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The Leaky Pipeline

 December 21, 2020 at 11:58 AM PST

MARGOT: Hello Ikran. IKRAN: Hi Margot. MARGOT: We made it! The last episode of the season. IKRAN: Woohooo! If you haven’t yet listened to the whole season, go ahead and do so! MARGOT: That’s right, because this episode in a way, will build off of the stories from these episodes. IKRAN: And because they are good. MARGOT: Hah, yes. That too. Ok, so I want to start with a short digression into the experiences of a woman I interviewed, Inemesit Williams. So far, we’ve spoken with Black graduate students, still early in their careers, or with people with their doctorates who are still in science whether as researchers or professors, or as lecturers. But Inemesit is different -- she’s left the world of science. I think it’s important to hear stories like hers. IKRAN: Alright tell me about Inemesit.. MARGOT: So, Inemesit grew up in the Berkeley area and was enthralled by nature from a young age. INEMESIT: So I still have this old article of me when I’m about 4 or 5 or 6, and it’s a newspaper where there’s this group of kids with a naturalist taking us on a hike and I’m in this picture and you can see this wonder and fascination in my face. MARGOT: Eventually, she made her way to graduate school to study developmental biology, the only Black student in her class. INEMESIT: As the only Black person felt like, not only am I representing myself, but I'm representing every other Black person that may want to come here one day. And so I kind of felt like, Oh my God, I I've I've, you know, I've got to do great. MARGOT: She had support from some …. but not across the board. INEMESIT: I'd say in my science department, I had a lot of good people behind me being there, but I also had a lot of experiences as the only Black person in the whole program that were hard. INEMESIT: When I was in my classes with my cohort, there was many, many times when I, whatever I had to say was just dismissed. INEMESIT: Why is my voice to voice that keeps being disregarded here. I, I was questioning, you know, my purpose in that program. I was questioning how people treating me, is that going to be my whole life in science? INEMESIT: And I just, you know, I, I, I finally made a decision to leave MARGOT: There were many factors that contributed to Inemesit’s decision to leave. A waning interest in the research she was doing and she had an inkling that she might want to pursue a career elsewhere. But a lack of inclusion, representation, and a social and work environment with pervasive microaggressions was a big factor. That’s why I thought it was important to hear her story. Ikran, what do you think when listening to her story? IKRAN: I see myself because it either has happened to me or I know it has the potential to happen to me. MARGOT: Ugh, I’m sorry Ikran. MARGOT: One thing was clear from Inemesit’s story and the stories of the other scientists featured in this season - that academia has a long way to go to make the environment more welcoming and equitable for Black scientists. MARGOT: There’s this term - the leaky pipeline that is used as a metaphor for academia and how, by the time you get to the end of the pipe, many students - especially students of color - have left science, and more specifically, moved away from the track of being a research professor. We need to understand why some students quote unquote “leak” and how the pipeline itself is at fault. So stay tuned because... INEMESIT: This is Rad Scientist. [MIDROLL 1] MARGOT: Kenny Gibbs is now the program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the NIH. But when he was still in graduate school, studying immunology, Kenny realized there was a problem at his institution. KENNY: When I was a PhD student at Stanford, uh, there were more Black presidents of the United States than there were Black tenure faculty members and the basic sciences. MARGOT: The president being Barack Obama at the time, and the number of tenured Black faculty, zero. And Stanford wasn’t and isn’t the only school with a lack of diversity at the professor level. Only 4% of STEM professors are Black. That is despite Black communities making up about 13% of the US population. A ton of funding has been devoted over the last few decades to try to funnel more people into the pipeline and to patch up the holes. And you can make academic arguments about why the lack of diversity is bad. KENNY: You can do the kind of utilitarian arguments. MARGOT: For instance, studies have shown that teams composed of diverse people do innovate at higher rates than their homogenous counterparts. KENNY: You can do, “We need the workforce because scientific innovation and research quality global competitiveness.”.. How do we address health disparities? How do we have public trust? MARGOT: All of those are valid arguments. But, it really misses a major point - which is that making sure that everyone has access to science is just the right thing to do. KENNY: Everybody deserves opportunity, right? MARGOT: Kenny thought about this a lot while he was doing his PhD at Stanford. While he wanted to focus on his science, it was hard to do that when thinking about the disparities at play in STEM. KENNY: I came into what I called the, uh, tyrosine Tyrone problem. And so for those who are scientists you’ll know tyrosine is an amino acid. Um, and it represented the technical knowledge that I was pursuing. And then Tyrone represented the community from which I came, right? the Black community. And I felt a conflict between, um, my desires to be in science. And then what the path I saw ahead of me was. KENNY: And so I thought, well, what can I do about it? MARGOT: Kenny was a scientist, so he figured, why not use the scientific method to understand the problem. KENNY: How can we quantify these qualitative aspects of what's happening in science with the idea being that, then we can use that. To create positive change in the system. MARGOT: He started researching the problem and ended up in a position to oversee policy and funding interventions based on the findings of his research. But Kenny is not the only one studying these issues. We’ll get back to what he found and implemented later in the episode. But first, we want to look at the issues and challenges that arise throughout the higher education of Black students. What leads to Black students staying the course in their STEM fields, and ultimately how we can change academia in ways that make it more representative. MARGOT: We’re going to be talking to a number of different researchers who have looked at this issue at different levels of the pipeline. Let’s start at the college level. Dr. Mica Estrada is a social psychologist at UCSF who has done research on persistence of undergraduates in science meaning how likely a student who enters college as a STEM major graduates with one. MICA: In that first year, the dropout rates from the STEM related disciplines is much higher for historically underrepresented students than for majority students. MARGOT: Now that term historically underrepresented student is an umbrella term that usually includes Native American, Latin X, and Black people. Many studies about persistence in STEM lump these students together but that is not to say that each minority group faces the same struggles during their scientific journeys. So that is a caveat to keep in mind as we dig into Mica and others’ science. So, Mica wanted to understand why some underrepresented students stay in their STEM majors and others don’t. In the middle of her study though, she flew to DC for a conference about the subject. Experts at the conference gave talks about a variety of topics including the hot topic of the day, the issue of self efficacy--the idea that a person may or may not have confidence that they can do the science. Without self-efficacy, the theory is, people leave science. MICA: They were going on and on about this. And, by the end of the second day, I was just kinda tired of hearing this...I'm Latina and I knew that that wasn't why yeah, I left. So I kind of left the room and was standing outside and there was a crowd of maybe seven or eight other people that were there. And we were all minorities and we had all left the room where they were describing and trying to figure out why we leave. MARGOT: So they all start chatting with each other. None of them had taken the traditional route in academia and pursued tenure track jobs, which effectively meant they had all “left” the pipeline MICA: And we started talking about why did we leave? And in that conversation, it became really clear that none of us left because we felt like we couldn't do the science. We all felt we could do the science we left because the social experience was exhausting. MARGOT: Like Inemesit at the beginning of this episode, right? Mica took that insight and modified her study design. She was already measuring self-efficacy but she added new questions to her survey to measure scientific identity and values. MICA: And sure enough, when you do a simultaneous analysis of those variables, the big predictor was not efficacy, it was the sense of identity that I belong to this community of scientists and that the values were in alignment with my own values. MARGOT: What Mica and others have uncovered is that there is a big social component to persistence. It doesn’t take a scientific study to realize that negative experiences brought on by racism, by microaggressions, are not going to make students feel like they belong to the scientific community. Of course there are other factors that are important too and that’s why Mica along with other scientists studying this issue was invited to make recommendations to undergraduate institutions - things that they could do to mitigate the large dropout rates of underrepresented minorities. Here’s what they came up with. Recommendation one: track the demographics of your students in STEM majors. How representative are they of the general population? Which departments are doing best? Right now, that isn’t happening everywhere. MICA: So it's a problem because if you have a class, let's say somebody has a intro chemistry class and their retention rates are fantastic. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, everybody loves that class and they stay in the sciences after clearly that class is doing something right. They could be a role model to the rest of the university on how to do it. And they don't even know what's happening. They don't even know. And same way. They don't know the, the class that is totally losing everybody. MARGOT: On to recommendation number two. MICA: The second one piece was to create strategic partnerships with programs that create lift. MARGOT: There are programs around the country that have already been shown to increase the likelihood of underrepresented students graduating with STEM degrees - like the Meyerhoff program started 22 years ago at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Dr. Gentry Patrick, from our last episode, recently started a similar scholarship program and partnered with Meyerhoff to learn from their success. Successful programs tend to include similar components: cohort structures, summer bridge classes, lots of focused mentorship, as well as paid research opportunities. MICA: Ok, so the third thing was to unleash the power of the curriculum. MARGOT: The way that science is taught can lose the interest of students. MICA: When you have an intro to science class and there's no mention at all about how this is relevant to anything besides learning the, the, the language of science, you're going to lose the interest of a certain demographic. MARGOT: And Mica says that now is as good a time as any to reimagine what equitable curriculums could look like. MICA: We're in COVID right now. And that means a lot of the universities have gone online and this is amazing opportunity to update your curriculum in a way that is more inclusive and is using ways in which to engage students. MARGOT: And that brings us to the next recommendation. MICA: The fourth one was to address student resource disparities. So there's concrete elements of like, some students are working full time in addition to going to school. MARGOT: This is a huge barrier for some. How are students who work a full time job supposed to compete with students who have time to focus purely on their studies? Some programs like Gentry’s Pathways to STEM, provide that extra capital. Other schools make it possible to get work study jobs - ensuring that students get paid for working in laboratories. And this approach can help not only by providing a job for the student, but also by providing research experience which has been shown to also increase persistence. MARGOT: And finally, there is step five: firing creative juices. MICA: How do we make science meaningful and joyful and creative? MARGOT: Part of this is covered in step three, curriculum development. But some of it requires things outside of the classroom. It can mean societies or clubs where students from similar backgrounds can express themselves through science and get support by sharing common experiences. MARGOT: There is one group of institutions that retains Black undergraduates in STEM better than anyone else - and that is Historically Black College and Universities, HBCUs. There haven’t been major studies into the reason they are so successful, so what we have to go off of is the testimonies of those who have attended HBCUs who express the sense of belonging, wealth of representation, institutional support, and research opportunities. You may recall Chandler from an earlier episode who described her HBCU as, and I quote, “one of the most magical places in the world.” MARGOT: The next step in the professional science pipeline is graduate school. Hopeful applicants round up their references, write personal statements detailing their previous research experience, and take the graduate record examinations, a standardized test. But the way graduate schools assess candidates may inherently decrease diversity. KIMBERLY: We don’t have the tools, we don’t cultivate the tools that allow us to recognize the talents and skills of students of color. MARGOT: Dr. Kimberly Griffin is Dean and Professor in the school of education at the University of Maryland where she studies diversity in STEM. Here’s what she has to say about the graduate record examinations AKA the GRE. KIMBERLY: There's a lot of research and data that suggests that it's not a very good predictor of success in graduate education, that there are persistent gaps in performance. So if we're going to rely on the GRE, it's going to automatically put students from marginalized and minoritized backgrounds at a disadvantage. MARGOT: The GRE, just like the SAT, correlates with socio-economic status, race, and gender more so than ability. This revelation is sparking a movement to drop the test altogether - cleverly named GRE-xit. Also, Kimberly says that an undue focus on prestigious institutions might disadvantage certain students. KIMBERLY: We often privilege and prefer students that come from institutions that we're familiar with, um, that have worked with scholars that we know, and that are big names, um, that we aren't as likely to recognize the talent and the skill of a student who maybe went to a minority serving institution. MARGOT: Basically, we need to come up with creative ways that actually predict graduate school success that don’t disadvantage Black scientists. And, once in graduate school, there is more work to be done to foster their success. KIMBERLY: We do have some sense that underrepresented students are more likely to master out, so to leave early with their master's degrees or to not complete their degrees. MARGOT: In graduate school, the quality of mentorship can be especially important for underrepresented minorities. KIMBERLY: What's really important is that mentors are equity minded in their mentorship. And that they are, they're able to recognize the importance of identity in the lives of their students and in their own lives. And that they honor identity that they invited into the room rather than trying to engage students in a colorblind way that if a student wants to share that part of themselves, if they want to talk about how they experienced science, as you know, a student of color as a woman of color, that that mentor is open to hearing that. MARGOT: And finally, Kimberly stressed the importance of engendering a sense of belonging. Graduate school classes are small. A Black student may be the only one in their program. So she suggests setting up spaces where students can build connections with people from similar backgrounds. KIMBERLY: one of the things that makes it easier and better is to feel like you have connections with your classmates and with your colleagues and acknowledging how that might be harder for African-American students to feel that sense of fit and connection with their classmates and their colleagues..., so that you have that sense of critical mass that you have that sense of belonging. MARGOT: So now we’ve looked at the research and recommendations about how to retain more Black students at the undergrad and graduate levels. But of course that is not the end of the journey for a scientist. We’re gonna take a short break, but when we come back, we’re going to meet up again with Kenny Gibbs and chat about his research about where in the pipeline are the biggest leaks. Stay with us. [MIDROLL 2] MARGOT: When Kenny was going about starting his research about why there was such a lack of representation at the faculty level, he came across this narrative around the lack of Black faculty that seemed suspect to him. KENNY: What you'll hear is, Oh, we don't have any Black faculty because there aren't any Black PhDs. And I was like, no, that's not true. I got a hundred in my Facebook, like literally, right. I was like, we know each other... it's not an issue of us whether or not we exist. So you're like, okay, how do we test this? MARGOT: First Kenny had to find demographic data that spanned higher education into faculty- which can be difficult to find. But it turns out that there is one fairly comprehensive set of numbers specific to basic science departments at medical schools. KENNY: And what we saw is that there was this almost, this exponential increase in underrepresented PhD attainment from 1980 to 2013. MARGOT: That is a big accomplishment that reflects the large amount of money put into undergraduate and graduate focused programs. But did that increase in PhD’s lead to a similar increase of professors? Sadly, no. KENNY: There was no mathematical relationship between the number of underrepresented minority PhDs that graduated and the number of assistant professors in basic science departments. MARGOT: In fact, Kenny modeled what would happen if we ramp up the number of underrepresented PhD students even more -- this is what he found.. KENNY: You could flood the market with underrepresented PhDs. We could be 80% of the PhDs and we would still be a few than 10% of the faculty, if we don't transition. MARGOT: That was because there was a huge drop off in the transition of postdoctoral fellows to professors. In the end, his conclusion was two fold: I mean one is that we needed to do something to help the postdocs transition into professorships and then also that institutions need to hire more diverse candidates. And this is not a big ask, says Kenny. KENNY: If just two thirds of basic science departments and medical schools hired and retained just one faculty member from an underrepresented background each year, For six years, the system would have parity with the PhD pool in one tenure cycle. So I'm going to repeat that, right? all it takes is two thirds of schools hiring and retaining one, just one person per year, over six years. That's it that's actually completely attainable. MARGOT: When trying to make meaningful change though, Kenny knew that he had the power to affect change by addressing things at the postdoc level, because of his position at the NIH. KENNY: I had an idea that something needed to happen in this space.. how could I affect the most change most quickly? Right. And money is policy and if you're able to attach. Meaningful priorities to dollars. Um, that's a mechanism of driving positive change. MARGOT: So that is what Kenny is doing. He’s trying to make change where he can, by supporting diverse postdoctoral fellows that want to become professors through a program he helped create called MOSAIC, which stands for. KENNY: Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers. I was very proud of the acronym. MARGOT: The program includes additional mentoring, a starter fund for when they get a faculty position, and networking opportunities. KENNY: Let’s make a new path for this person who we see has a lot of promise. MARGOT: This winter, the first cohort of scholars will get notice of their MOSAIC awards. While a program like MOSAIC may encourage postdocs to stay the course and apply to faculty positions. As Kenny said before, these candidates need to be hired. Here’s Dr. Kimberly Griffin again, from the the University of Maryland KIMBERLY: Institutions can really make a serious and significant commitment to diversifying the Academy, knowing that students are watching and that it's shaping their own aspirations of what they can be. [PAUSE] MARGOT: We started out this episode talking about how the challenges of retaining underrepresented minorities in STEM is called the “leaky pipeline.” In some ways, the metaphor may have helped drive research and policy to address the concern. But in other ways, it might hinder efforts to make STEM equitable, because it’s a bad metaphor for describing what’s actually happening to the real people who are experiencing pressure to leave academia. KENNY: I'm not a liquid experiencing laminar flow. I'm a human. MARGOT: That’s Kenny again. KENNY: And I think importantly, it limits our ability to think about creative solutions, right? The only way you get more things out at the end of a pipe is by sticking more things into the beginning of the pipe but what we have shown repeatedly is that, you know, even at the end of the PhD, When people are at the same level of elite institution with the same mentoring, with the same support and what the same publications, we still see people making different choices. MARGOT: As a biologist, Kenny says he sees the system itself as exerting selective pressure, pushing out people based on their identities or things that track with identity. KENNY: And so we need to stop talking about a pipeline, um, and really start talking about an ecosystem and how do we make sure we're supporting folks from all backgrounds? MARGOT: Most importantly, it isn’t just about achieving greater diversity in professors. It isn’t a numbers game. It’s about making sure that wherever Black scientists end up, that they are in an environment conducive to success - one in which they receive resources and respect. And that will take a systems level adjustment, a profound shift that’s happening in the way many are thinking about the problem…. Which makes Mica Estrada of UCSF - hopeful. MICA: I think that the conversation has shifted from how do we fix the students to how do we fix the institutions? And to me, that is really an important shift. For all people to feel like this is where I belong, this is where I’m supposed to be. [PAUSE] MARGOT: I’m back with Ikran. We just threw a lot of information at the listeners. But I thought we could go over some main takeaways. IKRAN: Hah yes, it was a lot. I mean, first off, It’s apparent that there are a lot of changes that need to be made to make the ecosystem of science better for all. MARGOT: Yes! Changes at different levels of education, changes in academic culture, changes in what is valued most in scientific spaces, changes in how we teach, in how we mentor. And we have to go at the problem from many angles. MARGOT: They are changes that every single one of our guests on this season have been contributing to in some way or other. Like Melonie who has pushed for change in her graduate program, Chandler, who created a Black in STEM class she taught this Fall, and Gentry, who created a scholarship program IKRAN: Yes, but I should mention that often the burden falls on those who are marginalized to make those changes. So it is on allies to step up and help where needed, y'know help with some of the load MARGOT: If you aren’t Black, You might be wondering what you can do to help make academia more representative and inclusive as an ally. If you’re just a lover of science - support Black science communicators. If you’re an undergraduate majoring in science - or maybe you’ve made it to graduate school - participate in mentoring programs for underrepresented highschoolers or undergraduates, support your Black classmates, challenge your programs’ commitment to diversity and hold them accountable when they promise action. If you are a professor, foster an inclusive environment in your classrooms, think hard about your teaching style and who it serves. Mentor Black students. Collaborate with Black colleagues. Refuse to speak on white “manels”, or panels with a lack of diversity. And hire more Black professors! People with access to pursestrings - fund diversity programs with a proven record, and require institutions who receive your money to report demographic information along with climate reports. I’ll get off my soapbox now. MARGOT: Okay, Ikran, if you could leave a message for our listeners, what would it be? IKRAN: Fear complacency. Challenge yourself from the person you were yesterday, hours ago, seconds ago. And educate yourself on issues that may not directly impact you because there are folks out there who are being impacted, so...Just to make everything a little more equitable. MARGOT: Thanks so much for your input and for all of your help on the season. And also, thanks to you - listener, for taking the time to absorb this information and listen to these stories. Finally, thank you to all of the scientists that shared their time and stories. MARGOT: Okay. Ikran, we have one more thing to do before we sign off. It’s time for one final vocab lesson. Here’s a word you need to know today with Ikran Ibrahim. IKRAN: The word you need to know today is Intersectionality...This is a term coined by scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw to describe the overlapping and interconnected nature of someone's identity. Whether these identities are political or social -- they have the ability to come together and 'intersect' to create different forms of privilege and discrimination. For example, I am a Black Muslima which means I am Black, I am Muslim, and I am a women -- I intersect at the point where all three of these identities meet. The reason I chose this word is because, for simplicity, we didn’t go into the unique challenges that different intersections, like Black LGBTQ folks, might face in STEM. And this is worth a nod. MARGOT: Thanks a million Ikran. [CREDITS]

Academia has a problem. Underrepresented minorities fall off at every step along the path to becoming a STEM professor. What we are left with is a professoriate that does not reflect the diversity of the general population. In this episode, we dive into what is known about this issue and how we can make the environment of STEM education more equitable. Episode Music: Rad Scientist Theme Motif - Grant Fisher And So Then - Blue Dot Sessions Bivly - Blue Dot Sessions Bauxite - Blue Dot Sessions Hedgeliner - Blue Dot Sessions Illway - Blue Dot Sessions Setting Pace - Blue Dot Sessions Building the Sled - Blue Dot Sessions The Yards - Blue Dot Sessions Rambling - Blue Dot Sessions Lamprey - Blue Dot Sessions Lean - Blue Dot Sessions