By BILL BRUTON
Ebony Omotola McGee has seen bias in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) firsthand, and she talked about her experiences and solutions to fix the problem during a recent lecture and workshop at UB.
McGee, associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, is the author of “Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation.” She gave a talk titled “The Impact of Racialized Bias on Academic Success in STEM.”
The lecture and workshop, held April 7, was open to UB STEM faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. It was also available online via videoconference.
McGee, who trained as an engineer and worked in the private sector before switching to academia and earning a doctorate in mathematics education, is renowned for her scholarship into how racialized experiences and racial stereotypes adversely affect the education and career trajectories of underrepresented groups of color.
She has led research into the impact of marginalization on students in STEM fields.
She said just 2% of technology employees at large Silicon Valley companies are Black and just 3% are Hispanic.
She described a pipeline where several leaks drained the pipeline of talent.
“The pipes are corroded. The pipes are busted,” McGee said. “We still have structural issues that we need to correct.”
Academia needs to improve
The same issues are often evident in academia, according to McGee.
“People often ask me, ‘How do we get more students of color? My answer is, you need to get more faculty of color,” McGee said. “Where you see more Black faculty, you see more Black students. Even if you take HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) out of the mix.”
She said it’s also important for those in power not to minimize concerns.
“You can’t just say, ‘I’ve been here for 25 years, and I just sucked it up and did it. Now you’re going to have to do it, too.’ Well, if 25 years have gone by and things have not changed, then maybe sucking it up isn’t the problem — maybe an environment of racism is the problem,” McGee said. “And maybe it’s not the trainee’s job to fix it; maybe it’s the institution’s or the department’s or the chair’s job to fix it. This new generation is saying no, I’m not supposed to fix the problems in this department.”
McGee said Black and brown faculty members are often stretched thin because they may be the only person of color in their department.
“It’s a tug of war between Black and brown faculty because they actually want to be on those committees and have a voice and be the representative because they know if they are not there, their needs — or the needs of their community — might not be met,” she said.
Helping communities, changing the world
Despite the hurdles to be overcome, McGee is optimistic about the future for minorities in STEM. She has seen it herself when interviewing students.
“These students have a high rate of volunteerism. I couldn’t believe how much they volunteered, knowing that STEM is such an intensive program,” she said. “When I say to someone struggling academically, ‘Why don’t you give up the volunteerism?’ They say, ‘I have to have purpose. I have to have meaning. This has to mean something to me.’ They say, ‘When I make it to the top, I don’t want to be here all by myself.’”
She said they often help teach STEM to family members, church groups and after-school programs.
“When I ask them what they want to do, they say, ‘I want to help people. I want to help communities. I want to fight for racial justice. I want to be that Black professor that I didn’t have,’” McGee said. “It’s still STEM, but it’s STEM integrated with saving the world.”
Fostering collaborative efforts across UB
The event was sponsored by the Office of Research and Graduate Education in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Office of STEM Diversity Programs; the Office of Inclusive Excellence; the Women in STEM Cooperative; and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate.
“These partnerships show our commitment to foster collaborative efforts across UB focused on training our community on inclusive mentoring practices,” said Anyango Kamina, assistant dean for student development and academic enhancement in the Jacobs School.
McGee’s talk was followed by a faculty workshop titled “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Structural Inclusion in STEM Courses and the Case for Afrofuturism.”
“We are extremely pleased to be able to host Dr. McGee at UB,” said Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Her work is parenthetical to our mission to improve the diversity and retention within our academic units and throughout the university by removing the barriers to success in STEM careers for students of color.
“We believe this collaborative effort between engineering, arts and sciences, the Jacobs School and the Graduate School/postdoc office is necessary to dismantle the systemic barriers to success in STEM for underrepresented students,” Thomas added.
Luis Colón, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry and associate dean for inclusive excellence, College of Arts and Sciences, described the event as “instrumental in fostering an environment that encourages traditionally marginalized students to become engaged and feel part of a welcoming academic system, which in turn can encourage them to consider careers in academia.”
Leading research on impact of marginalization
McGee was awarded an NSF CAREER grant to investigate how marginalization undercuts success in STEM through psychological stress, by interrupting STEM career trajectories, by triggering impostor phenomenon and through other race-related traumas that become debilitating for Black, Indigenous and Latino doctoral students.
“We must scrutinize any racialized ideologies and practices that force Black and brown students to stifle key elements of their identities in order to advance their education,” said Allison Brashear, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School.
“It’s important to critically examine the myriad ways in which discrimination hampers the success of racially minoritized individuals in STEM, and we are fortunate to have had Dr. McGee lead these fundamental discussions,” Brashear added.