Perspective, inspiration, fresh ideas: Examining the power of diversity in science




KRISTI MOORE: What difference does diversity make anyway?


MOORE: This is Kristi Moore from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. This month, I’ve been talking to our female graduate students about what it’s been like to pursue a career in a field where women have historically been underrepresented. We spoke a lot about what has kept women from pursuing a career in science and what obstacles they’ve faced, too. We spoke about the role models who made all the difference. And perhaps most importantly, we spoke about one thing that ties all the other questions together – why is it so important to have diversity in science?

But before we get there, we have to go back to the beginning, and some of these students’ beginnings. Like the generations before them, some of them faced opposition for pursuing science as a career in some cases because they weren’t perceived to be smart enough…

PEREZ DELGADO: I had someone in high school tell me never go into science because your math is that bad, like you’re not going to accomplish anything. I still remember that.

ANA SOSA: When I was an undergrad, I used to get a lot of girls can’t be engineers, and you’re not going to like grad school and you should be doing something else, something that’s better for you or you’re better at.

MOORE: And in some cases, just because they’re female.

ANNIE CAREW: My undergraduate institution, I was a conservation biology major, which was a relatively small major that interacted a lot with the wildlife sciences department and I think that’s where maybe I’ve run into the most, not direct opposition, but very subtle or less subtle sexist attitudes. There was sort of this attitude from a lot of my fellow students that I was a girl and I didn’t want to get my hands dirty and maybe I shouldn’t be here.

SHADAESHA GREEN: The very first conference I went to, they talked about women in science and that the big thing holding women back in science or from science could be the choice between do you want to have a family or do you want to pursue science? And that most women that may pursue science might not have families because you invest yourself in your project, your research, and accelerating, and being known so that you don’t have much time for the family. Honestly it scared the heck out of me because I think I was 19 at the time and at this point I knew that I loved science and I was like, but why should I have to choose between my passion and my family life? I don’t know if that’s something that holds a lot of women back these days but it was definitely something, like the first thing brought to my attention was the struggle between family versus career.

So what made me stick with it was my adviser at the time. We kind of got talking about it and she was just like you don’t have to choose. If you want the balance, you can have the balance. You just have to find that lane that provides both for you.

MOORE: Luckily, just like in that scenario, our students have found great mentors who gave them the encouragement they needed to keep going.

GOETHEL: I grew up in a household where my dad was a stay-at-home parent and my mom worked. And my mom worked in a primarily male-dominated field; she was the only woman in three states that did what she did in the South in the 70s. So I just have this perspective of like, Of course it can be done.

MELANIE JACKSON: My master’s adviser, she’s not only to me but reached out to other students that I heard and telling them if you want to have a child, you can have a child, and go into academia, and you can do things like get married and it’s not going to hold you back.

MAUREEN BROOKS: I have a woman adviser. It certainly is really helpful to me to have that touchstone and that bit in common of seeing how she responds to being in physical oceanography, which is still more male-dominated than most of the environmental sciences. It’s useful for me to see how she responds to that world, how she builds support structures for herself, and then reaches out to others through mentoring. It sort of inspires me to try to do that as well.

MOORE: Whether these students spoke about family or graduate school advisers one thing was clear: Seeing people who look like you, whether in leadership roles or working alongside you in the lab, matters just like diversity matters. So why is it so important we have a better balance in science, technology, engineering and math careers? Here’s what our students had to say…

MORRISETTE: I think diversity matters in science and all fields for fresh ideas.

KAILA NOLAND: to the drawing board a lot of ideas that you may not have had if you don’t have similar experiences from other people.

MORRISSETTE: And if you get into a rut of thinking one way and doing experiments the same way and this is how it’s always been done, so this is how I’ll do it. You bring diversity to the board, you bring people with different mindsets, different experience, different ways of going about things that have already been done.

SAM GLEICH: I think we can’t help but be conditioned to what we’re used to, our world view, everything, the way we see our world and the way we go about our day has sort of been conditioned by how we were raised and who we were raised by and all the different challenges we’ve faced and had to overcome, but being in a diverse environment and being exposed to other people’s struggles and how other people view the world and how they were raised, that could give you another perspective on life and make you as a scientist more well-rounded, more creative, more empathetic and able to relate to other people

KELLY PEARCE: So when you collaborate in science, which a lot of science is about collaboration, you have the opportunity to combine different strengths of people. The opportunity to collaborate as a team is really going to push science to outside the bounds of kind of what it is traditionally.

KATIE HORNICK: Especially when it relates to science that could potentially relate to policy. It just adds a diversity of perspectives.

GOETHEL: For me it’s all about perspective. So being out on the Canadian ship, we have Canadian scientists, we’ve worked with Japanese scientists, we’ve worked with Polish scientists, and everyone approaches the problem differently and I think that helps solve problems better.

STEPHANIE SIEMEK: With us coming from different backgrounds and having different passions, you can put that together and everyone can contribute to solving these issues because obviously, we are very far away from getting where we need to be with sustainability.

GREEN: It helps with outreach a lot better. Because if we are working within a very diverse team, ethnicities, different specializations, we each have a unique way to communicate with people of our own communities or inner circles.

CLAIRE NEMES: If you feel that science is something that is only being conducted by this group of people off in this lab, it’s something that really seems far removed from your personal experience and it’s harder to see how those questions and that research affects you and your life and your family and your community. So if we’re able to encourage more people to get involved in science—and that’s one of the big strengths of citizen science projects—that really encourages stewardship, encourages people get involved in the scientific process and thinking critically, so it’s not just something that remains the purview of people off in this remote lab area.

HORNICK: It adds kind of a diversity of the face of science. Everyone can be a scientist. You know, it’s not just that guy that doesn’t talk to people that’s in a lab coat all day pipetting or something.

GREEN: Our perspective also helps us engage others and help us to get our point across because as scientists, the No. 1 thing we need to do is communicate what we do in a way to where everyone can understand and not just people in our little circle or bubble.

JACQUELINE TAY: If only one group of people is driving the question making, then only certain types of questions will get answered.

BROOKS: If you increase diversity in science and other fields that have a potentially high level of prestige or respect associated with them and the salary and self-pride and all the things that go along with that, then you’re not just increasing the diversities of opinions and scientific ideas that we have, but you’re also helping to lift up communities.

HADLEY MCINTOSH: It is really important, especially when putting together new ideas for what the new questions are going to be in science and what we need to either fix around the globe or look into a little deeper to better understand our own environment.

CHRISTINE KNAUSS: I think science is all about creativity and being smart about your creativity, how you approach a problem. Some methods you just can’t do in your lab and so you have to figure out how to be able to do some of the things you need to do and by having a diverse lab, or just diversity in science, it means that people are creative differently and they think differently and they can solve problems in different ways. So I think that makes gaining knowledge and doing experiments a lot stronger than it would be.

CAREW: Science doesn’t exist in isolation, and so we have to be mindful of the different factors that affect literally everything and the different perspectives and situations and viewpoints that all contribute to this greater system that is the planet. I just think that, it’s important to keep all those things in mind and to remember that science isn’t limited to a bunch of old white guys in a lab somewhere, it’s everybody, everywhere.

LIAU: I wasn’t born in America. I was born in a different country.

PEREZ DELGADO: I’m Puerto Rican, a very proud Puerto Rican.

SOSA: I grew up in a different country. I am 100 percent Mexican.

LIAU: I always that think it’s important to interact and talk to people of other backgrounds, different cultures because you never know what you’ll learn about them. I mean, even me personally, I have different thought processes as some of my friends here just because I have a different background as some people. So that leads to you having a more open mind and you’re more accepting of other cultures, other opinions, and that can lead to friendly debates about science and any issues as well.

SOSA: When I came to this country, I realized how diverse it actually is and I think it’s incredibly important because a lot of the times I was doing science back in Mexico, we would be focused on the perspective of our ecosystems and our biodiversity and our political climate and everything, just trying to do science from that perspective. But when you bring people from all over the world into it you realize it’s a bigger picture.

PÉREZ DELGADO: Apart from perspective, I think it’s a matter of inspiration. Not only to see women in the field, be it in the lab or out in the Arctic, but it’s just dealing with so many different cultures, it’s amazing. On this campus, I’m the only Latina graduate student and sometimes that can be a little bit challenging. So I had to leave Puerto Rico to actually pursue my science career, and that was tough, but my adviser actually speaks a little bit of Spanish, so having that different cultural interaction and getting people to understand all these differences and being accepting is something that’s really good and motivates you to keep on working.

DANIELA TIZABI: By bringing in different perspectives, people from different backgrounds, it helps the individual because if you surround yourself with the same people you’ve grown up with your whole life, you’re all going to be thinking in one way; the more you hang out with each other, the more uniform your thinking’s going to be. But when you bring in other people, it gets you to reflect on your thought process and you may become aware of your own prejudices, your own biases, not just in your personal life, not just your academic career or your focus of research, but in all aspects of life. It really keeps your mind active and opens up your world.

GOETHEL: Well and I think it’s interesting, we get to learn from each other both scientifically and culturally. And I think the other thing that’s really cool is we get to sit and celebrate just how similar we are. We’re all humans, right? It’s nice to go out and see the Canadian Coast Guard really isn’t all that different from us. We get to learn and see their ideas, but at the end of the day, we all get to sit down and just enjoy each other’s company and the things that make us similar.


MOORE: Special thanks to Tan Zou, Stephanie Siemek, Kelly Pearce, Claire Nemes, and Annie Carew of Appalachian Laboratory; Hadley McIntosh, Christina Goethel, and Zoraida Perez Delgado of Chesapeake Biological Laboratory; Katie Hornick, Sam Gleich, Christine Knauss, Melanie Jackson, Emily Russ, Hannah Morrissette, Maureen Brooks, Pinky Liau, and Jacqueline Tay of Horn Point Laboratory, and Kaila Noland, Shadaesha Green, Amanda Lawrence, Ana Sosa, and Daniela Tizabi of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Science; thanks all of you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and thank you for listening. If you want to hear more stories like this, be sure to visit