Whether in a position as research subjects or researchers, the experience as a minority scientist has some universal traits. You’re likely to feel isolated, overlooked, and ostracized. Women make up approximately half of the world’s population but only 28 percent of its researchers. (UNESCO) African Americans make up 11% of the workforce, but just 6% of STEM occupations. Hispanics make up nearly 15% of the workforce but hold 7% of similar positions. (Census Bureau)
In a sit down with a rising star in science, it becomes clear that these statistics are not just a point of conversation. They are an everyday experience. We present 4 takeaways that every URM interested in STEM should consider.
When asked for the advice he most often shares, he replied “You will definitely experience discomfort in most science spaces. They were not originally made for you.”
Michael Hopkins was initially intrigued by basic concepts of chemistry in his sophomore year of high school. This early enthusiasm was sustained. It ultimately leads him in his current pursuit of a BS in pharmaceutical sciences with dual minors in both chemistry and biology. He currently serves as SGA President of North Carolina Central University. He has spent every summer conducting research at some the top institutions in the country. None of this stopped him from feeling like an outsider when he entered his first summer research experience.
Regardless of your talent and/or brilliance your experience as a minority scientist may be isolating.
Michael shares that his earliest experience was his least favorite overall: “The environment outside of the lab was not very welcoming, I didn’t want to talk to anyone in the lab about anything other than science.” From this he gained insight into life as a minority scientist and the importance of diversity to him. “Life outside the lab is just as important as the lab group and research itself.”
2. You might not care for your lab group. Make sure you care about the work.
He was most impacted by his principal investigators approach to communicating science to outsiders and members of the lab group. “ My PI was really good at translating it to real life.” The lab monitored brain activity in the fruit fly when it made decisions to mate, eat or scratch itself. Michael’s PI elaborated on the applications of the data: “He would relate a fruit fly’s seemingly simple choices, to how long a person at an amusement park would continue to wait in line if he/she needed to use the bathroom or go hungry.” Michael believes more people can see the importance and relevance of this kind of research.
3. If you can’t find a support system, create one.
Michael is now applying to graduate programs and is leery about the prospective environments he will work in as well as the experiences he will have. This led him to launch the Black Scientists Matter brand in late December of 2016. It includes a clothing line as well as a social media presence that showcases black scientists. “ I want to encourage scientists of color to tell their stories. I want people to see them and to know that they matter.” The brand casts spotlight on black scientists at every stage in their career. From undergraduates to professionals, visibility of minority scientists is being increased.
4. Plan to Pay it Forward.
His experiences with research and efforts within his own brand caused him to focus on retention and issues like the lack of diversity among faculty. Ultimately he aspires to be a professor. “I’m unsure how I will balance research and teaching. I see myself as an instructor first. I would have a lab as a way to give research opportunities to my students”. He also believes the issue with minority student retention rates could be remedied if diversity among faculty is addressed.
“ I definitely did not get here on my own. I know there is still a lot of work to do”. Currently he mentors other STEM undergraduates. “I want to be the mentor I never had.”
Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin