Communicate to Consummate, Else Capitulate: Minorities & Allies using Social Media to Diversify Science

Introduction

Life is not fair. Or just. Or equitable. Competition is the norm for life; and, a science career is no different as one strives for resources, data, accomplishments, and recognition. It’s the latter that will strike a young trainee the hardest when the exhilaration of a new discovery subsides. A novel result must be communicated or one risks that the knowledge is buried or (worse) disseminated by someone else. The common mantra “publish or perish” encapsulates this view though I push the clarion call further as “communicate to consummate, else capitulate”. Do not let your science results lie dormant in the science technical literature. That’s what you risk when your work has no public exposure.

Broad communication via social media can bring attention to science and more importantly to the scientist. In the competition to establish and maintain a productive science career, recognition leads to more resources and opportunities. Unfortunately in this contest, the challenges are magnified against minorities either due to power imbalances or, by definition, because the majority outnumbers the minority. Here I provide examples about how social media can be used to diversify the sciences for the benefit of those underrepresented minorities in STEM such as African-, Hispanic-, and Native-Americans in the life sciences, women in computer science, and (South) Asian-Americans in engineering leadership positions.

Online STEM Minorities

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was signed in the U.S., our nation is still grappling with the reality of structural inequities suffered by ethnic minorities [Goyette 2014]. With respect to STEM workforce demographics, the representation of African-, Hispanic-, and Native- Americans has not reached the levels available in the general U.S. population of 13%, 17%, and 1.4%, respectively [US Census 2014]. Notably, by 2050 the U.S. will be a majority minority nation with the Hispanic/Latino population alone reaching almost 30% [Passel 2008]. How do we encourage this growing minority population to be engaged in STEM discussions as informed citizens? One solution is for the nation to have more minority STEM role models. Social media can amplify the visibility and voice of such individuals.

I curate a Diversity Bloggers web page that serves as a useful starting point to find online STEM minority scholars [Roca Bloggers]. Some examples are scientist Dr. Danielle Lee [Lee], technologist Adria Richards [Richards], engineer Micella DeWhyse (pseudonym) [DeWhyse], and mathematician Dr. Ron Buckmire [Buckmire]. All are African-American, reflecting the fact that many STEM bloggers of color that I find are from the black community. While much smaller in number, some minority bloggers from other populations are the following: Dr. Isis (pseudonym), Hispanic/Latino [DrIsis]; Dr. Cynthia Coleman, Native American [Coleman]; Dr. Jeremy Yoder, LGBT [Yoder]; and, Dr. Viet Le, Asian-American [Le]. Minorities who want to learn how to blog and tweet about their science and culture could look to these bloggers as role models.

A sampling of posts reveal what these bloggers advocate. Dr. Lee is very vocal about holding black media publications accountable for accurate science reporting [Lee Feb 2013]. DrIsis has written about gender discrimination against students [DrIsis 2011] and has advised white men on how to discuss diversity [DrIsis 2013]. Dr. Coleman is a Communications Professor studying how science is communicated in mass media channels with a special interest in issues that engage indigenous peoples such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [Coleman 2014].

Beyond the bloggers listed above, carnivals allow more scientists to contribute to online writing. A blog carnival is a collection of blog posts each written separately by different authors but all on the same theme. On their own blog, a hosting editor introduces the carnival theme and then summarizes the contributed posts producing a mini-anthology. In 2009 while a graduate student, Dr. Lee began the Diversity in Science Blogs Carnival as a way to celebrate past and current minority scientists with early editions tied to the celebratory events of Black History [Lee 2009], Women’s History [Franks 2009], and Hispanic Heritage [DrugMonkey 2009] months. Nine editions were published before a hiatus occurred while Dr. Lee completed her thesis work. In 2011, I helped Dr. Lee bring back the carnival for another 10 editions all of which are archived on MinorityPostdoc.org [Roca Bloggers Carnival]. The reboot included new editions highlighting underrepresented populations who did not receive attention in the first series such as the LGBT [Yoder 2011], Native American [Lee 2011], and Asian American [Bonaparte 2012] communities. The Diversity in Science carnival topics were not limited to just biographies of minority individuals. For example, editions were also published on issues such as the imposter syndrome [Brookshire 2012] and environmental awareness [Glave 2010].

The Diversity in Science Blog Carnival stories teach about what minority students and professionals can face during a STEM career [Roca & Yoder 2011]. The following are story ideas that can seed your own writing about STEM minority communities:

  • inspiring personal or career stories about science leaders;
  • the history of the science, scientists, and community dynamics;
  • reflections about one’s own identity and its impact on their career or science;
  • coming to terms with being a minority in a majority environment;
  • relevant subpopulation identity issues in science, medicine, health, etc;
  • career and professional resources (websites, articles, books, events, funding, etc);
  • outreach and mentoring activities that give back to their community;
  • advocacy stories and leadership opportunities;
  • descriptions of work policies in academia, industry, government, etcthat promote an inclusive environment, i.e.“safe space”;
  • being a minority within a minority such as women scientists of color and other intersectionalities;
  • educating and building relations with allies;
  • topics unique to a specific subpopulation, like gender identity in the LGBT community.

Ally Actions

Let’s briefly review important concepts regarding diversity. In a workplace context, diversity refers to individual differences relative to the majority (or power-wielding) group where, in this U.S.-centric STEM discussion, the dominant group are white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-to-upper class males. The differences typically relate to an individual’s identity regarding race, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender, veteran status, age, national origin, or other personal characteristics. In an educational institute, workplace, or community, the dominant group establishes standards of practice that affects a minority person’s perception of acceptance and inclusion. How welcoming does the environment feel?

Allies from the dominant group who are concerned about their community’s minority representation can support interventions that educate, recruit, and retain underrepresented individuals in a STEM career. A dominant group’s privilege would be extended (or checked) to allow minorities access to the community that was impeded due to reasons such as historical injustices, existing discrimination, and other barriers. If a majority individual does not recognize their privilege as exclusionary, then this unconscious bias may prevent diversity efforts. In the United States, STEM diversity interventions are commonly justified by two imperatives. First, there is a moral justification for initiatives that attempt to ameliorate past injustices to ethnic populations. The second imperative is a competitiveness argument that a nation’s productivity and sustainability depend upon the full participation of its population especially in STEM fields contributing to today’s knowledge-based economy.

More specific to the topic at hand, how can allies promote the careers and accomplishments of underrepresented minorities in the sciences? Attention could be drawn to diversity issues (interventions, advocacy, etc) as well as to the minority scholars themselves as exemplified by the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival story ideas above. Let’s examine the case of diversity action plans that are an expectation for institutions receiving federal funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation. For example, NIH has inclusion policy guidelines for scientific meetings [NIH 2003] as well as institutional research training grants [NIH 2009]. Blogging and social media can be used to remind the greater community about such goals as exemplified by Dr. Jonathan Eisen’s advocacy about conference speaker diversity [Eisen 2012]. He calls out science conferences that have a low number of female speakers (#YAMMM = Yet Another Mostly Male Mtg) and boycotts invitations if the meeting organizers do not make adjustments to the speaker roster.

A representative ally is engineer Dr. Suzanne Franks who has been writing since 2006 at her blog Thus Spake Zuska. She describes herself as a “Goddess of Science, Empress of Engineering, and Avenging Angel of Angry Women” where her posts “offer the web’s most excellent and informative rants on the intransigent refusal of engineering and science to open their doors to anyone but white males.” Dr. Franks has written about race and ethnicity [Franks Race] starting with a call to action about the lack of diversity in science blogs [Franks 2006]. Back in the early days of science blogging (mid-2000s), the comment discussions were quite lively inviting many to participate as when ally Franks drew attention to racist comments by Dr. James Watson about African people [Franks 2007]. Of course, the “ally” label is fluid because being a “minority” depends upon the context of your environment or topic discussed [Roca 2011]. Thus, Franks can also speak personally as a “minority” when describing her working class background [Franks 2008] and advocacy for the disability community [Franks disability]. This ally-minority duality is what motivated me to adopt the personal motto “we are all minorities, so let’s help each other” [Roca 2011].

More generally, allies can question the lack of diversity within their own discipline as was done by marine biologist Dr. Miriam Goldstein [Goldstein 2013]. The resulting discussion in the 70+ comments over 6 months had others contributing their own personal testimonials and intervention strategies. For example, Goldstein and the commenters noted that the expectations for success in the field sciences can impose barriers that not all students can overcome. Having a car to reach a field site or participating in an unpaid summer research experience might only attract students with the financial means for those “luxuries”. Importantly, Goldstein’s post motivated Dr. Danielle Lee to publish her own diversity manifesto about why young minorities are discouraged from STEM careers [Lee Jan 2013]. Dr. Lee describes three reasons why kids, especially from inner-city or working-class families, are discouraged from science: 1) lack of resources, 2) benign discouragement by well-meaning adults, and 3) active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers.

These examples of individuals communicating about diversity had their message amplified by social media. The resulting national discussions would be impossible before the Internet age. Previously such discourse was the purview of local institutional convenings by leaders in academia, funding agencies, policy think tanks, and other stakeholders of diversity. Social media has now democratized the ability of minorities and their allies to contribute to these policy discussions.

Allies can learn about minority populations from the advocacy and mentoring work conducted by organizations that I refer to as diversity stakeholders. I publish a roster of diversity higher education professional societies and conferences that are alphabetically arranged by cultural identity for easy browsing [Roca Stakeholders]. Some 60+ non-profit membership societies and an additional 20+ conferences serve as a critical mass of individuals from each of these respective communities. Many are stratified by scholarly discipline such as (I believe) the largest in size, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE.org), which has 8,000+ attendees at their annual conference. I am most familiar with the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS.org) having been an active volunteer since 2003 where I instigated the creation of activities for our postdoctoral cohort [Roca 2005]. The oldest of these stakeholder organizations were created in the 1970’s during an “academic” civil rights movement. These organizations established a friendly community where minorities could discuss their scholarship while simultaneously celebrate their culture. Their annual conferences are a safe space where a minority can freely tap into the behavioral norms of their personal community without being judged. For example, SACNAS members, if they are in the minority at their home academic institutions, may be self-conscious about speaking in Spanish around their academic colleagues who are not bilingual.

For those interested in equity and inclusion in the STEM disciplines, I would encourage allies to participate in one of these diversity conferences at least once in your career. You can practice your ally skills by listening attentively. Do show respect by withholding any tendencies to control a conversation. Also, you can earn credibility by mentoring students and postdocs such as providing constructive criticism during a poster session. By becoming a temporary minority within a cultural group that is not our own, you will experience an immersive diversity environment that will open your eyes to being an “other.”

As a sensitized ally, your blogging will benefit in two ways. First, networking with so many different students and professionals will allow you to diversify your sources when you need topics or interviews for future posts. Second, drawing attention to these STEM diversity organizations will magnify their opportunities and accomplishments for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are small, volunteer-driven operations that are taxed to their limit especially in producing their annual conferences. These organizations’ communication channels are usually limited to just a website and email announcements. Thus, they typically lack a vibrant social media strategy. By amplifying their achievements, allies can help diversity organizations in the competition for recognition.

In closing, blogging can help the careers of minority scientists by raising awareness about their scholarship as well as about the social justice issues that they advocate. In the absence of such communication, their activities might be limited to only a local effect and may miss out on having a national influence. This chapter’s title promotes “communicate to consummate, else capitulate.” Minorities and their allies should use social media to communicate the accomplishments of diverse scholars. Publicizing the work of diversity stakeholders would also help minority trainees and professionals find these support systems for career success. Through these actions, social media can help us prevail against the current inequities in STEM diversity.

Citation

A.I. Roca (2018) Communicate to Consummate, Else Capitulate: Minorities & Allies Using Social Media to Diversify Science. DiverseScholar 9:4

Editor's Note

An edited version of this article first appeared as a chapter in the 2016 book "Science Blogging: The Essential Guide". DiverseScholar is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at info@DiverseScholar.org.

Originally published 31-Dec-2018.

Last updated: 2019-01-01