Where I’m Coming From
Science, which is supposed to investigate the entirety of the physical and natural world, is missing something. So is engineering. According to a report issued last year by the National Science Fdn (NSF), blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented both as recipients of degrees in science and engineering and in the science and engineering workforce. The same NSF report found that while women have reached parity with men among science and engineering degree recipients, they make up disproportionately smaller percentages of employed scientists and engineers than they do of the US population, and that while people with disabilities are as likely as others to enroll in science and engineering studies, they also remain underrepresented in the workforce. That imbalance is a problem for those underrepresented groups, and many observers consider it a problem for science and engineering, two life-changing fields that lack the benefit of the wealth of perspectives shared by the country’s increasingly diverse population.
When Alicia Wooten (MED’19) was three years old, doctors told her parents that she had progressive hearing loss. Today the PhD candidate in the School of Medicine’s Graduate Medical Sciences Division, who works in the pneumonia biology lab on the Medical Campus, studies the host pathogen response to Streptococcus pneumoniae. While she says the lab environment can be harder for people who are deaf, her work is made easier by some very supportive colleagues.
“They’ve become really aware of what I need,” she says. “If I didn’t have a PI [principal investigator] who supported me, I would probably have given up. I remember when I joined the lab, we were doing a five-minute American Sign Language lesson for the whole lab. I was teaching them different signs, and then I would go into my PI’s office and he would sign, ‘Hello, Alicia.’ That makes my day.”
Tyrone Porter grew up in Detroit. At the time, he says, the city was about 75 percent black. Now he’s a College of Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering and of biomedical engineering, where the demographics are very different.
“Once I left the comfort of my black bubble and entered a predominantly white world at the University of Washington I recognized I needed to adapt,” says Porter. “I could not be exclusive. I had to be inclusive and identify with both white and black friends, advocates, and allies. Once I opened myself to that philosophy I began to establish relationships with people from all backgrounds. I realized it made me a better, more tolerant person and put me at ease at a predominantly white institution. I have had the same experience at BU identifying white allies at all levels in the University.”
Merav Opher studies space physics. It’s a field with very few women, and Opher, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of astronomy, feels this lack of diversity deeply. Opher was born in Israel, spent much of her life in Brazil, and came to the United States when she was 29. Even in academia, there are few people with such a diverse cultural background, and fewer women still.
“It’s horrible,” she says of the dearth of women in her field. “It’s really detrimental to the advance of science, the lack of diversity. You can see how when you bring in people that think in a very different way, how they turn the whole box upside down, and then suddenly discoveries are made. And this is really due to people coming from different thinking processes. I think it’s because you have to bring people from different cultural backgrounds, different genders, different fields together. And a lot of science is done with a lack of diversity.”