Wynter Duncanson Recognized for STEM Diversity, Inclusion Efforts
BU engineer, awarded IAspire Leadership Academy fellowship, will coach the next generation of underrepresented STEM leaders
During one of her first college tours as a high school junior, Wynter Duncanson witnessed something that would change her life and shift her career aspirations. She saw the possibility of creating something that had the power to dramatically improve a person’s quality of life—in this case, a therapeutic device designed by biomedical engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania that helped a mobility-impaired child. The device, she says, gave the child the ability to hug the students who designed it. Duncanson, now a BU College of Engineering assistant dean of outreach and diversity and a lecturer in biomedical engineering, was hooked. In her career as a biomedical engineer, she has worked to improve society and open the door to people of all backgrounds who aspire to work in STEM.
“STEM fields, particularly engineering, must be made accessible to everyone,” she says. In honor of her achievements, Duncanson has been named an IAspire Leadership Academy 2019 fellow, a program meant to train rising leaders in STEM higher education who are underrepresented in the field.
With Wynter Duncanson
The Brink: How did you first become interested in biomedical engineering?
Duncanson: As a child I excelled in math and science, and I also had a desire to help people. When I was in 10th grade, I thought the only way I could combine my skills and my interests was to become a doctor. I remember my chemistry teacher spoke with my parents during a parent-teacher conference, and told them I could do so much more. But I could not imagine what could be better than being a doctor! Later, during my pre-college tour [at the University of Pennsylvania], I learned that it was possible to help even more people by studying biomedical engineering. I heard about students in the bioengineering department designing a therapeutic device for a mobility-impaired child and at the end of the project, the child was able to hug the students who designed the device. Since then, I have been hooked on biomedical engineering as a means of significantly impacting society.
Tell us about your work here at BU, as both the assistant dean of outreach and diversity and a lecturer.
I completed my PhD in biomedical engineering at BU, and joined as a lecturer in 2017. Before that, I lived abroad for about four years teaching engineering in Central Asia and then in South America. Since joining BME, I have primarily been working with seniors as a Senior Design Project instructor and developing capstone projects for our students. Last year, I designed and taught an introduction to microfluidics course for freshmen. I have also been a faculty advisor to about 20 students, and I’m the faculty advisor for the National Society of Black Engineers. I really enjoy mentoring students, which has taught me more about the experience of undergraduates, particularly those from historically underrepresented ethnic and racial groups.
I have been the [assistant dean of outreach and diversity] since June. One portion of my position is devoted to increasing excitement and accessibility of engineering for all groups of people in the K-12 pipeline. We have an ambassador-based outreach program to expose K-12 students in the greater Boston area, and in the hometowns of our current students. Through anecdotal evidence and informal surveys at the College of Engineering, we have identified at least three areas of opportunity, such as improving graduate student diversity, faculty diversity, and underrepresented student success. Soon we will develop a strategy that will increase diversity and inclusion at our college while simultaneously advancing our work because of the many benefits diversity brings.
What are you hoping to accomplish during the fellowship?
I expect to benefit from the IAspire Leadership Academy by building on some of my current leadership skills and further developing my ability to communicate effectively, to foster collaboration, manage conflict, and advocate for diversity. I see the needs here at BU and I am already engaging with others about how to craft a vision for change. I recognize the power for change rests in my ability to communicate that vision to others at senior levels and I am now in a position to lead institutional change. I hope to learn how to better understand different reactions people have to institutional change, then develop skills to respond.
How would you like to see STEM change in the future?
STEM fields, particularly engineering, must be made accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, the challenges many minorities encounter in engineering, which I have experienced in many ways, often lead to higher attrition rates. Moreover, limited diversity persists in engineering due to the vexing reputation that career options in STEM are reserved for an elite class—because let’s face it, STEM professionals have historically been white males. As a result, when K-12 students are asked to draw pictures or describe STEM professionals, they draw pictures of white men. A lot of ongoing diversity work has led to less gender disparities in STEM; however, we find that only young women are drawing other women. Addressing racial disparities has been progressing at a slower rate, so there are still fewer students from historically underrepresented ethnic and racial groups who are able to envision themselves in these fields.
Sometimes, just seeing someone who looks like you represented in a [STEM] position is enough to help someone else see themselves there, too. If we can reach students in their formative stages by showing them relatable STEM role models and providing hands-on experience, we can help to broaden participation across gender and ethnic lines. We have a long road ahead, but we are making strides in the right direction.
Outside of your work here, what do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy traveling abroad, learning about new cultures, and learning new languages. I also enjoy having beyond-the-surface conversations with others. On any given day you can find me singing, dancing, or exercising—some of my best singalongs are to Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and India Arie. I’ve recently recommended the book “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele to a few people interested in understanding stereotypes. Also, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak is an all-around good read. For other music lovers out there, read “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” by Mitch Albom.
What would you like to tell the next generation of leaders in STEM, especially those from underrepresented groups?
Don’t give up! STEM needs you to drive the advances and innovations in our society. STEM fields rely on creativity and innovation from different perspectives as we work to solve society’s grand challenges. If we use our differences to provide new perspectives and ideas, we will develop more innovative and effective solutions.