This is my university, as it was about 130 years ago. UMM was only established as a university in the 1960s, and before that it was an agricultural school, and before that, it was a Catholic school for Indians — one of those places dedicated to ‘helping’ the poor backwards people of the continent to assimilate into superior white culture by taking their children away and raising them the White Man’s Way. For the past week, students have been busily chalking the outlines of the old buildings around campus, as part of a project to remind us all of our history as an Indian boarding school. I am glad to see that we don’t whitewash this shameful part of our past, and that my university tries to make amends by offering free tuition to Indian students — but nowadays we don’t force them to attend, it’s entirely voluntary, and the curriculum isn’t about telling them how bad their culture is.
We have a diversity problem in the field of human genetics. Less than 1 percent of the Ph.D.s in fields related to human genetic research go to Native Americans (Table 1), and, according to Dr. Kim Tallbear of the University of Texas, they make up less than one fifth of 1 percent of the members of the American Society of Human Genetics. This is particularly troubling in light of a history of exploitative genetics research with Native American communities (McInnes 2011). Dr. Tallbear notes, "In many aspects we govern through science. If tribal communities don’t have people trained in genetics, we don’t have the ability to engage in meaningful conversation with geneticists."
Yeah, white Americans plundered graves and wrote learned treatises on the intrinsic intellectual deficiencies of Indians (some still do!), and this history clouds everything — I had no idea the participation of Native Americans in modern genetics training and research was so low, since UMM is so strongly skewed the other way, with 12% of our students being Indian. Raff tells us we have to do better — that we have to reach out and do better. And the solution isn’t to march in and tell them what they need to do, but to ask what they want to know, and encourage collaboration.
Then the next problem is making discriminated groups an active part of science. Jennifer Selvidge writes about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we squeeze people out of STEM careers.
We have all heard the disturbing reports: We need a million new STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) graduates, we’re in a crisis. We, as a society, seem to be suffering some kind of cognitive dissonance though, because with equal or perhaps greater fervor, we are systematically discouraging women and people of color of the population from pursuing graduate and undergraduate studies and careers in STEM fields.
I am a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a materials engineer, an honors student, and a woman. I also have been told hundreds of times that I don’t deserve to be where I am. MIT admissions decisions come out on 3/14 (for Pi) every year. By 8 a.m. on 3/15 everyone in my high school knew I had been accepted. Tons of people came up to congratulate that day and afterwards but seemed strangely insistent on reminding me that "it is a lot easier to get in when you are a girl because they get so many fewer female applicants."
Oh, man, that brings back annoying memories — it’s not just sex or race, but class as well. I got a hint of that attitude in high school, too — I was accepted at every college I applied to, and was actively courted by schools all around the country, and I had fellow students seriously explain to me that it was because I was a charity case, and they needed their quota of poor kids. Being an “A” student and National Merit finalist had nothing to do with it!
But at least once I got in I had the privilege of being a white boy who could blend in. This isn’t the case if you’re a woman or a member of a racial minority. It’s written on your face for your entire life that you’re not a member of the club.
This year, I am walking MIT’s halls for the last time, and writing my thesis. While I will surely be filling my days with optical characterization (I work in optics), my mind will also be filled with concerns for what is to come. I know that my name — Jennifer — at the top of my resume will play as much a factor in determining my worth as a doctoral candidate as the various papers on which I am a listed author. And I know that even with close to straight As, I am still unwelcome in my scientific community and unwelcome as an engineer. I will be competing with white men with lower GPAs and less research experience who will likely be chosen over me, as professors on graduate committees. After all, some of those very same graduate school committee members probably remember fondly “the days when men were engineers and women were flight attendants.” The problems in STEM are the people in STEM. I shouldn’t have to play catch up, when I am already ahead.
That’s so familiar. The problem shouldn’t be Indians, or black students, or women — it’s us, the established majority. We’re the ones who have to change — or die — before the situation will improve.
I don’t know about you other white men, but I think I’d prefer the ‘change’ option, although I’m also pretty sure I’m going to be forced to take the ‘die’ solution long before the problems are corrected.