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Conspicuously invisible: Women of color in university sciences

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When Linda Kerandi walks into her science classes, she's not at ease — she's in limbo.

Kerandi is a junior biology major at the University of Minnesota, but as a black female student, said she faces the double challenges of race and gender in a field historically dominated by white men.

It's isolating to be one of a handful of women in a lecture hall of hundreds, Kerandi said, and discouraging to have never had a black science teacher.

"How do you feel invisible and conspicuous at the same time?" she said. "You can't deny it; you feel the eyes on you."

Like many other women whose ethnic groups are underrepresented in science programs at the university, Kerandi faces not only rigorous STEM coursework but said she also struggles with daily feelings of isolation and a lack of faculty role models who share her background.

During the fall 2014 term, Kerandi was one of 48 black undergraduate women in the College of Biological Sciences — about 2.3 percent of the college's total enrollment that semester.

Across the University of Minnesota, 4.1 percent of undergraduates self-identify as black. That figure settles to 4 percent and 2.17 percent, respectively, at the institution's two primary colleges of science: Kerandi's College of Biological Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering.

The population of Minnesota's engineering school mirrors the representation at other Big 10 schools, where male students, on average, outnumber women about three to one, and non-white students tend to make up about 30 percent of those enrolled in engineering programs. 

University administrators acknowledge the underrepresentation of minority women in science, but say the school is situated at the tail end of a narrowing pipeline: Students of color aren't encouraged enough to pursue interests in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — at young ages, administrators say, so they aren't prepared to study them in college. And underrepresentation at the undergraduate levels continues to graduate and faculty levels, so role models are hard to come by.

"I don't think I'm in a space where I can ignore my skin color," she said. "I'm not in a place where I can say, 'I'm just a student.' I'm a black student, and a woman."

'You don't see anyone that looks like you'

Ambrosia Smith, a senior in Minnesota's biology, society and environment program, transferred to the University of Minnesota from Weslyan University, a Connecticut liberal arts college of about 2,900. 

More jarring than the cross-country transfer, she said, was the transition to 300-person classes where Smith — who is half-black, half-Mexican — said she was often one of four or five students of color.

"[It's] hard to be in a situation when you don't know anyone," Smith said, "and you don't see anyone that looks like you."

Some of the most isolating elements of her college experience have been those that suggest to her that she doesn't fit within the school's scientific legacy, she said. 

Walking through department hallways papered with the achievements of white male alumni, or flipping through anatomy textbooks with diagrams of only Caucasian bodies can sow doubt in the minds of minority students looking for evidence that they, too, belong in the sciences.

"I don't see them on the walls, I don't see them in the classroom, I don't see them as faculty — am I really supposed to be here?" Kerandi said.

Sally Kohlsted, a professor who specializes in the history of science, said she's particularly concerned for black women in the field, who she said find themselves in a difficult double bind.

"You're being viewed as an African-American, which is underrepresented, and you're being viewed as a woman," Kohlsted said. "Insofar as anyone having stereotypes that underestimate your capacity, they double underestimate them."

For underrepresented undergraduates like herself, Smith, the transfer student, founded a group called NICHE in early 2014. It has become a small but growing student support organization for female scientists of color.

The organization's core group of about 10 members meets twice a week, she said, to touch base, study together or talk about their classes. Sometimes, there's no meeting agenda — just a time and place for the women to gather, help each other study and talk about classes.

Kerandi said that NICHE has helped her through those times when she has doubted her choice in career path by connecting her with other minority women who were going through similar moments of doubt and isolation. 

She might not have felt represented in lectures and hallways, Kerandi said, but through NICHE, she could carve out a place on campus where she felt comfortable.

"If you're feeling marginalized, if you're feeling unimportant in your classroom, it's important to know there's someone out there who gets it," Kerandi said. "Physics is still hard, but here are five other people who get it."

Caught in a funneling pipeline

Administrators say the University of Minnesota's science colleges are limited in their recruitment and retention of nonwhite students by circumstances earlier along in the education system.

"In order to have a career in science and engineering, you've got to start early," said Steve Crouch, dean of the College of Science and Engineering.  "It's not that you could never catch up, it's that you've got a big barrier to clear."

To enroll at the University, undergraduate candidates apply to a specific college of their choice. Couch said his college is limited by a scarcity of minority applicants — a dearth rooted in gaps in K-12 education.

But university officials said they are trying to help provide opportunities to young students and appeal to any burgeoning STEM interests. Crouch pointed to a number of chemistry and physics outreach programs hosted by his school that bring elementary students of color to the campus.

Still, Crouch said, the science and engineering school is faced with a limited pool of qualified minority undergraduate candidates: Of 12,000 applicants this year, 800 were black, 80 of those students were deemed admissible and eight enrolled. 

That funneling persists into the upper echelons of higher education, said Jon Gottesman, director of the university's education office for graduate students focused on biomedical science. 

He said as national demand for women in science has expanded, applications from women whose ethnic groups are underrepresented in the College of Biological Sciences have tripled.

But competition for those candidates has heated up nationally. Minority female scientists, Gottesman said, are being courted away from the University of Minnesota by prestigious institutions that can offer scholarships and other benefits.

"It's not what we want it to be by a long shot," he said.

As these colleges try to attract more minority women, they are at the same time working to provide resources for them once they arrive on campus, amp up academic support and help women of color find each other on a campus of 50,000 faces.

Eventually, administrators hope to guide those women through the STEM pipeline and into visible faculty and leadership positions in the sciences.

"Seeing someone who has done what you want to do is huge," Kerandi said of female, minority faculty.

Crouch said his science and engineering school is focused on hiring women to its faculty ranks first, hoping to increase its female faculty members to one in five. Crouch said the school is close to that goal.

Strengthening the shared knowledge economy

Students who graduate from the College of Science and Engineering go on to solve tough real-world problems — and scientific breakthroughs aren't developed through a single perspective or approach, said Paul Strykowski, the associate dean for undergraduate programs at the College of Science and Engineering.

"You don't want everyone that thinks the same way around the table," he said. 

In the College of Biological Sciences, women are actually in the majority — in fall of 2014, they represented 57 percent of enrollment. 

Jane Glazebrook, the associate dean for faculty and academic affairs for the school, said it will take time to change the tide across all scientific fields.

"It involves changing the culture," she said, "of making a world where women of color wake up in the morning thinking, 'I want to be a scientist and want to go to the University of Minnesota to do that.'"