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Science & Tech

Where I’m Coming From

Underrepresented voices in science offer unique perspectives

Alicia Wooten

When Alicia Wooten (MED’19) was three years old, doctors told her parents that she had progressive hearing loss. Today the PhD candidate in the School of Medicine’s Graduate Medical Sciences Division, who works in the pneumonia biology lab on the Medical Campus, studies the host pathogen response to Streptococcus pneumoniae. While she says the lab environment can be harder for people who are deaf, her work is made easier by some very supportive colleagues.

“They’ve become really aware of what I need,” she says. “If I didn’t have a PI [principal investigator] who supported me, I would probably have given up. I remember when I joined the lab, we were doing a five-minute American Sign Language lesson for the whole lab. I was teaching them different signs, and then I would go into my PI’s office and he would sign, ‘Hello, Alicia.’ That makes my day.”

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I had to be inclusive and identify with both white and black friends, advocates, and allies.
–Tyrone Porter
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Tyrone Porter

Tyrone Porter grew up in Detroit. At the time, he says, the city was about 75 percent black. Now he’s a College of Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering and of biomedical engineering, where the demographics are very different.

“Once I left the comfort of my black bubble and entered a predominantly white world at the University of Washington I recognized I needed to adapt,” says Porter. “I could not be exclusive. I had to be inclusive and identify with both white and black friends, advocates, and allies. Once I opened myself to that philosophy I began to establish relationships with people from all backgrounds. I realized it made me a better, more tolerant person and put me at ease at a predominantly white institution. I have had the same experience at BU identifying white allies at all levels in the University.”

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It’s really detrimental to the advance of science, the lack of diversity.
–Merav Opher
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Merav Opher

Merav Opher studies space physics. It’s a field with very few women, and Opher, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of astronomy, feels this lack of diversity deeply. Opher was born in Israel, spent much of her life in Brazil, and came to the United States when she was 29. Even in academia, there are few people with such a diverse cultural background, and fewer women still.

“It’s horrible,” she says of the dearth of women in her field. “It’s really detrimental to the advance of science, the lack of diversity. You can see how when you bring in people that think in a very different way, how they turn the whole box upside down, and then suddenly discoveries are made. And this is really due to people coming from different thinking processes. I think it’s because you have to bring people from different cultural backgrounds, different genders, different fields together. And a lot of science is done with a lack of diversity.”

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If I didn’t have a PI who supported me, I would probably have given up.
–Alicia Wooten
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Devin Hahn, Producer/Editor, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Devin Hahn

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.

9 Comments on Where I’m Coming From

  • Luis Quintanilla on 04.23.2018 at 10:54 am

    Very inspiring stories! Thank you for sharing.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 04.25.2018 at 12:46 pm

    I am constantly seeing a lack of black men at MET Computer Science and in the industry as a whole. Their disproportionate underrepresentation is very worrisome.

    I also have to say I am extremely bothered by seeing 20+ years of thought leaders attacking the underrepresentation of women in STEM, and saying little or nothing about the underrepresentation of blacks. I have plenty of women in my CS courses at Met, and a good number of Hispanic, but practically no American blacks. My students of African ancestry have virtually all been immigrants. I’m missing a whole piece of America in my classes.

    • Gc on 04.29.2018 at 3:11 pm

      I have found Africans to value education and appreciate the chance to study sciences. American blacks don’t take stem classes in hs and this holds them back from these courses incollege. STEM courses are hard and require a
      lot more time than courses such as sociology or race.
      I don’t know how to improve thenumbers except to start stem courses in elementary school and keep after these kids.

    • Tyrone Porter on 05.19.2018 at 1:01 pm

      I am equally concerned about lack of AFrican Americans in STEM. It is glaring across all disciplines. As a product of the 80s and 90s I think there is competition for their attention, particularly the perceived pathway to “getting paid”. And I’m not talking in the illegal sense…sports and entertainment have co-opted the minds and passions of young Blacks in America. These are perceived as easier paths to money, success, and noteriety even though they are more difficult and unpredictable paths than earning degrees in STEM fields. We need to rethink how we engage young Black students and brand STEM education/careers.

    • Nicole J Daley on 01.25.2019 at 12:28 pm

      I also think the issue is also systemic and includes issues of funding. When I look across public high schools many don’t have the funding to provide hands on interactive science classes. I think the opportunity to see science as tangible is a problem across the US. Also the issue starts from elementary school, as I toured schools for my 5 year old son I asked about their science programming and so many of them had generic curriculum that were add ons that the teachers did. There was no administrator who was thinking about the trajectory from a meta level.

  • Mary Jane Doherty on 04.26.2018 at 8:27 am

    SUCH an important piece and so beautifully put together.
    Thank you!

  • Fallou Ngom on 04.29.2018 at 12:09 pm

    Yes, agreed.

  • AB on 04.30.2018 at 11:02 am

    The underrepresentation is an important issue, specially as mentioned in science and engineering. Yet, the article lacks in representing one of the very main groups it highlights, Hispanics.

    Consequently, it very much reproduces what the NSF report found…underrepresenting Hispanics.

    I do appreciate this underrepresentation is being talked about and noticed more.

    • Tyrone Porter on 05.19.2018 at 1:05 pm

      I agree with you AB. Blacks seem to get a lions’ share of the attention in regards to underrepresentation in America. Probably because the machinery and the system for getting a message out from the demographic has been in America the longest, given the fight for freedom from slavery and the Civil Rights movement. We are in a new era so inclusion needs to be applied to the concenpt of underrepresented as well. When I was in grad school, I promoted this philosophy and created an inclusive group (whites, blacks, feminist, LGBT, etc) and it gave us a more powerful voice when we challenged the administration to increase their efforts in diversity.

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