DIVERSITY MATTERS

I find meaning from my scientific life through community engagement.

About two months ago, I led a microscope demo at an outreach event on campus at San Francisco State University. A partnership between SACNAS community, a science social capital organization, and a middle school from San Mateo brought a slue of 150 5th grade and 6th grade students from a historically, low-income, and Latino community into a hands on engagement with graduate students.

While working with a group of students, I asked a seemingly simple question: “Who wants to be a scientist when they get older?” Everyone’s hands went up except for one. She took my attention away from the hands that were raised and so I asked, “why isn’t your hand raised?”

She replied, “I don’t look like a scientist”

“I don’t look like a scientist”...?

At what point do we draw the line in the sand? At what point do we acknowledge the inequality in our schools, within our own communities, while at the same time participating as competent professionals? I don’t know the answer to that question not yet—but I do know that I will live my life fighting to prove that notion wrong than succeed in about anything else.

Mind you, I have just begun my career in science. But, I know one thing: science can be cool. Sometimes the best way to connect to a young teenage mind, is by pitching them the cool, less boring side of science there used to hearing. The need to hear, “Science is fun! Being a Nerd is cool!” and showing them how cool it can be with awesome demos. In that way, we defeat monsters in our mind, by labeling our strengths and their flaws. Its taking me years to be my best advocate for the person that I am and guess what, I’m still learning! But my insecurities in my limited experience can be helped when I’m brave enough to share my misunderstandings and then identify my problems with a group of like-minded individuals.

Like most people when life challenges me more than I can handle I retreat.

Being first-gen, strict individual focus was held with the utmost--which in reality made the stakes even higher for my future success. Growing up, education was a privilege in my household. My mother and father were teenage parents, and because of the burden of raising a son, without a college degree, or a high school diploma—my parents emphasized education as an opportunity for a better life. At an early age, I knew that college wasn’t just a fantasy, it was an attainable reality. It wasn’t a matter about when it was a matter of how. The only thing holding me back was the question “But, can I do it?” It’s a question that continues to drive me today. Secretly, I knew I had doubts. Fortunately, I found a community that supported my growth. A community that helped redefine my focus. Now, I have begun to see mistakes as serious impediment for my future gains, but moreso as happy discoveries. Sometimes the pressure of failing can stifle not just a child’s motivation to succeed, but a young up-incomer scientist’s motivation to continue doing research. How I adapted then continues to help me now.

When reflecting on my experience as a graduate student in Cell & Molecular Biology, I learn from the past. Now, I am beginning to understand how my own experiences in academics, the fluctuating stability of my personal life, has cemented this exaggeration of the definition for the word persistence. Persistence isn't about going it alone, a definition that has been saturated with my cultural upbringing no doubt. How I respond to difficulty in unexpected situations is dependent on my self-confidence to succeed and the support of my peers and mentors.

Many years later I was the first-generation college student and was rewarded for my efforts as a commencement, speaking on behalf of the graduating class. But the sad truth was seeing only a sprinkle of people of color graduating alongside me. In truth, I know the low numbers may be less about our capacity and more about the gaps in knowledge. Even still, the questions we use to address this challenge will undoubtedly lead us to specific answers. But what is the root cause?

I believe the solution to the problems in science innovation is diversity. Diversity matters because science depends on the formation of new ideas, new ideas comes from people, and people that represent qualities that are sourced from community, skepticism, come from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Living in San Francisco, in the hub of Silicon Valley, the story of the technology that revolutionized personal computing began is the backdrop we are living in for how innovation is done. A blueprint for creativity, science, one would think. However I know differently. That our persistence is not rewarded easily, if not at all. Our defeats, heartbreaks, and setbacks are difficult to gather a life lesson from. But herein is the mystery for accessing human potential: Collaboration. What does that look like? Consulting with an expert, when you run into a mental roadblock, asking for help when problems arise based on your assumptions, hanging out with friends to take a break from challenging homework or research projects.

Years later the team at Apple, is spearheading the movement among others. Googling something has been synonymous with truth. But search terms are limited to the algorithm chosen. When did we forget that one person cannot do it alone. Essentially, the tools we use to answer questions, is limited to the questions we use to answer them.

Now, what is a young teacher to do when asked such a loaded question, “But, I don’t look like a scientist?” I may not have this answer for everyone but I responded this way.

“Here let me show you, you are.” I walked her over to the microscope, assisted her with all its bells and whistles, and let her intuition take the wheel. Before you knew it, a big smile crept across her face by the time the demo was over. Her confidence started to bloom. So when the time came, I asked her a question, “ So what do you think about being a scientist now?”

This time she replied, with a smile on her face, “I’ll think about it.”

What I have learned in science thus far is there is nothing better than answering unanswerable questions. Challenge what has already been done that’s how science moves forward. As researchers we must remind ourselves to be brave enough to ask the big, scary questions. It’s the attempt that matters. Let’s not stress about the circumstances prior to running the protocol but the outcomes after. Let’s make an attempt at becoming scientists before ruling it out completely.

Our results rest on the questions we ask. I'm as bold as the questions I hope to answer. The bigger the question the bigger the reward. Its that simple. I find answers to life’s challenges through my science experience. Connecting with a community of young minds has value when professionals from their community take time to share. This is the first step towards modeling the behavior that makes it a reality. Inspiration is the fuel that powers innovation and we need everyone to supply it.

Wayne Swinson,

MS CMB SFSU

BE_STEM, President

@MNMLSTRCK