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KPBS Midday Edition

Mexican-American Biologist Speaks On Science's Continued Diversity Problem

Courtesy Lydia Villa-Komaroff
Molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff in an undated photo.

Mexican-American Biologist Speaks On Science's Continued Diversity Problem
Mexican-American Biologist Speaks On Science's Continued Diversity Problem GUEST: Lydia Villa-Komaroff, founding member, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science

This is KPBS midday edition I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Wasn't that long ago that a science professor could easily tell a struggling female student that women do not belong in chemistry. Discrimination is not always so blatant. Sometimes low expectations and cultural stereotypes play a huge role in stifling diversity in the sciences. Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff is working to change that. She's one of the first Mexican women to get a PhD in science. She's also a founding member of the Society for the advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. She'll be speaking tonight in honor of Cesar Chavez stay. Welcome to the program. Thank you. I'm delighted to be here. That incident I mentioned about the professor saying girls can't do chemistry, that happened to you. What was your reaction at the time. At the time I was young and dense. I said okay and changed my major. You say as a child you wanted to be a scientist. Where you grew up in New Mexico most of the Mexican American kid stuff out of school. What gave you that passion for science? There were three things. One my grandparents -- grandmother on both sides understood and love the natural world in particular plans. My father's mother was somebody who knew the dimensional plans and treat people around the neighborhood. I had my mother's sisters has been who had a Masters degree in chemistry. Those were the influences. In addition I come from a large family and I grew up in a small house. I think I have this image of science as a place that was cool, quiet and spacious. When you were in college and getting your PhD, how many other Mexican Americans did you see as professors or fellow students? As a PhD, none. It wasn't until I was near the end of my graduate work and I went to a meeting in Atlantic City and there was a notice that some people would be getting together to discuss the lack of Mexican American and Native Americans in science. I went to that meeting because I did not know any. I met the ones that were which were a few at that time. In looking back you say you were oblivious to discrimination in your field. When did you start to notice? I became more aware as I got older. I still stayed oblivious to my early graduate work even though the first thing that happened when I got to MIT was -- I walked into the graduate office and one of the professors asked me if I was there about the receptionist job. Little things like that I tended not to notice until later. If it doesn't bother you then you just go forward. Later after I met the folks in Atlantic City and got involved with a group that cofounded [ Indiscernible ] and talking to one of my uncles was the activist, and begin to realize that things were not as good as they could be in the world. That was the 60s. The colleges around the Vietnam war and Cesar Chavez and his activity were all important in making me realize about my history and how things should be. I knew many talented people back in Mexico had not gone on to college and that struck me as wrong. You confronted blatant discrimination to your face. Women and men of color often face more subtle obstacles today. What form do they take? I think the most insidious form of discrimination is not over discrimination at all. In many institutions there is a consensus that we need to do something to bring more people of diverse backgrounds into all fields not just science. The human mind is wired in a way that we make decisions in ways that don't always take into account all factors. It's a big world. We have so much amount through our senses every second. In response we've evolved a way of thinking which minimizes energy and allows us to ignore a lot of stuff. In doing that when we make decisions, will make decisions the weight we did when we were back in the jungle. Things and people that we perceive as different from ourselves are the first reaction a human being has is that the person may be dangerous. People make decisions about the capabilities of other people without stopping to consider the person behind those extra attributes. This is called implicit bias. The work on decision-making was done by the Nobel winner of behavioral economics. How diverse are the sciences today in your opinion and where do they still need to improve? The sciences are more diverse from when I started. It's hard to go anywhere and not see at least in the student body diversity among that population. It is still not diverse enough. The numbers say especially for African Americans and Hispanic Americans in particular Mexican Americans the number of people as you go up the ladder decreases. At the professor level we do not see representation that represents the number in the country. The reasons for that are complicated. Many of those populations do not go to college and so forth --. We need to understand why that happens. People may say they know it's the right thing to do to have more diversity in science. Does diversity really make science any better? Absolutely. In other fields in particular that is documented. Companies that have a diverse makeup in their executive group and the board have a better bottom line. They perform better. The reason for that is because if everyone in the room thinks in the same way the approach -- approaches to problem solving is going to be the same. In addition we need to utilize the native talents that are here. That means we need to go back and get those kids through schooling in a way that prepares them for the rigors of college life and beyond. Might guest Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff is speaking tonight at 6 PM at Cal State St. Marcos in honor of Cesar Chavez stay. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

It wasn't that long ago that a science professor could easily tell a struggling female student that women just don't belong in chemistry.

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As an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the 1960s, Lydia Villa-Komaroff was determined to be a chemist, but sought help from her advisor.

“Well of course you’re having difficulties," the professor said, according to Villa-Komaroff. "Women don’t belong in chemistry.”

That prompted Villa-Komaroff to eventually switch majors to biology, leading her to a distinguished career as a molecular biologist. She helped discover how to make synthetic insulin in 1978.

She encountered racial prejudices as well. Another professor once gave a paper Villa-Komaroff had written a D, but changed it to an A after she spoke with him in person.

"It took me years to realize he gave me a D because I had handwritten the paper and my last name was Villa," she said. "Like many people, he made an assumption about what I could do based on what I looked like."

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Villa-Komaroff found a dearth of fellow Mexican-Americans in graduate school, especially Mexican-American women. When she received her Ph.D. in 1975, she was one of the first Mexican-American women in the country with a doctorate in a scientific field. While STEM education has seen significant improvement, the disparity persists. The issue, according to Villa-Komaroff, is cultural.

"People often ask me, 'What was your biggest obstacle?' The answer for me really is, it’s always been me," she said. "I think we often are our own biggest problems. We undersell ourselves, we second-guess ourselves. And our culture reinforces that. In American culture, we are acculturated to the idea that some people are more capable than others."

Villa-Komaroff is speaking Thursday night at Cal State San Marcos in honor of César Chávez Day. She joined KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to discuss how scientific fields can improve diversity.