Friday, August 31, 2012

Talking about race…questioning identity

Despite the lack of blog posts as proof, Pat and I have continued to talk about race… but committing those words to paper has been tricky. But we have agreed to talk struggle and write on…Believe us, this is harder than it looks!

For this post, we’re reflecting—independently—on the concept of race and identity. As a Black female, I threw the question out there…which am I first? Or perhaps, how do I more strongly identify—as being Black or as being female. My thoughts on that question may have been interesting—but Pat, as she often does, flipped the issue on its head, and came up with a question technically equivalent, but still far more interesting.

Basically, Pat asked if I could imagine Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, Bill Clinton (ha ha!), or Ryan Seacrest contemplating whether they are male or White first? While this question regarding race and identity seems highly relevant for me, I wonder what would drive a Caucasian male to ponder this.

For me, I thought about my race and gender much more when I moved abroad. I found the experience “interesting” when I moved to Germany…There, I felt more defined by my being American. Although perceptions of my being Black and female were slightly different than how I’d grown up thinking about them—it still was not something that challenged me.

China was a very different matter—these were topics that I agonized over regularly. Let's just say that I stood out... a lot; and I found it quite stressful. I had a tall blonde friend who told me that, on the street, people treated her the same way as they did me…but it didn’t bother her. By comparison, I knew other black women (regardless of nationality) who felt similarly as I did.

Anyway, I could go into detail about this experience and my thoughts on it, but for now, I think my major point is that based on these experiences abroad, I do think that both my race and my gender are parts of my identity and that they are shaped by social structures and history. Choosing to challenge, question, or accept these parts of my identity depends on place, depends on the person I’m interacting with.

Living abroad, I realized that people saw me differently (a simple fact) and I was forced more to draw on perhaps the deeper (and more true?) aspects of my personality (read identity?) to react and interact with these people who were strangers and culturally strange to me…while it wasn’t always pretty, it also could be fun and interesting.

The environment where I live and the people I associate with are factors that I can’t control (even if I can to some extent choose where I live). I, of course, can’t choose my race, gender, etc. etc. etc. But thanks to my experiences, my race, and my gender, I am lucky to be challenged to question who I am and to contemplate the person that I want to project to the world.

 Maybe Mitt isn’t as lucky...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Charles is Not Afraid to Talk About Race

Campaign Stops: Not Afraid to Talk about Race was just published today by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.  I thought it would be of interest given the recent focus of my blog.  He discusses how race and political perceptions align and impact the vote.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Protective hesitation...Shall we talk about something else?

When Pat and I first decided to touch on this topic I was excited to explore issues of race and mentoring. Now that the time has come to put pen to paper all I can think is “ugh!”

Am I suffering from writer’s block… or is this some form of “protective hesitation?”

Thomas introduces the concept of protective hesitation as he outlines the challenges to effective mentoring. By his account (and mine!), it seems that the biggest challenge is that people just don’t know how to do it. Concerns about race make the difficult process of mentoring harder.

Mentoring—at its most effective—is both instructional and emotional. The author states, “purely instructional mentoring was not sufficient; protégés needed to feel connected to their mentors.”

Thomas highlights specific factors that make cross-race mentoring relationships more fragile and promote a phenomenon he calls “protective hesitation”.  But why is protective hesitation so damaging and what does this have to do about race? 

I suppose that having a racial identity is no different than having any other sort—whether based on national heritage, a common language, religion, gender, profession, family, sexuality (and the list goes on and on). As individuals, we all must resolve multiple identities both within ourselves and as we relate to others. Identifying with a certain culture means that certain assumptions are accepted and adhered to and we must all pick and choose the ones we hold most dear.

Race, although about more than skin color, rarely requires a verbal revelation to allow others to start making certain assumptions (whatever they may be). The color of one’s skin conveys complex cultures of expectation, expression, and attitude, but does the obvious nature of race make it harder to discover any nuance in its manifestation?

Moreover, challenging the assumptions and prejudices of others also means challenging the assumptions about yourself (and the cohort you identify with). Neither is particularly easy or fun and holds the real danger of being counterproductive.  

So perhaps protective hesitation has a constructive purpose…but how to build constructive mentoring relationships anyway? How do you address a mentee’s shortcomings without racializing or much less over-personalizing it? I guess that’s what makes mentoring so darned hard.

I’ve definitely been mentored far more than I have mentored. As I’ve grown (or at least as time has passed), I look harder for mentoring/advice regardless of who gives it. I’m also far more cognizant of being one of the “few” who either is Black, female, or under 50 in many of my professional circumstances. I try to change this by working hard to succeed. So, I’ll take kind advice where I can and treasure the insights of those friends and mentors with whom I particularly identify.

Still, this doesn’t mean that my professional life isn’t plagued by insecurities, awkward conversations, uncomfortable silences, and frequent irritations...but maybe I'm just insecure, awkward, nervous and irritable.

Honestly, I’d rather not talk about it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Myra Greene--Some of Her Best Friends are White

As described in a feature by the New York Times, here is how an African American photographer, Myra Greene, from New York has choosen to address issues of race in her life and in her work. In this piece, David Gonzalez quotes Greene as saying:
“I’m always thinking about race,” she said. “I recognize it when I’m the only black person in a room. My white friends will notice I’m the only black person, too. But they don’t notice a room full of white people.”
Enjoy the photographs and the sentiment.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Talking About Race, Gender and Mentoring

Several months ago two friends, one younger and Black, the other older and White, start talking about race. Both women have PhDs and share a passion for science and a commitment to diversity.  The catalyst for this conversation was David Thomas’ “The Truth About Mentoring Minorities:  Race Matters”, originally published in April 2001 by the Harvard Business Review.

The conversation has been periodic, punctuated by weeks (months?) of silence, but has remained focused on the mentoring of doctoral candidates since we are concerned greatly about graduate education. This is just the beginning and we are not able to predict where the conversation will lead.  Periodically, we will be sharing on the results of our conversations on each of our blogs, FairerScience and iPhDgirl.

We thought we would start by writing a bit about where we are coming from.

I (Pat) am a former college professor with a strange hobby- I voluntarily read and critique dissertation proposals and drafts for folks who haven’t been getting enough guidance.  Through the past 30 years I’ve read dissertations from a lot of folks, and almost all of them have been white women or women and men of color and I want to know why.  It’s easy to say racism or sexism or both but that’s simplistic and not helpful.  I want Andrea and me to dig deeper and explore our own perspectives and those of others- toward what is going on with good and bad cross-race mentoring in graduate school.

I (Andrea) am a biophysicist by training and a mischief-maker at heart.  Having left lab science for policy my career focus has shifted to facilitating the practice of science--and people are at this heart of its practice. Academic science, in my opinion, seems to have a talent management problem. My perspectives on and interests in this topic are personal, intellectual, and professional. One key area to explore is that of graduate recruitment and "education".  Why the focus on gender or race? Well, as a Black female it is somewhat personal. By many measures attempts to achieve diversity in the academic ranks has been a failure. But then again, although I'm not an academic or a researcher, I don't feel that I've failed. Moreover, I know that my educational outcome is indistinct from that of so many doctoral students (regardless of race and gender). So perhaps it's narcissism, perhaps it's intellectual curiosity, perhaps it's determination to "make things right". Still, I need to decide what significance I can take from my own experience, from that of others, and from the data. As with everything in life, race does matter. So does gender.  But does it have to be a hindrance to anyone or a roadblock to achievement?

We (Pat and Andrea) are looking forward for our first “real” post and hope you will join the conversation.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Opportunity: Apply to PhD Pipeline Program--Extended deadline

I was just made aware of the PhD Pipeline Program. The application deadline has been extended to March 15, 2012.  Here is a description taken directly from the website:

PhD Pipeline Opportunity Program

The Ph.D. Pipeline Opportunity Program “Ph.D. Pipeline” is supported by a grant from the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) to assist under-represented minorities to qualify for and to acquire doctoral degrees in business disciplines. The PhD Pipeline includes partnerships with an increasing number of business schools to establish a national model which involves academic-year activities at each participating institution as well as a two-week summer workshop at the Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. This program represents a bold, new collaborative model for leading business schools to address an issue of vital economic impact, and includes capacity-building initiatives at selected Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to more effectively and systematically encourage and equip under-represented student populations for doctoral study in business disciplines.

Visit this link to apply. Good luck!

Diversity in Science Carnival #13: Black History Month--Celebrating Our Future

The Diversity in Science Carnival.
Celebrating Black Scientists Past, Present, and Future

Welcome to the 13th DiS Carnival! This is the third carnival celebrated during Black History Month (the first two, DiS #7 and #1 are here).

In 1976, under President Gerald Ford, February also became known as Black History Month. For 50 years prior, "Negro History" was commemorated during the second week of the second month of each year. Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), known as the Father of Black History, was dedicated to studying and disseminating information about black life, history and culture. Many celebrate Black History, but the struggle to bring more scientists into the fold of popular black history continues. Following in this tradition, I would like to celebrate and engage Black scientists as community role models, leaders, and citizens.

Projecting Our Image

How does a child picture a scientist? (Photo credit:Mad4Science)

Thankfully, more and more people are challenging us to combat the stereotypical images of scientists (this Mad4Science has some additional "before and after" drawings from children along the lines of the images above). Also please look at Mariette DiChristina's article on the Scientific American website (and please check out the featured profile of Eunice Nuekie Cofie, President and Chief Cosmetic Chemist of Nuekie, Inc., who also shared this article with me). I love these efforts, but I still feel there aren't enough Black faces being put forth as direct challenges to the predominate stereotypes--we need more than glamorous head shots--we want scientists in action! So please, submit your photos and your stories here and here!

Thinking back...
James H. Stith (left) showing a cadet how to use equipment
during a physics class. This photo was taken at the U.S.
Military Academy at West Point, NY.
(Photo Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

In developing and reading material for this carnival, I got to thinking that as a minority scientist, I've been lucky to have many role models. Here are the names of minority scientists that have influenced, assisted, and impressed me:
Think back and reach out to scientists that have guided and influenced you!

Andrea Stith with Joe Francisco, a past
president of the American Chemical Society.
Knowing Your History

I'm not sure if it's just me, but when I think of history, I think of books--heavy, thick, and dusty ones at that. Recently, I was reminded upon meeting Dr. Joseph Francisco that you can learn valuable lessons from someone else's personal just need to ask!

There are some online resources, that give the stories of well-regarded scientists. The National Academy of Science has its African American History Program which began over 25 years ago as a staff initiative. It is now expanded to include an online database of African American citizens of the United States who have made significant contributions in science, engineering, or medicine. Here are some biographies from and here is one for the kids!

But as I found out in my interview featured on PhDforLife with Dr. Gregory Good, a science historian at the Center for the History of Physics, recording the lives and accomplishments of scientists is crucial because it "gives a face to science." You don't have to be a historian to do this--he recommends ways that YOU can get involved in making sure papers and photos are archived, departmental records saved and oral histories recorded. Also see this post if you think you may want to become a historian of science!

Celebrating Excellence

Thanks to everyone who submitted links to excellent black scientists. Specifically, Jennifer Michalowski at Howard Hughes Medical Institute shared the web pages for HHMI Early Career Scientists Russell A. DeBose-Boyd and Tirin Moore, and HHMI Investigator Erich D. Jarvis. I'd also like to share the profiles of HHMI Professors Winston A. Anderson and Isiah M. Warner. Here also is a link to the 2011 class of HHMI Gilliam Fellows.

HHMI affiliated scentists Andreson, Moore, Jarvis, DeBose-Boyd, and Warner. Photo credit: Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology also submitted this roundup of some of the interviews ASBMB Today has done with its Black members (like Namandje Bumpus, Marion Sewer, and Heather Pinkett). In recognition of Black History Month DNLee pays tribute to five urban ecologists that we all should know. Also, check out the HistoryMakers website--their archive is growing by the day!

In his post Always Bet on Black bashir points out that Blacks have achieved many notable "firsts". And indeed there are many excellent Black scientists! But we can't grow complacent now that we've named our first Black U.S. President. We must focus on an achievement that still eludes us-- that of the first Black scientist to win a Nobel prize in physics, chemistry, or medicine. Thanks to Alberto Roca for pointing out that:
An African American from Detroit, Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (political scientist) was the first black man to receive the distinguished Peace Prize (1950) for his work as a United Nations mediator, and Sir William Arthur Lewis, received the 1979 Economics Prize.
I also agree with Alberto that another worthy milestone would be a Black president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pursuing Excellence and Celebrating Our Passion

Thanks to everyone who submitted links that depict the passion that many African Americans have for science and strive to share. Here is one about Daniell Washington, a marine biologist who is also the CEO of her own foundation dedicated to inspiring young people and educating them about the importance of the ecosystem protecting the marine environment.

Equally passionate about the environment is Dr. Gillian Bowser. A native of Brooklyn, she is now a research scientist in Colorado, leading many efforts to involve students in ecology. She knows that nature itself thrives on diversity and so does science! Here is the story from Terrasig of Jason Dorsette, a scholar, leader, and inspiration!

Also thanks to DNLee for making me aware of a guest post to her blog The Urban Scientist by her good friend and Sister in Science Charlotte Clark, a geologist. Charlotte describes her journey to becoming a scientist. In Brilliant & Beautiful: Black Female Chemists Promote Science Careers Among Women of Color we learn of two entrepreneurial women who made sure they had a way to give back.

Many thanks to the University of Washington chapter of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) for submitting two posts celebrating Black History month. The first provides an excellent discussions of African Americans in the US, at UW, in higher education, and in STEM. The second is a guest post called "The Scientist of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" by Keon Vereen, an aerospace engineering doctoral student. In it he talks about the influences that have enabled his science journey and relates what he believes the future holds.

Celebrating our Future

We are on a Quest for Excellence. This was the theme of the Symposium on Supporting Underrepresented Minority Males in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics held on February 28th at the NASA headquarters. In her speech Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) remarked that while every child won’t go to the moon, we need to make sure that each and every one believes they can. Better yet, I believe that if we teach them their History, they will KNOW they can.

Here is a short list of organizations, resources and programs (please comment to add to this list!) that can help make this dream possible:


March is Women's History Month and DiS Carnival #14 will explore the role of women in the enterprise of STEM. It will be hosted at Double X Science - bring science to the woman in you. Emily WIllingham, co-founder of the blog community will serve as editor.

Quest for Excellence

This report can be
downloaded here.
Hi all! I wanted to let you know the release of The Quest for Excellence: Supporting the Academic Success of Minority Males in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Disciplines. The authors are Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D. and Lorenzo L. Esters, Ed.D., and the report was published by The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) with the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The report was released yesterday at the Symposium on Supporting Underrepresented Minority Males in STEM Disciplines held at NASA headquarters. Here are links to the agenda, a PowerPoint presentation, and the Minority Male STEM Initiative.

Chance Encounters

At a meeting I attended last week, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Joseph Francisco, William E. Moore Distinguished Professor—Physical Chemistry, at Purdue University. I thought that I would take a quick moment to introduce him to you!

From his website you can see that he is very good at what he does (in addition to his academic accomplishments, he has held many honors including President of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, an Alexandar von Humboldt Research Award for Senior U.S. Scientists, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and President of the American Chemical Society). But as he shared his story, I was more struck by how his journey through life and as a scientist was catalyzed.

It was through a chance encounter outside of his house. He is fully aware that had he waited a few more minutes to walk out the door, he may have missed the stranger standing on the sidewalk. We all know that achievement doesn't come without a lot of hard work, but he readily admits that luck and the ability to build and maintain mentoring relationships helped him realize his potential. I feel lucky to have met him and plan not to forget the lesson that his life has taught me!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More on the Center for History of Physics and Becoming a Science Historian

This blog post provides some additional information that resulted from my conversation with Dr. Gregory Good of the Center for the History of Physics.

How does your Center interact with the public?

Usually it is professional historians, science writers, journalists, and producers (NoVA, BBC, American experience) and some scientists that stop by. The Center mostly interacts with the public through the websites. Much of the website content is found through through Google searches—their aim is to have content appear on first age of hits.

Using their content:
For education use content on web is fair use… go ahead. They draw the line at commercial publishers. 23,000 of 30,000 images are online. The low resolution thumbnails are good enough for PowerPoint and blog use. For high res images there is a no charge, but there is a handling fee (to cover staff time).

How do you become a professional science historian?
For his generation his path is typical—he was an undergraduate science major who moved in to the history of science as a doctoral student. Today many first graduate in history and move into history of science. There are pros and cons to both pathways as the older generation of science historians are less used to social/cultural/political issues and the younger generations have a less clear understanding of what science is doing. But they complement each other.

One interesting tidbit is that Brazil is a top producer of physics historians, and as in Europe the disciplinary historians tend to hold their academic appointments in the science departments (rather than in a department of history).

Also, he wants to remind you that it’s not just the people who are important to study. Things of current scientific relevance might have been undervalued in years past. What “old folks” have done is not necessarily throw away science since old data can be useful in various contexts. For example, in April a conference will be held at the AIP building about the preservation of glass plate negatives (American Astronomical Society wants to preserve them).  Another example is that O2 readings from 2nd polar year are very useful today (80 years later)… you never know!

Where can you study history of science?

Mostly graduate programs are available… only a few have bachelors programs.  Probably 100 grad schools with history or science can do minor. A few he listed are:
Harvard, Minnesota, Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana, Toronto, York University (Canada), and UPenn.

What made you decide to become a historian?
Change in field was quixotic. He was physics major at a liberal arts school. Philosophy classes introduced him to “old dead scientists,” and this struck a chord and he decided to divert his study from astronomy to give history of science a try. He didn’t know the field’s potential, but it resonated and has worked for him.

Where do science historians work?
They work in academia (actually less than 12%... similar to physics overall), government, museums, private research firms (history associates), branches of military (Naval Research Lab and Army Corps of Engineers each have science historians), and many also end up in academic administration.

Black History and the History of Science: A Conversation with Dr. Gregory Good

Dr. Good snowshoeing.
Here is a great example
of a Physicist and Historian
in action! (Photo courtesy of
Gregory Good.)

This post is a the result of a conversation I had with Dr. Gregory Good, The Spencer Weart Director, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics (AIP).

I approached Dr. Good because I was curious to know much is known about Black History and the History of Science.  I know we learn of individual Black Scientists and their contributions, but is it possible to study their contributions and struggles as they have been studied in American culture (example: at Yale Unviersity) and American history (example: the Civil War). 

A Google search on History of Blacks in science pulled up this list of references from the Library of Congress.  Still it was Dr. Good’s impression that the History of Blacks in Science is largely unexplored territory and a subject that he hopes will catch fire.  A problem, he says, is that there are not very many historians of science and many of them are working on a book of fairly narrow focus.

This is the photo of Bob Ellis from the
archived at the Center for the History of
Physics. Ellis is discussed
in Abigail Foerstner’s "James Van Allen:
The First Eight Billion Miles," and also in
George Ludwig’s Opening Space Research.
George says that Bob Ellis single-handedly
integrated the US Navy officers mess on
one of his research trips, since a civilian
could not be made to sleep with the crew!
The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)  Committee on Minorities in Physics has taken on the history of HBCUs as its long range project. Also, the incoming AAPT president has challenged us to feature an exhibit on the topic at the 2013 winter meeting in New Orleans.

Dr. Good is also researching one African American physicist named Dr. Robert Anderson Ellis. Dr. Ellis died in 1989, and Good actually began his study based on his interest in the science topic rather than in the man himself.  Ellis was an undergraduate at Tennessee A&T and went to Yale for his Master’s. He received his PhD at Iowa working with James van Allen who is known for discovering the Van Allen radiation belt. Ellis was a contributor to this team discovery and also worked on one of the first serious controlled fusion experiments.  The work is well known, but many historians don’t realize he was African American.

For some great information about Blacks in science visit a Web page by Scott Williams (Math at  SUNY buffalo), although it has not been updated in a while.  The page is called Physicists of African Diaspora. There are also links to articles, as well as to African American mathematicians and computer scientists.

How can history help science?

This is also very important to specifically promote Black history. Science education in general needs black history as it puts human face on science. Teaching from first principles doesn’t resonate with everyone and doesn’t do much to strike imagination. In fact he feels it appeals to very few even of the scientifically inclined.

In general, we need to insert stories and promote role models. Other ways to excite is to get hands dirty. Students should not be penalized for not getting results.

Teachers hard pressed to get their day job done—so they need help.

In past AIP has done FaceBook and Twitter feeds to celebrate Black History Month. But another way he could help would be to collect material to put together a permanent Web exhibit about African Americans, Women, Hispanics in physics, that are featured at opportune times.

It is really import to try and prevent more papers from African American scientists getting lost.  In the past they have solicited HBCUs and others for materials, but they need more.  One lucky discovery was the papers of a Black scientist that ended up at a public library in Houston. Prior to this find, he never would have thought to look at a public library for such papers.

I asked him that if historians are doing the work—what can a non-historian do to spread the word? He suggests that if know black physicist that you do an oral history interview. He encourages everyone to seek out the personal papers of Black physicists—they can be invaluable.  Although AIP mostly archives papers that relate directly to AIP, they will act as an intermediary and help find a good home for the papers.

 What can you do?
  • Interview and uncle, aunt, grandparent, teacher, friend who is a scientist;
  •  Contact Dr. Good. He is willing to act as nerve center by helping with oral histories, interviews, and getting them transcribed and archived;
  • Collect all that you can find. Oral histories, photographs (hopefully more action shots than head shots), manuscripts, autobiographies, and department histories (these aren’t interesting to read, but they are critical to historians…can open important doors);
  • Volunteer with the Center for History of Physics. You can be anywhere in the world. Amateur or not-- the more the merrier. They can help you learn; and
  • Look at AIP Neils Bohr library website. It has an international catalogue of sources that has information for 9000 individual collections archived 900 institutions around the world.
Dr. Good remarked that “science and history are both good at predicting the past,” so I suggest that if you think something is important NOW go after it and make sure it gets recorded and noticed!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Guest Post--You Go Girl! Diversifying the Nature of Ecology

Dr. Bowser (left) with NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jamison. Both were public delegates  at the 2011 UN Commission on the Status of Women.  (Photo courtesy of Dr. Gillian Bowser.)

This entry was submitted by Dr. Gillian Bowser, a research scientist at Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, at Colorado State University. She is the lead on a National Science Foundation grant called the Global Women Scholars Network in Sustainability. This network strives to promote women and girls in the sciences related to sustainability. Additionally, she is a leader in the Rocky Mountain Sustainability and Science Network (RMSSN) that brings together federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations to collaborate in research relevant to sustainability. RMSSN is also committed to developing a diverse population of student-leaders who can address the many issues surrounding the management and use of public lands.

Dr. Bowser's contribution:

As a female African American Ecologist from Brooklyn, New York, I can count the number of ecologists who look like me on one hand—and not even need to use my thumb.  Ecology has long been the field of nature lovers and wilderness seekers and yet has spectacularly failed to attract diverse people.  “Minorities don’t like the wilderness” one of my colleagues declares as we are busy digging out our four-wheel drive vehicle in a remote corner of Great Sand Dunes National Park.  “Black people don’t like the cold…”  another colleague announces as we snowshoe up a canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park.  “Maybe they [black people] are just too urban” a professor suggests as we trek across a moon lit plateau in Grand Teton National Park.  “Ecology is about nature and black people don’t like the woods—remember whole lotta trees and rope is cheap” a friend confides as we herd an enthusiastic group of teenagers through the woods looking for insects.  Ecology, it seems, is determined to be a field about the processes of nature and to remain remarkably un-diverse.

However, I see hope for my chosen discipline. Yet that hope comes at the great costs of the greatest environmental threat facing humankind—climate change and environmental sustainability.  To address climate change, we need to engage the global populations in looking for sustainable solutions and those solutions will require social, community and environmental expertise all in one.  Suddenly, or so it seems, ecology has to include community and sustainability as a field speaks to all about the environment in a way that “pure” ecology has yet to achieve. 

To Celebrate Black History Month and African Americans in Science, I want to shout out to the youth.  The African American students interested in science today want to save the world for their communities and ecology is just one of the tools that they need in their toolkit for the task.  I now have students applying to my lab because we have a grant in women and sustainability and these students write applications about using ecology to help their communities.  I see African American students participating in our bioblitzes in urban gardens teaching younger students about the importance of bees as pollinators for grandma’s tomatoes.  I see social networks where Africans, African Americans and Hispanic students are talking about climate adaptation strategies to save a village from the uncertainty of climate change.   These students are my heroes and mentors.  My vision now of African Americans in science is one that I saw at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen three years ago.  A young African American woman spoke to the assembly of 191 nations and said  “I am saving the world for my generation NOW not tomorrow. “  You go girl.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Public competency in science: Are experts the best at setting the standards?

Please check out this essay by Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University.  In the essay he explains that experts, by establishing unrealistic standards of "knowledge", can actually under estimate the public's scientific competency. This can seriously impact public affairs and the public's well-being. I also think it is an important question because it may impact young people by keeping them from regarding science as accessible and relevant, and from seeing themselves as adept as thinkers.

Fischhoff describes three pathologies of those who are guilty of  "confusing ignorance with stupidity [and] casting those who don’t know as being incapable of learning." They are:

  1. placing the onus on citizens for not knowing facts that would be easily understood, had they just heard them (effective and thoughtful communication by experts is key!);
  2. accusing people of hypocrisy, when they fail to adopt every specific behavior that is conceivably consistent with a general attitude (just because you agree global warming is a problem, doesn't mean you can't take a plane when you vacation in Greece); and
  3. accepting the accuracy and relevance of expert opinion without question or qualification (Always take advice with a grain of salt!)

Not only can citizens play a role by communicating their needs and interests, but the so-called "experts" must also listen.  Fischhoff claims that relevant testing is possible, but the testers must be disciplined when designing the test. They should set and adhere to standards for listening carefully to the needs and wants expressed by the citizenry and making sure that the question they ask are clear and understandable. "Without such a disciplined approach, " Fischhoff declares, "competence testers can do bad, while feeling good."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pat and Andrea: Who Benefits?

Pat, of Fairer Science fame, and I have a periodic discussions about diversity and the sciences. We're hoping to post a series of posts that summarize our discussion. Although we tend to focus on gender, race, and ethnicity issues, we have briefly turned our attention to a different topic that serves as fodder for the initial co-blog entry. The discussion was initiated by a New York Times article about a lawsuit filed by the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute against former director Dr. Craig B. Thompson.  Here's the first entry: 
Who Benefits?
The recent press about the billion-dollar lawsuit brought by the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania against Craig Thompson, the current president of Memorial Sloan Kettering once again brings up the troubling issue of who owns research results. Is it the investigator, the university or is it the funding organization? When the research is funded privately this is a matter to be decided by contract.
In the Abramson case, the suit declares that the contract between Abramson Foundation and Thompson mandated co-ownership of discoveries and developments in order that monetary profits are shared and the Foundation can reinvest in its mission and “fund untold advancements in cancer treatment for generations to come.” 
When the research is funded by public funds, no such agreement exists. The United States has purposefully entered into a social contract whereby the government lays no claim to results obtained and products developed through the research that it funds. Under this scheme, researchers and their universities are able to operate and staff laboratories in the development and pursuit of creditable ideas. Whatismore, they are able to do this without putting the money out up front. And that is fine.
There are great benefits to this agreement as federal funds enable progress and innovation on a scale that would not, without this magnitude of support, be realizable. However, there are downsides as well. Money made based on the research is shared between the researcher and the institution but not with the public who funded the work. 
It does seem, however, that including the public as a shared beneficiary of monetary gain is warranted. As in the Abramson case, if the research pays off big time (we think a billion dollars is big time!) something should be reinvested directly in the American people (and generations to come) who helped make the discovery possible.

Hope you enjoyed it and that you're looking forward to more.  Pat has already promised that our next post will get back to the point--especially since it is Black History Month!