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  • Writer's picture Kiersten Formoso

Diversity is on its way

I have been seeking both the time and energy to write up this blog post on a critical topic that I am passionate about, which is diversity in STEM fields and specifically the geosciences. Originally, I was going to write a string of Tweets, but then I remembered that I have a whole wonderful blog section on my website that really should get some more activity. This post, while mainly coming from the perspective of the geosciences can certainly be applied to other areas of STEM and academia. I’d like to express that the thoughts herein are my opinion based on my personal experiences and life perspective.

I write this at a difficult time as the United States is experiencing a historic level of demonstrations and protests against police brutality towards the black community and the rightful demanding of justice for George Floyd in cities across the nation. After years of peaceful protests like kneeling at football games and wearing shirts with statements like "I can't breathe" being called "disrespectful," and whose primary points were ignored completely by racists and bigots, these protests seem like the inevitable, overdue next step, because they are.

With these events happening, Twitter and social media timelines are flooded with photos, videos, and Tweets of and about the protests. I have several Twitter accounts with different focuses and it’s the same across them all-- a uniform and flashpoint focus. On my academic Twitter account, the one I’m sharing this blog to, there has been a loud chorus of black and non-black academics asking for our universities, departments, and societies to put out statements of support for their black members, and they are also asking what is being done to increase diversity in our fields? The main purpose of my post is addressing, positively, this latter point, using my experience in paleontology and the geosciences as my foundation and to perhaps add a twinkle of goodness in this sad and turbulent time.

Geosciences with paleontology included has an abysmal degree of diversity especially for black people. Geosciences has the lowest diversity of all the STEM fields at all levels of higher education. This is obvious when you’re black in geosciences and you look around at department-wide meetings or conferences and you are very obviously one of the few, sometimes only black/brown person in the room. Now, to first provide some background on myself and my upbringing, my mom is black and from East Harlem, NYC and my dad is from Cuba (and the diverse mixes that come with that). My parents met in NYC and left when I was born, slowly making their way west in New Jersey eventually landing in a rural-suburban town in Northwest New Jersey where I was pretty much fully raised. I am familiar with being the only brown person in a room full of white people because that is what I was in school for the first 12 years of my life before finally in 6th grade a black girl from Patterson, New Jersey joined our school system. In my regional high school which I was in from 2008-2012, it improved a bit more. Four small rural towns in one and things were certainly more diverse, in the whole school, but in my class of 189 it was just eight of us who weren’t white and I didn’t have a single non-white teacher for my entire K-12 career. So again, I was used to being one of the few brown people in a white space. Before I go further, it is worth saying that my family and I did absolutely experience racism from time to time and despite growing up in white spaces, I knew all my life that I was definitely not white.

For college I went to Rutgers University, a very diverse institution and at last found myself in diverse spaces which was enriching and critical to my late stages of development. Years of growing up around and comparing myself to white people had taken a toll on me that I didn’t even realize. But as far as my love for science and my current presence in the field of paleontology goes, despite the lack of diversity in it, I was supported in my passion. In my childhood, which wasn’t easy, as my parents got divorced very early in my life leaving my single mom to take care of my sister and I for my entire K-12 career, initially at near poverty levels, my mom managed to continuously support my love for nature, paleontology, and science. My immediate family support network for my whole life was my mom and my sister. My mom's educational background is that she went to college in the city after high school, though did not finish getting an undergrad degree until my sister and I were in elementary school. My mom didn’t really know what all these dinosaurs and science things were that I was so obsessed with, but she never let that stop her from supporting me and this is the start of the crux of this post.

First, I’d like to share that my mom was the first in her family to have gone to college and I know that having a parent who went to college does put me at a level of privilege that others may not have. But my mom is no academic or scientist and did express some worry over my future and career from time to time. Understandably so as most people do not understand the financial realities and trajectory of grad students, scientists, or academics, and it took until probably about the start of my 2nd year of my PhD, which I just finished, for her to really understand the path of a scientist in academia. Still though, her support was there, and because of this, combined with my upbringing, and my support network in my teachers who, though all white, were immensely in tune to my passion for science and biology, the whiteness of science was not a deterrent to me.

For these reasons, I was able to overcome the hurdles that many black and brown people face in entering STEM fields. I view this as somewhat of a Trojan Horse scenario. I and many other underrepresented people are now in these fields and have been for some time now. We all got here in our own ways and passed the hurdles that prohibit so many. So now enough of us are in and able to open the gates for others and change why those gates were closed to begin with. And I do truly believe they are opening. Our increasing level of representation is at the early stages of inspiring greater numbers of black and brown young people to become scientists who may need that external validation because they may have an upbringing that makes it hard for them to visualize and place themselves in the scientific community, and/or may not have that parental, teacher, and family support network. This is what representation does and why it’s so critical. The deterrents for underrepresented people entering and staying in the Geosciences have been partially identified as “stereotype threat” and “imposter syndrome.” The former is the (false) idea that you can’t do something because you are a certain way, and the latter is the (also false) idea that you are undeserving or not good enough to be where you are. I believe there is another layer to these problems that extends into the support network of students.

If your family or support network doesn’t support the idea of you becoming a geoscientist or other scientist, perhaps because they themselves may not have a good grasp on what it even is or entails, or worry for the financial aspect, then you are also unlikely to enter these fields even if the gates are wide open. Not always, of course, I know plenty of self-driven people who support themselves, but imagine how much harder it is if you’re black and you already have these stereotype and imposter syndrome hurdles due to the lack of diversity, and then you also lack that support network. And even a student who believes themself perfectly capable of doing science and doesn't have imposter syndrome, may still find it it difficult to get past the nagging lack of support of their network. Doubt, and doubt from the people who you care about and care about you, is a strong force. I know because my dad and most of my family doubted or didn't understand my desired career, in a non-malicious way, and it was hard to reconcile this with my mom and teachers' support and my own confidence in my ability to do science.

Now we have photos of and research from black scientists. Twitter accounts and blogs and videos. Content that young people can see and show their families to help validate their desired career in these fields. Maybe the support network gets just a little bit more supportive. Picture a black family with their kid going to their community’s natural history museum. They see a dinosaur and a video screen showing a looped video of its excavation, and on the screen is a black paleontologist sharing how they got it of the ground. That family now sees that paleontology is an achievable career for someone black. Or maybe they still don’t, but now their kid has the paleontologist themself as a driving force for their scientific dreams. That kid will not forget that they saw a paleontologist who looked like them digging up dinosaur bones. And for the families that don't go to the museum, well that’s where the internet and the diverse scientists on social media come into play. My point is, the diversity has started, the representation is here and is having inevitable positive cascading effects that we’re so close to seeing.

To come back to the question I see being asked on Twitter. "Societies and academia, what are you doing to increase diversity?" It is honestly my own personal experience that my universities and the societies I am in, which include the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, The Paleontological Society, and Geological Society of America, are all lovely and, in spite of the lack of diversity, are very welcoming to underrepresented groups. From the younger members which are much better in diversity, to much of the older echelon which is virtually 100% white and male. I have never really been actively made to feel like I did not belong. Now passively feeling like I don’t belong, due to the lack of diversity, and maybe some non-ill-natured inability for a few to empathize with my minority experience, is a different story. However, because I firmly believe that these things are being helped to get better, these feelings don’t really hurt me and any slightly negative feelings will be assuaged with time.

With regards to institutions themselves, I have received scholarships for underrepresented students and even a graduate fellowship. I got these because I was greatly supported by my professors and also due to participation in undergraduate and graduate programs geared towards helping underrepresented students succeed. What academics can do is continue to be supportive of their underrepresented students, which in my experience most have been, and also create even more programs for underrepresented students to participate in research, and things like learning scholarship, grant, and scientific writing skills. But so many of these programs are already present and established, and I think they’re doing a great job and they can only get better. I know for a fact that I and many of my peers have greatly benefited from them. However, I would not have even been in the situation to be in these programs at all if not for the strong, driving early support network that I had in my life. I believe representation will create even more of that support as it’s a loop. The support network aspect is on the families and teachers of young underrepresented students, but much of that support is generated and inspired by the representation facilitated by our academic institutions-- which is getting there.

What I’m trying to suggest is that we are at the early stages of a positive feedback system because of the black and brown people who made it over the hurdles to get into their fields. Now we can help more people want to enter these fields to begin with, AND not have to jump over the hurdles. I promise the diversity is coming. Look no further than the diverse and vocal about their diversity assemblage of scientists on Twitter, the diverse STEM loving high school and undergrad students on social media, and the diversity of K-12 science camps. Now we need to help them all stay along these paths, but it is my experience and perspective that our academic institutions are doing a good job with this (and can always improve), even though the low numbers at the graduate and faculty levels right now make it seem like they’re not. But a diversity boom due to these efforts is on its way and we are just 5-10 years out from really seeing a marked improvement in the diversity, quality, and strength of our fields.

I share this blog post and my experiences not to invalidate those who did not have the same positive experiences as I did, but to tell up and coming underrepresented students in science that it is a whole hell of a lot better than it was and that you can have a GREAT experience in STEM undergrad, grad school, academia. Painting it broadly as unpleasant and unwelcoming, which I see a lot of, certainly isn’t going to generate that support or desire to come into these non-diverse fields, especially as studies have suggested that a sense of belonging is what will improve numbers of underrepresented people entering and staying in the Geosciences. We DO belong and I personally feel that sense of belonging. Representation is here and diversity is coming. It's already out for delivery and there's a tracking number.

I’d like to add a final disclaimer that, unfortunately, I am an optimist.

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