To get to her Thursday morning biology class at San Francisco State University, Imani Robinson would often hop off the bus and take a shortcut through the hallway of a neighboring building. The hall was drab and institutional, its beige walls lined with award plaques and headshots of engineering faculty. The framed grid of faces — largely male, mostly white or Asian — caught the attention of Robinson, an African-American student. But what really got to her were what she described as repeated, suspicious stares from professors watching a young woman with dreadlocks pass through their halls. “They’d do double-takes, looking to make sure I had a backpack,” said Robinson, who graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “They would stare at me like I’m in the wrong place, like I wasn’t supposed to be there.”
“If we create inclusive and affirming environments, we will change who gets included in science and how it’s practiced.”
However brief or inadvertent, incidents like this can have outsized effects on racial minorities and other marginalized groups who routinely experience them. In science and math, such indignities can create a culture that shakes confidence and hurts performance, making underrepresented students feel they don’t belong — and many quietly leave.
Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans make up about a third of the United States population, yet they occupy just 3 to 4 percent of basic science professor positions at American medical schools — a minor increase over their 2 percent representation as measured 50 years ago. These gaps persist despite recognition by the National Institutes of Health that diverse groups produce better ideas and discoveries. Research led by minority scientists, for example, has shown that race and ethnicity can impact disease severity and drug responses for asthma, diabetes, and other medical conditions.
Imani Robinson, center, was one of the first student beta-testers for a cell phone app designed to log “microaggressions” and “microaffirmations.” It has helped her identify not just moments where she felt uncomfortable, but also those where she was made to feel at ease.
“It’s been proven over and over again that diverse groups perform better,” said Alison Gammie, director of the NIH’s Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity. “People work on things they’re passionate about and that affect the people they care about,” she said, so science benefits when “we have people from all kinds of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, experiences, coming to do the problem solving.”
Over the last four years, the NIH has issued more than $180 million in grants to 10 colleges and universities to test strategies aimed at keeping students of color from falling through the cracks in science and math programs. Called the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, or “Build” initiative, the program seeks to broaden the pool of students who choose biomedical careers by addressing what many consider the crux of the problem: non-inclusive culture.
Toward that end, faculty and researchers at SF State — itself a historical touchstone in the fight for racial and gender inclusion — are now busy trying to identify and track those discrete moments and brief interactions that can, over time, cause a budding science career to go sideways for minority students. Along the way, they’re using innovative teaching techniques and modern data collection tools to test the depths (and shallows) of a litany of psycho-social concepts — “stereotype threats,” “microaggressions,” and even “microaffirmations” — to get a handle on how faculty, staff, and students can make science and technology fields more welcoming and inclusive.
San Francisco State is a historical touchstone in the fight for racial and gender inclusion. Here, demonstrators cluster around the administration building in late 1967, protesting a culture of racism and political harassment on campus.
Click on the link below to read the full story of how this and other colleges have either historically tried to implement balance and opportunity amongst an aggressive racial unrest or have allowed those racial divides to continue to exist even to this day.