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Why Busy, Overwhelmed, Sleep-deprived Burgeoning URM Scientists Have to Give Back

I will start with my typical “disclaimer in italics”. I am drained. I have had a long week, evident by my fighting off a severe “crash.” Twenty-hour days + very little sleep + life’s responsibilities = TIRED BLACK WOMAN. With that said, this will be brief and, hopefully, to the point.

I enjoy volunteering at pre-schools and grade-schools to teach and interact with young children as a scientist. I find that my free time is very limited. The last time I volunteered was a couple of months ago. My schedule as a mother, a PhD student nearing the end of her graduate career, daughter, granddaughter, and sister HAS BEEN PACKED. My volunteer time remains a priority, even if it has to happen less often than I want. I stay in contact with the individuals who organize volunteers for the schools. I refer people who wish to commit to these interactions. I don’t do this simply because I enjoy it. I do it because it’s necessary to address the very issues that I encounter as a black woman scientist.

This week, I read yet another article outlining the gender gap in the sciences. The next article was about the negative effects of reduced science funding that will be further exacerbated if the fiscal cliff situation is not resolved. Discussions of diversity in science (racial, gender, socioeconomic) have been ever present even from my days as an engineering undergraduate. How much effort, time, and money institutions put toward addressing issues of diversity and the racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities is often mediated by the degree to which an institution finds itself in dire straits. While there are institutions that have maintained a commitment to education and execution on this front, it is difficult to believe that I should or could rely on institutions to respond to the issues at hand.

Here, I will take the liberty of turning my ‘I’ to an ‘we’.

Underrepresented minority (URM) scientists have a difficult task ahead of us when considering our own professional ascension. We must thrive in this atmosphere as we encounter obstacles due to our gender identity, race, and background. Like any scientist, we must weigh the cost and benefits of our career paths to our personal lives and other professional goals. Especially, in our years as students, we have to focus and produce to a degree and for a period of time that is not required in most other disciplines. Why would I challenge the drained, the exhausted, and the overextended to offer more to the youth of our respective communities?

When I think of the level of confidence that I had to grow into to survive where I am…

As I consider the knowledge and wisdom that I have gained that would have been very helpful had I received it sooner…

When I think of what it meant for me to encounter minority women AND men scientists directly and what it would have meant in my more formative years…

I think of what I can give to a child that SPECIFICALLY as a scientist that I didn’t receive until I was well on way and I would say that that extra thing on my plate is worth it.

Any advancement of the goals of those who wish to enhance and increase the creativity and innovation of science by changing what science looks like and identifies as, requires reaching into the lives of under-served children. Brown, black, poor, rural-based, girls – are a fundamental pool for future scientists; social, basic, or biological.

The most immediate effect that I have observed from my experiences in front of classrooms is that, in an instant, the concept of accomplishment changes. Before them stands a black woman who is a scientist. Not many children who look like us and grew up like us know that a scientist can look like them or identify with them. Immediately, a new possibility is introduced. We shouldn’t be surprised that children today still do not know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson or S. James Gates are (sorry I’m partial to physicists). We shouldn’t think that a small group children knowing who we are, as lowly graduate students, would not be an eye-opening experience. Even if you can do it one time, it is sure worth doing.

The children really value the experience of hearing and being heard. I often talk about my respect for my teachers and give them a chance to, respectfully, talk about theirs. I ask them what they think they want to be when they grow and relate what they are learning to what it will take to get there. I talk about how I grew up as the only girl in a house of boys. I discuss with them what I do and what they think different kinds of scientists do. I go over what they may be learning about at the time (and give a quiz). I even throw in a little speech about safety. It really isn’t difficult, but the difference that is makes is astounding. Children tend to have really short attention spans, but they often pay attention when attention is being paid to them, ESPECIALLY positive attention. We can provide that.

As I have reached the bottom of my cup of coffee, my brain is reaching a road block and I am winding down. I think about where I want to be in twenty years when the 3rd and 5th graders who I last spoke to in a classroom could be in my shoes. If only one of those students wants to be scientist (I remember 4 saying they want to “do” science), I am glad that they have connected with me. In twenty years I want to be in a leadership role: training them, writing recommendation letters, and fussing about their data. I want to stand in front of a room to give a talk and see a different picture than what I see today. I want black primary investigators to make up more than a fraction of a percent of the population of primary investigators at Research 1 institutions. I want departments at the top universities to have more than a couple of URM students at a time. I can go on.

I’ll just end with this:

If you can fit it into your schedule when your schedule is strapped…

If you find the passion for it, when if seems like your ability to be passionate about anything is at a minimum…

If you commit now, then it is more likely that you will remain committed as a PI, a CEO, or the Science & Technology adviser to the President.

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