I began my presentation with a picture of my father’s nursery. My father inherited the nursery from his father and I grew up spending a lot of time around plants and greenhouses. This was an obvious place to start my talk not only because it helped explain why I love studying plants, but also gave insight into my family’s history, which has shaped who I am today and how I view equality in the sciences.
Running a plant nursery was not an unusual occupation for Japanese American families in California. Like many immigrant populations, agriculture was an accessible career in the mid-1900s. But growing bedding plants was not my grandfather’s dream. In the late 1930s, he had been training to be an aeronautical engineer at the University of Washington. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941 he was forced to join the military. My grandmother was moved to an internment camp at Tule Lake. When the war was over and my grandparents were married, they started the nursery and built their wealth from nothing.
The next part of my presentation was dedicated to my research experiences, beginning with my undergraduate senior thesis project at UC Santa Barbara. As I discussed the exciting research I have been lucky to be a part of, I realized that all of my mentors have been men beginning with my undergraduate senior thesis advisor up to my most recent postdoctoral advisor at UC Berkeley. I used this trend in my history to discuss with the audience the importance of role models.
I believe the lack of role models for women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences is a real cause for concern. A 2012 report found that although women of color represent 13% of the population, they are only 2.3% of tenured or tenure track faculty in the United States (Ginther & Kahn, 2012). With a serious lack of role models, it becomes difficult for young students of science to picture themselves succeeding. I often found it difficult to picture myself as an Asian female scientist with a family as I had no role models who fit that description to look up to.
Support systems can greatly alleviate some of the alienation that comes with being an underrepresented student in the sciences. Personally, joining the Women in Mathematics and Sciences (WIMS) organization at the University of Virginia was critical for my success as a Ph.D. student. Joining WIMS not only gave me access to a supportive group of Ph.D. students, but also empowered me to engage with younger students of science and encourage them to pursue their dreams. I believe the WiSE program is filling a similar void for students at UC Berkeley. I have learned from my students the woes of walking into a computer science lecture hall and being one of the few women in the class. Just having one or two female friends in the lecture can greatly help students feel more comfortable and less like an outsider.
Despite the efforts of programs like WiSE, there are still major hurdles for underrepresented groups to succeed in a career in STEM. I still feel that the biggest issue that needs to be addressed is acknowledgement of the problem. While federal funding agencies and university policies promote the advancement of women and minorities in STEM, there is still a lack of acknowledgement by the community that this is an important issue that deserves attention. I have witnessed countless examples of senior scientists who either outright deny or undervalue the importance of diversity in the sciences. No matter how many diversity statements scientists are obligated to write when applying for a job or a grant, they will not matter if the community reading those statements does not assign them value.
There is an obvious argument for why increasing diversity in the sciences is important: the more diversity you contain in a population, the greater the ability it has to solve problems creatively and successfully. A recent study found that scientific articles authored by both women and men received 34% more citations than papers with only male or only female authors. This suggests that diversity leads to better science (Campbell et al. 2013). The idea that less diversity leads to lower performance is not a complicated concept and scientists are no stranger to the importance of diversity when it comes to genetics. It is intuitive that inbreeding is a bad idea. However, when discussing the diversity of the population of scientists themselves, it becomes difficult to recognize the “inbreeding” that is right before our eyes.
The other argument is more subtle and less acknowledged by the scientific community which is that the lack of diversity in the sciences will make the sciences seem more out of touch with the public than it already appears to be. In the year 2045, it is projected that Caucasians in the United States will cease to be the majority. This is a trend that will make white male dominated fields of science look even more absurd.
The implications of conducting out of touch science are especially critical for the environmental sciences. Our inability to recruit and retain a diverse population reflects larger issues concerning many groups of people being unaware of or disinterested in the health of our ecosystems. It also reflects the poor education that these groups are receiving thereby not putting them in a position to pursue a career in the environmental sciences. Climate change scientists are well aware of how losing credibility with the public can inhibit the implementation of our findings into policy. No matter how much scientific progress is achieved, it will fall on deaf ears if the public continues to lose faith in the authority of environmental scientists.
Writing the keynote address for the WiSE.ONE conference helped me clarify the issues women face in STEM, the potential strategies we can use to combat them, and identifying what is at risk if we fail. I do not want to retire from my career and look at an unchanged population of scientists around me. I realize that change can be slow, but it can also be fast. Japanese Americans are a great example of how an extremely oppressed population was able to rebuild itself within a single generation. My family knows from personal experience that seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be dismantled with surprising speed. My goal is to achieve that type of swift change for women and underrepresented groups in the sciences. I plan to do this through sustained outreach and public speaking, community building and mentorship. I plan to be the role model for students that I never had.
Ginther DK, Kahn S (2012) Education and academic career outcomes for women of color in science and engineering. In: conference for the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Washington, DC.
Campbell LG, Mehtani S, Dozier ME, Rinehart J (2013) Gender-heterogeneous working groups produce higher quality science.