Representing the Real World

The Scientist spoke to four distinguished scientists, all belonging to "underrepresented groups," about their experiences and their views on diversity.

The Scientist Staff
Nov 6, 2005

The Scientist spoke to four distinguished scientists, all belonging to "underrepresented groups," about their experiences and their views on diversity. All agree that while women scientists have made great strides, African-Americans and Hispanics remain poorly represented, especially on the science faculties of leading colleges and universities. And all agreed that mentors have been essential to their success – and will be key to helping young minority individuals achieve their own dreams of growing up to be scientists.

What does diversity mean to you? Why is it valuable?

Gene Cota-Robles

<p>EUGENIO ENRIQUE "GENE" COTA-ROBLES</p>

Thomas Guschl Photography

is professor emeritus of biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and was a faculty member and administrator at the university for 31 years. He is a founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

To me it means equal participation. I eventually would...

Has belonging to an underrepresented minority affected your career?

McKernan

When I think about my career and I think about what I've done I don't frame it in that way, I think about having been a scientist, published some interesting papers, worked with some incredibly clever people, been fortunate in the choices and opportunities I've had … I don't really pin that on the structure of being a woman.

Cecil B. Pickett

<p>CECIL B. PICKETT</p>

Courtesy of Cecil B. Pickett

is senior vice president at Schering-Plough and president of the Schering-Plough Research Institute. He joined Schering-Plough in 1993 after 15 years at Merck.

In many ways it has probably driven me to focus on always maintaining scientific excellence and not allow myself to get caught up in or distracted by the politics of the day.

Decatur

It's made me more aware of the importance of mentoring and supporting students from underrepresented minorities as they pursue careers in science.

Have you seen changes in diversity in the course of your career?

McKernan

When I started out as a scientist the thought was very much about male vs. female, and now that has become only one aspect of diversity. I'm much happier with the broader view because it leads back to this idea that it's about diversity of thinking rather than diversity of ethnic background. I just don't judge somebody's quality in the number of X chromosomes that they've got.

Cota-Robles

It's become more diverse because of projects such as the National Science Foundation Fellowships and things of this sort, but not at the rate that I would like.

Pickett

This is my twenty-eighth year, all spent in the industry, and it is disappointing not to see more underrepresented minorities being part of research organizations. To me that's a reflection of the inadequate job that graduate schools do in attracting and retaining underrepresented minority groups during the course of their scientific training.

Did you have a mentor? If so, how did he or she help you?

McKernan

To me, the value of a mentor is giving yourself a voice on your shoulder so when you can't see clearly a solution, particularly when it comes to interacting with people, you can try to put yourself in the situation of that person whose behavior and opinions you've really appreciated.

Pickett

My graduate student advisor was a great mentor and really expected from me the same thing that he expected from all of his students. I think there are instances when underrepresented minorities enter graduate programs and find that their graduate student advisors expect less of them. And that's a mistake, that's a real mistake.

Mentors are critical. Good mentors who challenge and expect you to achieve at a high level are absolutely critical.

Have you been a mentor to other scientists? If so, what has this been like?

Pickett

I still maintain an active basic research group and so over the years I have mentored many postdoctoral fellows here at Schering-Plough and a couple of graduate students when I was in the Merck labs. I also have mentored some of the women scientists who are currently here, one of whom took my position to head drug discovery when I moved on to become president of SPRI.

I think that's our responsibility as scientists, to mentor young scientists, and it's our responsibility as leaders in the industry.

Decatur

<p>SEAN M. DECATUR</p>

Jason Varney Photography

is the Marilyn Dawson Sarles, M.D., Professor of Life Sciences and Professor of Chemistry at Mount Holyoke College; he is also the Associate Dean of Faculty for Science. He is a biophysical chemist who uses spectroscopic techniques to study the folding and aggregation of model peptides and proteins.

It's by far what I find the most rewarding part of what I do. It's the way in which scientific research and training are so tightly connected; research in academia depends on the relationships between a faculty member and students and postdoctoral fellows, and mentoring plays an essential role in this process.

What challenges remain for underrepresented minorities in this field?

McKernan

The biggest barrier is an inherent lack of confidence in underrepresented groups. I've seen this many times in women, a lack of confidence in their own abilities, and yet when you're the person looking at different abilities and who to select for a development role, who to select for promotion, the women or the underrepresented groups very often don't push themselves forward. It's not that they don't have the skills, it's not that they don't have the talent.

Cota-Robles

We need to make sure that the students in high school and earlier have as strong a preparation as possible. That's the thing that I want to foster is that our kids become competitive, so that they can walk into any class and expect to come out with a B or an A, in chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, or whatever the course may be.

Pickett

The major challenge is just to decide that this is a career that they would like to pursue, that a scientific career is something that they want to do.

If you go to any major university the number of minority faculty, particularly in the sciences. … well, you can probably count them on one hand. I think because of that Latinos, African Americans, really don't imagine that these careers are attainable because they never see anybody like themselves in these faculty positions.

Decatur

I think there increasingly is recognition that the challenge isn't somehow creating these students who are motivated and have potential, but that those students are out there and that what we need to do is to make sure that we find them and that we don't turn them off the science but actually manage to encourage them to move forward.

What advice would you give to "underrepresented" groups working in the life sciences, or hoping to?

Cota-Robles

I would ask them to set their goals very high and to try to do as well as they can and to try to develop a group of peers who are also interested, whether they're a minority or not.

Decatur

Talk to as many people as possible who are actually doing work within the field. For undergraduate students, to get intern-ship opportunities, chances actually to work in labs or work at the bench along with more experienced scientists to see what working in the field is like… to get a collection of mentors, again some which may share common experiences, common backgrounds, some which may not, but may actually share common interests in this field. And to basically use that pool of mentors to get advice and to help to navigate the career path.

Mckernan

Just go for it and don't be shy and worry about what other people feel. If you think you might have the skill, chances are someone else already knows you do.