Diversity at the Podium
As a graduate student and postdoc, I’ve been privy to some incredible mentors. I was lucky enough to meet many more once I joined the American Association for Anatomy (AAA). It was only when a sudden turn of events placed me in a classroom, outside of my lab-bench responsibilities, that I was awakened to the incredible power of diversity at the podium.
Although I had taught in a classroom before, and prepared to be the best instructor possible, I didn’t realize the impact my simply being there – at the podium – had until one of my top students of Mexican-American descent approached and said something to me that changed my perspective on teaching:
Dr. Rigueur, it has been difficult to connect with faculty and to seek mentorship, feeling like my story would not be fully understood. For the first time, I feel like I have someone who can relate to me and of whom I can ask questions about navigating through the sciences. I feel so good about it, inspired even, simply because you look like me.
It was in that moment that I realized the impact I was having on these students went beyond teaching the fundamentals of Developmental Biology.
Like these students, my college experience was taught by a diverse group of excellent instructors. As diverse as they were, I had yet to be taught by an instructor that shared my cultural background, Haitian/Black and Mexican. Although I could try to explain the cultural demands and how that impeded my education, I could not fully relate it to someone who hadn’t lived it. Only individuals with a similar background, having gone through similar experiences, can fully understand the psyche related to succeeding in the sciences as a minority.
In retrospect, my cultural background and those obstacles strengthened my ability to progress in the face of adversity. Where other people saw obstacles, I saw opportunity. While other students would complain about being over worked, I felt grateful to be working toward a dream, not just survival.
My experiences gave me advanced perspective on the more important lessons of career development and self-reflection.
But, at that time in my life, I believed that my cultural background and the hurdles I experienced were irrelevant to my success. I felt that I had an internal locus of control, a concept I happened to learn in psychology during the market crash of 2008, that helped me navigate the financial difficulty I was experiencing to fund my education as a sophomore undergraduate (Brookover et al., 1979). And it didn’t become clear to me that subconsciously I had doubts about becoming a tenured faculty in the sciences until the last year of my PhD graduate program – eight years later.
A turning point arrived with the addition of a female tenure-track professor of African-American descent, who changed my perspective. I was thrilled! I was more than encouraged. I thought, “Yes! I can totally do this career; she is living proof of that possibility!” I moved forward with my career, eventually obtaining my postdoctoral position at USC and then UCLA.
Catalyst for Change
Abundant research has shown that the feeling of not being the right “fit” for these scientific positions is prevalent in lower socioeconomic households (Drew, 1995). With that said, it’s not difficult to comprehend that scientists with adverse backgrounds feel a sense of imposter syndrome when achieving their dream careers. However, what’s most interesting is that this feeling of self-doubt is not limited to people with past financial hardships. Literature has shown that there is an imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women and men (Clance and Imes, 1978). Given such pressures, on either side of the financial spectrum, I too had my doubts.
How do we – as scientists and educators – promote diversity in the field? It begins with becoming the catalyst for that change. In order to further drive diversity for future professors in sciences, we need to inspire students by giving them role model teachers of diverse backgrounds to show them that their dreams are possible. Of course, this is easier said than done. There are certain hindrances we must conquer before that is even possible:
- Cultural demands from lack of financial stability, and
- Imposter syndrome inferred from lack of teacher diversity in the sciences
Why do we see fewer Latino/African Americans in science tenured faculty positions? One possibility is the cultural demand for stability for both the scientist and their family. Speaking as an American Black/Latina, taking care of my parents is a responsibility that motivates my career. Several cultures may share this expectation, but this is not necessarily something that people from just any culture can understand.
Although obtaining grants is both a privilege and a risk for everyone in the field of science, it is hard to change your mentality after a lifetime of living in tight economic conditions and being more self-aware of financial spending, to then applying for thousands (or millions!) of dollars to fund your research and your career. This difference is so extreme, and the process so risky, that it does not feel stable, and can amplify that nagging negative inner voice.
For this reason, graduates of different cultural backgrounds often gravitate toward more lucrative careers in industry, medicine, law, or government. However, there are plenty of successful scientists holding their own – just look at the AAA Board.
Your Future Self
A colleague of mine, Dr. Heather Richbourg, wrote a wonderful piece called “Uncovering the Fictitious Imposter Within.” She covered the topic beautifully as a postdoctoral researcher. The imposter syndrome surely applies to undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, and even tenured professors in STEM fields. When students and postdocs don’t see someone who looks like them teaching the material in their future careers, they begin to wonder why that is. Sometimes the biggest encouragement to students of diverse backgrounds is simply to see their future selves in their mentor. We need more teachers that are as diverse as the students they teach.
When I joined AAA, I applied for the Board because someone saw the potential in me to make a positive impact in our community, not necessarily because I felt that I was qualified. Once elected, I made it my goal to be an additional guiding light for graduate and postdoctoral trainees dodging the same obstacles as I had.
Serving on the Board is truly an honor. This Association cares for the science student body in ways that I have yet to see in other organizations. For this reason, I fully encourage students and postdoc trainees to come to our events, visit the website, volunteer in our programs, and become a part of this diverse organization with so much to offer in career development. AAA has been my guiding light through my postdoctoral tenure, and it can be yours, too.
Brookover, W., C., Beady, P. Flood, J. Schweitzer, and J. Wisenbaker (1979). School social systems and student achievement: Schools can make a difference. New York: Praeger.
Drew, D. E. (1995). Class, race, and science education. In S. W. Rothstein (ED.). Culture and race in American schools, 55-72. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247.