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National Conference Shows Underrepresented Researchers Making Strides

ERN Conference 2014
Tuskegee University students Kimberly Myers (left) and Brittany Demmings (right) take a break from poster presentations with mentor Richard Whittington, director of undergraduate research at Tuskegee. | Selby Frame/AAAS

There is some serious brain power going on here.

More than 650 student researchers from around the nation have poured into a Washington, D.C., hotel to network and show off their work. Rows of posters celebrate undergraduate research on cancer, robotics—even underwater communication. There are 70 graduate students giving oral and poster presentations on topics from hairy nanoparticles to quantum turbulence.

"Look around; there are a lot of us. We are not minorities," says plenary speaker Lydia Villa-Kormaroff, addressing a banquet hall jammed with people. "Everybody in this room is more than good enough," intones Villa-Kormaroff, one of the nation's most respected life scientists and one of only a handful of female, Mexican-American researchers in the field.

This is the 2014 Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Now in its fourth year, the event, which is hosted by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the NSF Division of Human Resource Development, is one of the few national venues where underrepresented students and persons with disabilities can network and showcase their research in STEM fields.

Over the course of the conference, these students will be encouraged to continue their studies, exposed to grant and fellowship opportunities, wooed by private industry recruiters, and inspired by working young scientists and engineers who speak about their own pathways from college to career.

New researchers hit underresearched topics

"This is my first time at a conference," says a wide-eyed Brittany Demmings, a junior at Tuskegee University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) in Alabama. "A lot of people are interested in my poster about high-risk HPV (human papillomaviruses) with racial differences in sexual behavior. We're finding that African-American women are actually more prone to a higher prevalence of HPV."

Two days later, Demmings would take a first-prize for undergraduate research in cancer. (See full prize list.)

Demming's work illustrates several encouraging trends in the national push to increase participation in STEM fields. First, despite obstacles that continue to impede pathways to STEM careers for historically underrepresented groups—including access, funding, educational parity and cultural acceptance—many more students are earning doctoral degrees. In the past 20 years, there has been an 87 percent increase in African Americans earning doctorates and a more than doubling of Latino and Hispanic recipients.

Additionally, her work demonstrates how new researchers are adding knowledge to underresearched topics as they bring more inclusive cultural relevance to their fields of study.

There is still a long way to go in closing the gap, notes co-organizer Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS's Education and Human Resources Programs, but the nearly doubled growth in ERN Conference participation gives her reason for hope.

"There are a lot of things they have that a lot of us back when did not have," says Malcom, surveying the crowd of students. "They have the opportunity for research and the ability to get researching early on."

Facing social biases about research careers

The White House has made increased funding for STEM education a major component of its R&D initiatives, with the NSF, NIH and other federal institutions funneling support for STEM education to undergraduate and graduate programs at HBCUs, High Hispanic Enrollment institutions (HHEs), tribal colleges and other institutions with a large number of underrepresented students.

Educational recruiters are in high evidence among exhibitors at ERN, more than 50 of them, from graduate programs at institutions including MIT, Michigan State University, Princeton, Stony Brook, and University of Wisconsin. Many of these universities already recruit at HBCUs and HHEs--in many cases offering deserving students full freight for graduate and terminal degrees in a wide range of STEM fields.

The hardest part, say educators, is getting word out that these opportunities exist--and then convincing students that these careers are financially viable and personally worth the effort to pursue.

"I think the number one [obstacle] is that underrepresented students do not have exposure to the field," says biology professor Richard Whittington, director of undergraduate research at Tuskegee. "The majority of fields they do have exposure to have been glorified in the media—medicine, engineering, law, things of that nature. Not a lot of students growing up have encounters with somebody who does research."

Even when students become more aware of STEM opportunities, there often are familial and cultural barriers to pursuing a research career, particularly among first-generation college students. "A lot of parents mainly want their children to be financially stable," notes Malcom. "They don't know about the field, the job, the income level."

As a result, she says, underrepresented students sometimes get caught between the world they know and the one they're reaching for. "Every time you go out and do something that people don't understand, there is this sense that you may be perceived as distancing yourself from [your] community. Fitting in can become hard, so that you end up in a situation where you're neither fish nor fowl. It's a lot to deal with."

Because of the low number of peers in many STEM fields, underrepresented students often have to demonstrate real bravery just to enter a discipline where they are one of only a handful of female, Hispanic, black, Native American or Pacific-American cohorts.

Jessica Freeman, a doctoral candidate in physics at Hampton University in Va., describes a fairly typical scenario she has run into as a graduate student: "There have been many conferences I've been to where I walk into the room and I'm the only person of color and only female in the room. I've been to hotels [for conferences] and they've thought maybe I was looking for someone who worked in the hotels.

"I smile," she says, "because I know now that they had the chance to meet someone they never met before, in a role they never met before. I do my best to show the uniqueness and diversity of the physics community."

Finding a career path in changing times

Increasing educational access is only the first part of the equation. The conference also devoted a significant portion of programming to helping students develop a more flexible, dynamic approach to establishing a career pathway amid shrinking research budgets, an increasingly competitive grant climate, and reportedly persistent, if not hidden, faculty hiring biases at many institutions.

A majority of current STEM-related jobs are in private industry—some 70 percent, according Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Academia accounts for 19 percent, followed by 11 percent in government.

Back in the banquet hall, speaker Villa-Kormaroff describes her own evolution as a researcher, which began with a bang as a post-doc fellow in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Walter Gilbert. She co-authored the first synthesis of mammalian insulin in bacterial cells and was awarded two patents based on her work.

After a 20-year research career at MIT, Harvard, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, among other labs, she moved into administration in the private biotech world and is now chief scientific officer at an engineering company that builds cell processing systems.

"A Ph.D. today doesn't necessarily mean running a lab in an academic institution," she says, adding, "My own career demonstrates that. You have to consider not just what you have learned in your discipline, but that you have learned how to learn. That is what will put you in good stead."

Villa-Komaroff calls on the students to push the envelope so that others will have an easier time. "Some of you have to be ambitious enough to go to the MITs and the Harvards and the Dukes even if you're not entirely comfortable there," she says. "It pays to push your comfort zone. If you don't apply to your dream school, you're not gonna get in. You won't get something that you don't ask for."

As for the common perception that candidates are getting interviews on the basis of their skin color or gender, Villa-Komaroff challenges students to consider the realities of the workforce: "If we were being privileged in jobs at the faculty level, in the board room, in business or anywhere," she said, "then there would be a lot of us in positions of power. We're not there yet. And it's you who need to be there."