At LSU, we believe diversity makes our science better. Diversity in all its forms, including the aspects of individuals that can been seen and those that go unseen, help us develop more innovative solutions to the most pressing scientific issues that we face today.
To celebrate Diversity Month (April, 2018), we interviewed three scientists who are passionate about diversity and improving the representation of minorities in STEM. We asked LIGO gravitational wave researcher Gabriela Gonzalez, LSU chemist and diversity and inclusion expert Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, and LSU alum and P&G beauty scientist Rolanda Wilkerson about their views on what diversity is and how diversity makes their science better.
LSU College of Science: What are you most passionate about in life? What do you most enjoy working on or doing?
Gabriela Gonzalez works on the detection of gravitational waves with LIGO instruments. Her work at LIGO ultimately helped and is still helping researchers detect gravitational waves
Gaby: I don’t like choosing between work and family, so I am most passionate about both. Since I learned that “ripples in space time” can actually be measured with lasers, mirrors and large instruments, I’ve been passionate about building these instruments and “seeing” black holes with them. I don’t consider my work done yet, since making instruments more sensitive lets us see farther in the Universe and farther into the past - we have an even bigger motivation now than before detecting the first gravitational wave!
I am also passionate about my friends and family - I like traveling to visit them even if it’s far (my extended family lives in Argentina, most of my friends don’t live near me), and even organizing trips with them. I like cooking and knitting for my friends and my family (not sure they like the product as much as I do!)
Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy is the Assistant Dean for Diversity & Inclusion in the LSU College of Science and Associate Professor of Research in Chemistry Education in the LSU Department of Chemistry. During her doctoral studies, Zakiya employed density functional theory to study inorganic metal systems. Today, her research investigates the persistence of individuals from all backgrounds in STEM academic programs and careers. She is passionate about improving diverse faculty and student recruitment, retention and success.
Zakiya: I am passionate about providing pathways for students to pursue their dreams. I believe that anyone who desires to study in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) should have the access and support to do so. This is what I have dedicated my professional life to cultivating, through the programs and initiatives that I have led and co-led with collaborators and like-minded leaders.
LSU chemistry alum Rolanda Wilkerson is a Principal Scientist and Senior Manager of Scientific Communications in Beauty Care at Procter & Gamble. Rolanda works with dermatologists, clinicians and P&G Beauty scientists to research and report on the latest and emerging skin and hair science and technology. Her experience ranges from research on hair color, shampoos and scalp care, to skin science. She has designed and executed consumer studies and pre-clinical trials in order to understand the performance of newly developed formulations for personal beauty needs.
Rolanda: I am most passionate about promoting STEM with young girls. I love bringing science to life for others! I enjoy sharing the potential that a career in STEM can bring and encouraging young girls to explore the possibilities. I love motivational speaking, doing science demonstrations and mentoring.
LSU College of Science: What does diversity mean to you?
Gaby: Diversity means different; different kinds of people, growing in different cultures, with different abilities, with different experiences.
Zakiya: Diversity represents an inclusive community. I often think of diversity in terms of the demographics and representation of individuals from diverse backgrounds. “DIVERSITY -- Who is present?” Inclusion represents the quality of their experiences. “INCLUSION -- Do people from diverse backgrounds feel included? Are they isolated, invisible, marginalized or recognized as fully respected members of the community?” You can have diversity and not have inclusion. The dream of diversity is a fully inclusive community.
Rolanda: Diversity to me means having a variety of people, inclusive of and not limited to lifestyles, culture, experience, ethnicity, age, gender and thought.
LSU College of Science: Why do you think diversity makes our science/research better? What is the importance of diversity in STEM?
Gaby: Diversity makes everything better, including science. Like combining spices to make a dish taste great, you need different ideas to make progress in science, both to come up with new theories to explain experiments, and to make experiments sensitive enough to learn about the Universe (far away and around us, big and small). People use the phrase “thinking outside of the box” to describe being creative, but I think it’s better to think about having a large box with lots of different people inside. I saw this principle at work in our LIGO Scientific Collaboration, where we have members from different continents working in many different fields. Just learning to talk to each other opened up new ways of doing science.
Zakiya: Homogeneity has its benefits. Homogeneous groups often develop consensus around solutions for problems fairly quickly because there is general agreement about approaches. Heterogeneous groups approach problems from different perspectives, with diverse expertise. They come to solutions through conflict resolution, debate and discourse. These groups foster “better science” because of the multiplicity of dimensions and perspectives through which they come to solutions. It can be a messier process, but the outcomes are richer and deeper.
Rolanda: Science is diverse. There is often more than one way to get to an answer or to develop something. Research and development benefit greatly from diversity of approaches and thought. I’ve observed this personally from my experience in a consumer products company. Our scientific innovation involves teamwork to deliver a product, a technology or a solution that can serve and benefit diverse consumers. To deliver effective products that serve diverse consumers, it’s beneficial and often more efficient to have diverse thinking and diversity represented on the team.
LSU College of Science: In your view, how can we best work to improve representation and empowerment of diverse individuals in STEM and STEM projects like LIGO?
Gaby: I think the scientific community is not as diverse as it could be, especially in physics (but also in other areas like music composition) because people tend to think you need to be a “genius” and dedicate 120% of your time to your work. That is not true - some scientists are genius for sure, as are some people in every field. But most scientists are just hard workers who like science, dedicating time to friends and family just as “normal” people do.
Zakiya: I believe it is vitally important for us to develop a metacognitive approach to considering how we cultivate inclusive environments in STEM. As educators, we encourage students to reflect on what they are learning and what they understand about what they have learned. As an administrator and educator, I believe that this same type of reflection is needed throughout STEM higher education, particularly when considering diversity and inclusion.
In STEM, there are pervasive stereotypes about ‘the ideal-worker’ that guide much of the subjective assessment of individuals’ worth and presence in the community. The STEM ideal-worker in western civilization has historically been normalized as a male of European ancestry with limited to no familial responsibilities and a partner who enables their dedicated focus on science. I believe that as we expand our perspective of ‘who’ can be an effective scientist, we will see marked improvements in representation and empowerment of individuals who bring their own unique backgrounds and perspectives to solve the hard problems faced by scientists today. This doesn’t mean accepting mediocrity. But it does mean thinking more deeply about stereotypes within our disciplines, and the environments and the climate that we are cultivating.
Rolanda: Start mentoring individuals at an early age. Share with them the possibilities. Stay connected to them in some way and provide ongoing encouragement. Be a STEM and diversity advocate in your university or company.