Building Resilience through Diversity in Science

Photo of Chancellor May outside with text: Toward a more diverse and inclusive future for science

Building Resilience through Diversity in Science


Thanks, Steve for the kind introduction. Good morning, everyone! It’s great to be here. I want to thank the organizing committee for inviting me. 


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          Building Resilience through Diversity in Science

It’s an honor to speak to you today about the need for enhancing diversity in the scientific community. I’m always thrilled to speak with other organizations that share some of the same values as UC Davis. We take pride in being highly collaborative. We need to work together if we’re going to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges — including climate change and sustainability. This group represents a wealth of talent and knowledge, and importantly, you also have the experts, stakeholders and leaders to effect change. You’ve been doing the important work to preserve the Delta and Bay, address the impacts of drought and water supply, and to preserve species.

Center for Watershed Science

UC Davis has long been and remains deeply engaged in the problems of the Delta. Many of our faculty — in almost every college — have made sustained and fundamental contributions to Delta science. And we’ve done this in collaboration with many of the people and organizations represented here today. UC Davis is proud to host the administration of the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sciences journal, the main academic journal which focuses on the Delta. Peter Moyle, Jeff Mount, Jay Lund, Andrew Rypel, John Durand and many others from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences help to facilitate collaboration among governments, stakeholders, researchers, and diverse academic departments on the Delta.


I understand many of you have used the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture (CABA). The Center works with a very diverse set of threatened and endangered species. And provides leadership and support to UC Davis researchers across multiple departments to help address problems associated with California’s cultured and wild aquatic biological resources. CABA is also home to the State-certified Aquatic Toxicology Lab. The UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Laboratory is located near Tracy. This is where the critically endangered Delta Smelt have been reared in captivity for the past decades and now have hopes for supplementation in the wild.

Green Sturgeon

We’re also fortunate to have the only captive population of threatened green sturgeon on our campus, made possible through interdisciplinary collaboration and generosity from the Yurok Tribe in Northern California. The Green Sturgeon Broodstock program began in 1999. It’s a great example of collaboration.

Toward a More Diverse Future

I could go on, but today, I was asked to speak about the importance of diversity in the sciences. I think most of you would agree that we need to increase diversity. In fact, many of you have probably been working to recruit and retain diverse talent. Yet, in many cases, we aren’t we seeing results as fast as we’d like.

Rising Above Our History

One reason for this is written in our history. This photo looks like it was from another lifetime. But it wasn’t that long ago. My Mom was among the first group of students to integrate the University of Missouri during the era of Jim Crow laws. Those were the days of enforced segregation in the south and other parts of the country. That was only one generation removed from me. Needless to say, my Mom endured a lot in her pursuit of higher education. But she was determined and she never gave up.

We Can Do Better

As much as we like to think we’ve made progress, just look through the lens of the past year’s events. The global pandemic’s impact on our economy, its disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the extent of nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd all point to nagging inequities. Embracing diversity and inclusion will not only benefit science, but I believe it’s central to our humanity and progression as a society. Today, I hope I can provide a little perspective from my own personal experience and from nearly 30 years now, working to increase diversity in STEM in higher education and in the workforce.

Who Belongs in STEM?

Let me start with this question: who belongs in Science — and more broadly in STEM? Despite our best efforts, many women and minority populations still don’t feel that they belong. You might think because I’m Chancellor of UC Davis that it was different for me. But that’s not true. People don’t expect to see someone like me in STEM or Higher Education leadership. You don’t find many Black men with PhDs in engineering. You don’t find many Black men who lead major research universities. As you know, you don’t find many Black scientists. During my undergraduate years at Georgia Tech, I’d look around the lecture halls and wonder if I was supposed to be there. In those days, I was often the only Black person in the classroom or the laboratory. When I finished graduate school at UC Berkeley, I was one of only about 30 African Americans that year who earned a doctorate in the field of engineering. That’s 30 in the entire United States. You could have fit all of us in a single classroom. By the way, those numbers haven’t improved much. African Americans earn between 3 and 4 percent of PhDs in math, computer science and engineering each year. When I joined the faculty at Georgia Tech, there weren’t many African American faculty members. I remember the time someone came in and started giving me instructions on what was wrong with the copy machine. They wanted to know if I could fix it. People simply didn’t expect to see someone like me on the faculty. More recently, after joining UC Davis, I attended a meeting of chancellors and presidents. Someone asked me: “So, what do you do at UC Davis?” I’m thinking: “Well, it’s a meeting of chancellors and presidents …” So, people still don’t expect to see someone like me in academic leadership. Unfortunately, the same is true for women and other underrepresented groups throughout the STEM fields.

The Diversity Imperative

I share these personal stories only to set the stage. Underrepresentation in STEM has been one of the most intractable problems in our industry for many years. We know that women and people of color are drastically underrepresented in Science and Engineering occupations. We also know that women have lower median salaries than men in most of these jobs. There are a lot of reasons one might argue that diversity in STEM is imperative. There’s social equity, closing the pay gap, graduating enough STEM grads to meet projected workforce demands. I have a more practical argument. Diversity is at the root of innovation and technological advancement. The greater diversity we have in university research, the more likely we can make discoveries and solve problems. A wide mix of backgrounds, experiences and ideas helps make this happen. It’s similar to the multidisciplinary and collaborative work you do.

Bias in AI?

Diversity drives innovation in our increasingly global workforce. And without it, we see design flaws and innovations that omit women and people of color. I’m an engineer, so I’m going to share some examples from my field. Here’s what I mean: The first airbags in the auto industry almost killed women passengers. Why? Because they were tested on crash-test dummies that had male anatomies. We’re finding that some Artificial Intelligence programs used for facial recognition have racial and gender biases. This researcher is Joy Buolamwini. She was one of my undergraduate students at Georgia Tech. She tested various facial recognition systems and found they worked better on men’s faces compared to women. They also worked better on lighter-toned faces than those with darker skin.

NYT: Pulse Oximeters

Here’s a more recent example. This article is from December of last year. Those pulse oximeters that some COVID-19 patients have been using to monitor their oxygen saturation levels at home? A recent study suggests that the devices may be less accurate in people with dark skin pigmentation. Now, these are just a few quick examples, but they make a clear point. Diversity, as a practical matter, leads to better outcomes. If there were diverse engineers on those design teams, they may not have overlooked those particular glitches. I believe the same applies to science. If we want to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, it will require collaboration — and the most diverse teams contributing their unique ideas and perspectives.

Diverse Scientists

It’s not more scientists that lead to more innovations. It’s more diverse scientists that lead to more innovations and discoveries. Diversity isn’t just about how you look. It’s about how you approach problems. Diverse perspectives are critical for addressing the problems we face.

Diversity is Everybody’s Job

So how can we increase the pipeline of diverse talent in the sciences? Let me share a few ideas. First, I believe that diversity is everybody’s job. It requires commitment from the highest levels of an organization and all the way down. And that commitment needs to last for the long haul. Creating an inclusive environment takes a whole community. If we want to create the type of workplace, where women and underrepresented minorities feel comfortable sharing their viewpoints and ideas, we need to nurture a respectful and inclusive culture. Many of us, especially in academia and business, have work to do. That work is to reflect the demographics of our increasingly diverse student and workforce populations.

UC Faculty

Across the 10 campuses of the University of California, for example, nearly 70 % of tenured faculty are white. Almost 17% are Asian. About 7% are Latino and 3% are African American. These percentages should look pretty familiar to those of us working in one of the STEM fields.

California’s Student Population

Compare that to our public schools. More than half of K-12 public school students in California’s secondary schools are Hispanic or Latino. That’s the talent pipeline. Big difference.

Serving an Increasingly Diverse Community

In 2018, UC launched a major effort to increase faculty diversity. It involved committing more than $7 million annually to expand existing programs to increase faculty diversity. At UC Davis, we’re making some progress, thanks to support from National Science Foundation grants. And from the UC system, via their “Advancing Faculty Diversity” recruitment and retention grant programs.

Let me give you some examples:

First, we require all applicants for faculty positions to submit statements describing how they will contribute to diversity, equity and inclusion. Next, we’re training the people involved in faculty recruitment and hiring. We’ve trained more than 1,300 faculty members on implicit bias and best practices for new faculty recruitment. In 2012, UC Davis received an NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant to expand the ranks of women and underrepresented faculty. We’ve had success institutionalizing two effective programs that were created with the grant. One of these is our Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science, or CAMPOS, which has successfully recruited 30 faculty scholars who are engaged in promoting diversity in STEM. Importantly, scholars from this program fill a much-needed pipeline of diverse talent to our workforce and research labs. These are just a few parts of the UC’s multi-pronged approach.

Link Diversity to Business Strategies

Next, diversity initiatives must be linked to business strategies. And they need metrics and other measures of accountability. It starts by looking at the inequities that exist and what’s needed to address them. We need a long-term commitment and programs with resources behind them. At UC Davis, diversity is written into our strategic plan. One of our strategic goals is to make UC Davis a model for diversity and inclusion. We have a team that’s dedicated to recruiting and retaining the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. When I speak to external groups, I’m often told that diverse candidates are just not applying for open positions. If that’s the case, know that it’s time to try something different. Many of us can do a better job with targeted outreach to underrepresented groups, using inclusive language in our job postings and ensuring that the hiring process requires a diverse candidate pool for every position. At UC Davis, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website has extensive resources to educate our campus community on how to attract, select and hire diverse talent. It includes specific resources to promote job openings for diverse talent, like LinkedIn diversity groups, and local and regional partners who support diverse communities.

Targeted Programs Are Needed

Next, we must develop programs that are geared specifically for underrepresented populations. I focused on this closely as a faculty member and dean at Georgia Tech. I helped lead a set of programs to increase the number of minority students in Georgia Tech’s graduate programs. Targeted efforts like these can lead to great success. In our case, we helped Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering become the largest and most diverse of its kind in the country. One of the programs I helped lead at Georgia Tech was Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science — or FACES. Its purpose was to increase the number of underrepresented Ph.D. recipients from Georgia Tech. Over the duration of FACES, more than 400 minority students received Ph.D. degrees in science or engineering at Georgia Tech. At the time, that was the most in such fields in the nation.

Expand Your Partnerships

Internships and other hands-on experiences can help to build a more diverse talent pipeline. So, we need to expand our networks through partnerships with other higher education institutions, companies, non-profits and other governmental agencies. We know that underemployment is an issue that disproportionately impacts first-generation college graduates and people of color. And this can have long-term negative impacts on career trajectories and earnings. Internships can lead to careers and can help to close this gap. At UC Davis, one example is the Avenues Program. It relies on strong partnerships with business to help STEM students develop the skills necessary to succeed in their careers. Avenue E with Chevron focuses on engineering and computer science. Avenue B with Genentech is focused on biological sciences.

Field Programs

Internships are a great way to introduce students to a company or organization they might eventually work for. Field programs present a similar opportunity for many in the sciences. Andrew Rypel wrote a great piece about this for the California Water Blog about the importance of field programs. 

Sea Grant Fellows

I understand another great example is the Sea Grant Fellows program, which many of you are probably familiar with. Fellows have the opportunity to work on research and data analysis related to the Bay-Delta system. UC Davis research groups provide opportunities for numerous undergraduate students to work in their labs. Local agencies and stakeholders hire interns as scientific aids, and provide opportunities for hands-on experience. These opportunities sometimes turn into careers. So, I encourage you to think creatively about how you can build a more diverse pipeline through these types of opportunities in your laboratories, field programs, internships and other similar programs. That may require a longer view. Outreach programs to K-12 schools, Science and STEM clubs are all great opportunities to start building the pipeline early.

Building Community

Finally, we must help underrepresented STEM students and colleagues build community and connect with mentors. It’s not enough just to get women and underrepresented minorities in the door. If we want to increase diversity, it’s important to build community. Underrepresented groups are looking for a sense of belonging — and a reason to stay. We must do everything we can to help them succeed. And that means fostering an inclusive environment, providing mentoring and opportunities to build community. Employee resource groups are one way to do this. But, like I said earlier, diversity is everybody’s job. At UC Davis, everyone in our campus community is expected to uphold our “Principles of Community.” That means creating a climate of dignity and respect, where we celebrate diversity and repel all forms of discrimination. 

You Can't Be What You Can't See

Mentorship also plays a critical role for students and young faculty or employees. Having a mentor with similar background can be vital to success. One of my favorite quotes on the topic of mentoring is from former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders. She says: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Let me wrap up with one final point. Increasing diversity is not a bow to political correctness. You can broaden participation and increase diversity without giving up quality. These things are not mutually exclusive. We need to dispel these ill-conceived notions that a diverse staff must somehow be an inferior staff. Diversity isn’t just the right thing to do for social equity. It’s what we must do to create a robust and resilient future for science.

With that, I’m happy to take questions.


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