Championing Diversity in STEM

Championing Diversity in STEM

In a year that saw public protests of ongoing racism and inequity in our nation, AAAS recommitted to principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, and to action that would effect systemic change. AAAS observed #ShutDownSTEM and shortly thereafter took the first steps of its own plan to address systemic racism in the sciences and continued to conduct programs designed to broaden participation in science and science communication.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

In the fall, AAAS published demographic data from its own programs and journal operations. Committing to such public transparency was the first step in the association’s plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion in the science community.

The report, Baseline Assessment of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in AAAS/Science Functions, makes public aggregate demographic data on authors, reviewers, program and professional development participants, award winners, and honorary fellows. The first such annual report, it provides a baseline assessment of racial, ethnic and gender diversity at AAAS.

“We’re building a process to make progress so that in 2021, we’ll release the parallel data compared to the baseline,” said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh.

“I hope our process can create space for our members in their own institutions and in their own work settings to think about how they would put some of these practices into action and how they might hold their own organizations accountable,” he said.


AAAS participated in #ShutDownSTEM, a grassroots movement to “transition to a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM,” which took place on June 10.

AAAS encouraged everyone in the science community to observe the day by listening, reflecting, reading, conversing and engaging in constructive demonstrations. The AAAS home page invited members of the STEM community to submit their ideas on how to effect positive institutional and societal change. AAAS and Science social media accounts were reserved for retweeting and sharing posts with the #ShutDownSTEM hashtag from the STEM community.

In a statement about the observance, Parikh said, “Science, engineering and medicine are not immune to the discrimination, subjugation and silencing of minority colleagues and voices … it’s not only politicians and law enforcement who need to be reminded that Black lives matter … as an organization, as members of the scientific community and as members of our broader communities, we can and must be a powerful force for change.”

SEA Change Widens

AAAS, through its initiative SEA Change, or STEMM Equity Achievement, continued its work of supporting a growing number of colleges and universities as they transform themselves into diverse, equitable and inclusive institutions.

The initiative’s charter members represent a national network that is publicly committed to establishing sustainable policies to ensure the full range of diverse talent in STEMM is recruited, retained and advanced.

SEA Change helps institutions undergo a rigorous process to assess their own culture, policies and procedures that stand in the way of access and success for students, faculty and staff from groups that are marginalized in STEMM. From this self-assessment, the participating institutions plan and implement changes that break down barriers for people who are excluded or marginalized based on their gender, race, ethnicity, disability status or any other aspect of identity. The initiative helps provide structure for pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion, while bringing together similar but disparate efforts within universities. The SEA Change Institutional Awards celebrate institutions that make progress toward true systemic transformation.

“An inclusive scientific enterprise not only improves scientific output, but also broadens the kinds of questions that are being asked,” said Miki Kittilson, professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University.

“The collective benefits for scientific discovery are really exciting,” said Kittilson.

In addition to Arizona State, SEA Change welcomed the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, North Carolina State University, University of California-Davis, Westfield State University, University of Florida and University of California-Irvine as new charter members. SEA Change is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health as well as other generous foundations and individuals.

As a young girl, Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil kept a journal. Unlike the journals of her peers, however, which were full of actors and rockstars, hers contained information about scientists.

“I wanted to be one of them,” she said, adding that she believes the world of science should be as diverse as society. “If we include all the greatest minds with different backgrounds, with different experiences, then we will be able to solve the greatest questions in the universe.”

Mutlu-Pakdil’s research led to the discovery of an extremely rare, double-ringed elliptical galaxy, now referred to as Burçin’s Galaxy. A AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador, she has been featured in National Geographic as a “woman of impact.”

When Mutlu-Pakdil began studying physics at Turkey’s Bilkent University, she said, “People questioned my presence in the department, asking if I was crazy.”

Luckily, she remained strong. “I do not want to blend in … so I fought against all these stereotypes and worked hard to live beyond the labels.”

Photo Credit: IF/THEN® Collection

Combating Sexual Harassment in STEMM

The Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment continued its work in 2020, producing four model policies for its 125 academic and professional society members on issues ranging from conduct at virtual meetings to investigations of sexual harassment. AAAS is a founding member of the consortium, serves as its institutional home, and is represented by AAAS Senior Advisor Shirley Malcom and AAAS Chief of Staff and Chief Public Affairs Officer Andrew Black, who serve as vice chairs.

The consortium’s core mission could not be more critical: to advance ethical, professional and inclusive conduct, climate and culture in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. The organization provides research, resources and guidance to address sexual harassment in its member societies and in the fields they represent.

“Only when we bring together leaders of institutions, societies, industries and funders, and apply the growing body of data and research that are now available,” said Black, “can we make meaningful progress.”

Bringing New Voices to Science Communication

Two summer programs offered by AAAS are helping ensure that science, a global pursuit, is being covered by journalists reflecting that global diversity.

The Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Internship program is open to undergraduate students interested in journalism as a career who would like to learn about science writing. Interns spend 10 weeks at Science magazine, working under the guidance of the publication’s award-winning science writers and editors, and contributing bylined articles to the weekly news section.

The paid internship is intended for students with a strong commitment to bringing science journalism into underserved communities. Training science journalists with such a commitment will help them inform an expanded audience by making the science journalism profession accessible to individuals from a full range of backgrounds. In 2020, Neal Baer, M.D. — a former AAAS Mass Media Fellow and award-winning television writer/producer, physician, author, and public health advocate and expert — provided funding for the program.

The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship program places advanced science, engineering and mathematics students at media organizations such as National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, WIRED, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and NOVA. Supported by Johnson & Johnson, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and a range of partner societies and universities, the aim of the 10-week program is to strengthen and broaden the pool of scientists who are well-practiced in communicating complex science news to the public.

The undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate scientists, engineers and mathematicians selected for the program come in knowing the importance of translating their work for the public, and leave with the ability to do so.

Emerging Researchers Find Community at National Conference

At the 2020 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM, a record 1,500 students — mostly from underrepresented minority groups and those with disabilities — shared their research work, drew inspiration from others’ research and found they had a community.

“People can come here and be themselves,” said Malcom. “This is the kind of place where we are cheering for each other.”

The conference is hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resource Development and aims to help develop the communication skills of its participants as they head toward science careers.

A panel of ERN alumni spoke about the profound effect the conference has had on their educations and careers, and how participating in ERN has fueled their desire to give back to the community and make a difference.

The conference theme, Preparing Diverse Researchers to Address Global Challenges, reflected on the concept of giving back, as did a well-attended panel discussion on applying STEM to social justice. Panelists spoke about using statistics to better track modern slavery, for instance, and using epidemiology and biostatistics to promote environmental justice and fight environmental racism.

A webinar held after the conference featured Kizzmekia Corbett, leader of the coronavirus vaccine efforts at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. Corbett shared how important lining up mentors had been to her career, recommending that students surround themselves with people who believe in them as scientists. “When you need criticism, call them. When you need praise, call them,” she said.