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Shirley Malcom at TEDx: Don’t Waste Scientific Talent

"Talent is developed. Smart is something we become," Shirley Malcom told a TEDx audience. | AAAS

We need talented scientists to solve the problems of the 21st century, but talent is wasted when women and minorities face obstacles that keep them out of the field, said Shirley Malcom at the TEDxMidAtlantic conference on 25 September.

Malcom, the head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, was one of 52 presenters at the two-day conference in Washington, D.C., an independently organized offshoot of the TED Conference series, which celebrates "ideas worth spreading." The session drew speakers from a diverse array of subjects, from animal behaviors to the sharing economy to educational access.

Malcom, who also serves as co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and of Gender InSITE, called for Americans to recognize that talent can come from "every nook and cranny of this country" and to value diverse perspectives in the sciences.

"Today, in 2015, we have got to make a decision as a nation," Malcom said. "Do we choose to use the talent that is available, or do we choose to give in to the stereotypes about who does or does not belong?"

Her commitment to finding and nurturing underrepresented talent in the sciences is partly personal, she said. As a young black girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1940s and '50s, Malcom was a hard-working student who loved school in a time and place where little was expected of black students-and even less was invested in their segregated schools.

Malcom was galvanized by the 1957 launch of Sputnik and the subsequent space race and call to action for scientists, and she decided to pursue a career in science. "I heard that shout-out for science, and I decided that I would rather listen to that than to the voices telling me what I couldn't do because I was black and female," she said.

She left the South to attend the University of Washington, where, despite the lack of diverse role models, she launched her scientific career by earning a bachelor's degree in zoology.

"I had to become something I had never seen," Malcom said.

The overt prejudices of the 1950s and '60s against women and minorities in science haven't disappeared, she said. Instead, they've morphed into more subtle barriers. As a result, the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics does not reflect the diversity of the overall workforce, Malcom said.

According to a 2015 National Science Foundation report, white men make up only 31.6% of the population but 51% of the STEM workforce. African Americans and Hispanics in particular are underrepresented in science careers; African Americans make up 12.6% of the population but 5% of the STEM workforce, while Hispanics compose 16.4% of the population but only 6% of STEM workers.

Thanks to changing demographics, more minority students are in classrooms, Malcom said, adding that women already make up well over 50% of college students. This talent cannot be wasted, Malcom said. 

"We have the opportunity to use the lenses of different life experiences and take advantage of the diversity that we have and make it an asset," Malcom said.

To do so, Malcom said we need to reject myths about who is-and who should be-a scientist.

For instance, budding scientists are still stymied by a persistently narrow view of what a scientist looks like, Malcom said. She cited a 1950s study published by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux in Science in which high school students were asked to draw a scientist.

"Invariably, he looked like Einstein," Malcom said, adding that far too many students today still envision and depict scientists the same limited way.

However, programs like the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program can help expand the idea of what a scientist looks like, Malcom said. The program, which seeks to increase global understanding of the importance of invention, also showcases scientists with diverse backgrounds.

Malcom also busted other myths that limit diversity in science, such as the existence of a "math gene." When students believe they cannot learn the material because of a lack of inborn ability, "it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy," she said.

She also rejected the role of science teachers and faculty as gatekeepers, weeding out students without the requisite science background. Educators must recognize the value of persistence above pre-existing knowledge, Malcom said.

"Talent is developed. Smart is something we become," she countered.