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Breaking Down Barriers: Women of Color in the Sciences

When Angelica Patterson became program manager for the department of environmental science at Barnard College, the undergraduate women’s college of Columbia University, she saw very few fellow women of color in her department.

Now, two years later, “I have noticed a few more faces. I don’t know if it’s because I’m there,” she said. “Those students of color who are interested come to my office.”

Patterson recently convened a panel of prestigious women who work in the sciences to discuss “Breaking Down Barriers: Women and Their Experiences in the Sciences.” The unquestionable consensus was students have to have a support system. “There needs to be people available for students to relate to,” said Patterson.

“It is hard to get reaffirmed. Often you don’t have somebody of similar experience to talk to,” said Dr. Alison Williams, professor of chemistry at Princeton University. “Thank goodness for e-mails and phones, because I have friends and colleagues all over.”

Dr. Nkechi Agwu, a professor of mathematics at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said it is important to have mentors and to be a mentor, but also mentioned the importance of finding the balance between mentoring and doing the things an individual in academia needs to do to advance her own career.

“Mentoring is not valued,” Agwu said, “so you have to balance mentoring with what gets you promoted.”

What is needed is a change in the value system, where mentoring is given more weight, so that current professors don’t have to consider their own professional growth over those coming after them, said Agwu. Williams noted there is always a tug of war between supporting students and keeping the department chair happy.

Williams said that teachers have a tremendous amount of power that begins long before a student reaches college. Encouraging girls to pursue science and math or, more importantly, not discouraging them is something that must be instilled in teachers starting at the elementary level and most certainly in high school, where the foundations for college are laid.

Beyond the time tested idea that women of color need to aspire for excellence and be persistent, Agwu said you also have to be a bit of a detective in terms of advocating for your own self-interest. When she was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, she discovered that the graduate students often had beer and pizza socials with faculty where they learned about upcoming projects and other department news. She was never invited, but eventually learned when and where the socials were being held and made sure to be there.

Agwu also spoke of the need for respected tenured faculty like her to speak up for students who she felt were subjected to classism. She cited a time when two students were invited to present their research at an out-of-town conference, but because they worked in addition to going to school, they could not commit to attending all three days of the conference. Only after she advocated on their behalves were they allowed to attend just two days of the conference.

Also, aspiring scientists have to make individual decisions about career path and personal needs. Williams said when she applied to graduate school she was courted by the University of Colorado. She loved the school, but was concerned about the lack of other people of color in her program, at the school and in Boulder. “I couldn’t do it,” she said. “The person I wanted to work for won a Nobel Prize six years later. My career would have been very different, but I couldn’t do it. Certain people can, but … sometimes people pick more urban areas or more diverse communities.”

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