper. If the goal is for science to benefit people, then the scientific community has got to be engaged with all of society, and we can’t ignore more than half of the population. Also, the whole point of science is to ask questions and get answers from as many perspectives as possible.”

Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs, said that the association “has had a special relationship with SACNAS since its beginning,” in 1973.

Mentoring as well as positive institutional change can improve the success rates of underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Malcom said, but students can also take a “bottom-up” approach, by improving their leadership skills. “If there’s a committee on your campus that has to do with strategy, policy, or nominations,” she said, “you need to be on it.”

Barnhill noted, however, that underrepresented scientists can often be overwhelmed by invitations to serve on various diversity-related committees, so they must learn to make tough choices. “Often, they need to ask a mentor, `Which of these opportunities should I definitely pursue, and which ones can I safely decline?’ They have to learn to be strategic in their choices.”

Dorn Carranza of VentureWell | Juan David Romero / AAAS

The 2016 Linton-Poodry Leadership Institute served scientists and engineers from academia as well as industry. Participant Dorn Carranza, senior program officer at VentureWell, a nonprofit higher-education network that cultivates inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to help solve pressing global challenges, noted that underrepresented scientists can take advantage of many opportunities outside of academia. Carranza, a Ph.D.-chemist with an M.B.A. degree, emphasized that “minority scientists can be key players in the innovation process.” Good mentors and training are essential to success, he added, noting that “leadership is something you can learn.”

Yolanda Comedy, a program director on Malcom’s team, was instrumental in coordinating this year’s SACNAS Linton-Poodry Leadership Institute at AAAS.