Materials Science and Engineering Faculty Promote Micromentoring to Advance Diversity

By Rachel Kaufman

If you want more diverse faculty, postdocs, and students in science, talk to them for a minute or two. That’s all.

The importance of brief but common encouraging actions could not be overstated at the Workshop on Ethnic Diversity in Materials Science and Engineering in Arlington, Va. Dec. 9-11. Most panelists — department chairs, deans, professors, and graduate students — cited a simple “a-ha” moment as the turning point in their lives.

A diverse academic population and a diverse workforce is an asset — and the right thing to do. Yet while 12 percent of America is black, only 2.5 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in materials science go to African Americans. Even fewer go on to get PhDs. And at the faculty level, the numbers are even more striking: as an example, even today, less than 1 percent of physics professors are black; 1.6 percent are Hispanic. (That no reliable data were available for minority materials science faculty perhaps speaks volumes.)

Minorities may not choose academia for a variety of reasons, climate — or the workplace environment — being one of the foremost. Dr. Eve Fine (at right) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained that not everyone perceives workplace climate the same. “Women and faculty of color experience a more negative climate than do male and majority faculty,” she said. And department chairs typically experience the most positive climate of all. “It’s important for chairs to recognize that their perspective…may not match the perspectives of others,” she said.

A poor climate isn’t necessarily one where overt acts of racism come into play. “Microaggressions”, or brief daily interactions that “contribute to making a person feel they don’t belong,” can be powerful. But panelists also talked about the importance of “micromentoring” — “those 30-second lessons that can mean the difference between how someone interacts with their environment,” said Doreen Edwards, dean of the School of Engineering at Alfred University in Alfred, New York.

“I call that drive-by mentoring,” said Dr. Rebecca Brent in a later presentation. “It’s the power of one person saying, ‘Hey, have you thought about graduate school? Have you thought about teaching?’”

Brent’s presentation focused on the results of a pilot survey of graduate students in materials science (about 150 respondents) that found that most graduate students — not just minorities — weren’t getting the proper training to allow them to choose academic careers. While the majority said they were getting guidance conducting their research and more than half got career advice from their advisors, few were given any training or practice in teaching, authoring papers, and other important skills for an academic career. And fewer African Americans and Latinos reported having these experiences.

Latino and black students were also far less likely than whites to be encouraged to enter engineering by their high school counselors or family members and less likely to plan for a career in academia. Not to say they wouldn’t like to be professors, Brent was careful to say. “For all students, over half said they would like to be in academia, but when it came to their plans they were overwhelmingly not entering academia.”

drive-by mentoring…
It’s the power of
one person

It’s not just cultural fit, though most panelists agreed that minorities may shun academia because they don’t see role models there that look like them. It’s also a complicated set of misunderstandings and poor policies.

“It never ceases to amaze me how frequently I walk into a group of new undergraduate engineering students who say, ‘I will work [after graduation] because I can’t afford to go to graduate school,’” said Enrique Lavernia, dean of UC Davis’s College of Engineering. “They come from first-generation families that have no experience with higher education. It dumbfounds them that someone else will pay for their education.”

Dean Edwards was one of those first-generation students—the first in her rural family to go to college and one of the first in her community. “I didn’t know anyone until the age of 17 who had graduated from college,” she said. She added that until she was in her 40’s, she had trouble viewing academia as “real work”. “It took me a long time to view white-collar work and academia as important as physical labor,” she said. Now, she notices the same views in many of her students. “Some make comments like, ‘I don’t want to be the manager. I want to work on the factory floor.’” Combating that perception is going to be crucial for getting talented, interested students to pursue their scientific interests.

But the solutions that kept coming back in panel after panel seemed to revolve around the micromentoring concept at all levels.

Milena Bobea, a doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University originally from Puerto Rico, isn’t sure whether she’ll go into industry or academia after graduation, but she knows exactly why she’s working toward her Ph.D.

During a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at NIST, she met Dr. Robert Shull. “Dr. Shull [talked] about his research and about his father being a Nobel prize winner, and let us ogle it. Being exposed to a government agency and how the research was done at this level definitely motivated me. I never thought about going to graduate school until I participated in [the NIST REU]. That is when I said, I do want to further my education because I want to do research.”

Relevant Literature & Resources

A. White (2013) Workshop Makes Recommendations to Increase Diversity in Materials Science and Engineering, MRS Bulletin 38:120-122

University Materials Council 2008 Workshop on Gender Equity in Materials Science and Engineering

Rachel Kaufman is a freelance reporter, writer, editor, and blogger based in Washington, DC. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: R. Kaufman
The citation for this article is:
R. Kaufman (2012) Materials Science and Engineering Faculty Promote Micromentoring to Advance Diversity.
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Originally published 18-Dec-2012,
Last updated 4-Oct-2014