The science, technology, engineering and math fields have a diversity problem: women and people of color are significantly underrepresented.
One of those grassroots efforts was launched by Stephani Page, who spearheaded the creation of the #BlackAndSTEM online community in early 2014. Page, now a postdoctoral researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, has a varied research background: a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and master’s in biology from North Carolina A&T, and a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics from UNC.
I wanted to talk with her about the creation and evolution of #BlackAndSTEM, and how science communication can make a difference in STEM diversity.
Science Communication Breakdown: Your background is as a scientist, rather than a communicator. When did you start thinking seriously about science communication?
Stephani Page: This is always an interesting question for me to answer – in the same way that growing up in a military family makes it difficult to respond succinctly when someone asks where I am from. I was interested in science communication long before I knew what it was.
To put my childhood in context, my mother’s BA is in English and she still quotes Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The ability to communicate in writing and in spoken word was something that I’ve been training in – if you will – since birth. I was in the sixth grade when I took on my first solo science fair project, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach people about environmental problems in ways that most people could understand and enjoy. This was an ongoing theme.
Throughout graduate school, I gravitated toward training and opportunities to communicate science: Capitol Hill Day and other science policy work, volunteering to teach science at my son’s schools and at the community center of my father’s rural hometown. In 2008, in my first year as a PhD student, I began to blog some of my creative writing, which eventually led to my writing about what I was learning about science and academia. This started my first – now defunct – science blog. The blog led to my first feature on Nature’s Soapbox Science blog in 2012.
SCB: You’re interested in science communication that is focused on conveying information to audiences, and you’re also interested in communication efforts aimed at increasing and supporting diversity in STEM fields. How much overlap is there between these two things? Do they require separate approaches, or are they inextricably linked?
Page: I think that communicating information to the broader public AND advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM field are inextricably linked. Some of the largest misconceptions, by my estimation, regarding STEM fields amongst the broader public are those regarding who can be STEM.
SCB: There are a lot of factors that contribute to the dearth of diversity in STEM disciplines. There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of encouraging young people to get interested in science or engineering. How important is that type of outreach, relative to addressing other fundamental problems related to race, gender and opportunity?
Page: When I go into spaces and introduce myself as a scientist to young people, more often than not, I am the first Black woman scientist who some of those young people have encountered. There are times that I have been the first woman. There are times that I have been the first Black person. There are times that I have been the first scientist PERIOD.
I had Mae Jamison and Sally Ride – I saw them on TV and read news stories about them. When you think of the most prominent scientists of today, young people may recognize Neil deGrasse Tyson – but even that’s not guaranteed. So, more often than not, those of us doing outreach are it. And while young people may know enough about what a lawyer, physician, musician, fireman, or athlete do to dream and process themselves in those careers, there are many careers that young people are not aware enough of to aspire to. That’s part of our job with STEM outreach. We must learn from the young people we meet and help them to see themselves in our shoes, doing the kinds of things that we do. That way, they can begin to decide for themselves what is for them from a greater awareness of what is out there.
It’s about helping them to see that science and/or engineering is an option for them. It’s about helping them see themselves as capable of accomplishing the things that they aspire to.
I think this is just as important as the work that is directly addressing those fundamental issues that hinder diversity, inclusion, and equity. We need the flow of people to say “we are here, make room.”
SCB: Outside of “getting people excited about science,” what do you think science communicators could or should be doing to support diversity in STEM?
Page: Two BIG things for me:
One: We need to continue to expand the representation of science beyond the status quo. Feature the work and expertise of diverse groups of scientists and engineers across race, ethnicity, gender identity, socio-economic background, etc.
Two: Tell our stories. As we put faces to science and engineering to expand the representation, we need to be sharing stories. Not just as inspiration, but to begin to remove the haze from around these careers.
SCB: A while back I started something called “This is what science looks like” at NC State. My goal was to get people in STEM fields to talk a little bit about themselves, and highlight diverse role models in STEM. But I have no idea whether this is useful. Do you think approaches like this have any value? (It’s okay to be brutally honest here.)
Page: Thankfully, I answered the previous question before knowing this one! Yes! For two reasons, it isn’t just the people outside of science and engineering who need to see this, it’s also the people within. There are walls that must be broken down from within.
SCB: When did you start using the #BLACKandSTEM hashtag, and what was the impetus for that?
Page: I started the #BLACKandSTEM hashtag in February of 2014. I wanted to connect to other people in the same circumstance as me. I want to engage. Then this community just grew out of that.
SCB: How has the #BLACKandSTEM community evolved since then?
Page: What I am most proud of is the evolution of this community as a source of support and encouragement for Black STEM professionals. I am proud of the ways that we have advocated for ourselves and other groups that are underrepresented and often voiceless in STEM. I am proud that people have been motivated to do more in their physical communities. I am proud that we can signal boost for each other. We have continued to have twitter chats, video hangouts, live tweets of events that people have attended. But I am most proud of the evolution of #BLACKandSTEM as a support system that functions across the world.
SCB: I know that #BLACKandSTEM is an informal community – there’s no official registration, mission statement or organization that people join. But it’s still a very real community, with active members. Do you have any short-term or long-term goals for how the #BLACKandSTEM community will continue to grow or change?
Page: Short term, I want to refurbish our chats, website, and blog. I am working to build a discipline-based database that is a readily available resource in which people can cross reference by location, intersection (such as LGBTQ, disability, etc.), career trajectory – so that people can find each other. I have learned within this community that, even with considering my own intersections, I am not able to speak to the experiences of every Black woman in STEM, for example, because there are hardships of their lives that I have not had to endure. And, ultimately, I believe that value of this community is the support system that it can offer.
Long term? I am still writing my vision for that. #BLACKandSTEM is a force. That is not only because of my efforts. So I want to honor what it has become, and see it grow.
SCB: Do you think the growth of the black nerd (blerd) online community has had an impact on discussions of science or technology in African American communities? Or is it still marginalized?
Page: The growth of the Black nerd community has had a huge impact. What Jamie Broadnax, Dawn Gibson, Geek Soul Brotha and others have done is phenomenal. They have shown that we have massive influence. However, we are still marginalized. We are so far from equity. Whether that is in the realm of nerd-dom or STEM.
SCB: You’ve trained as both an engineer and a scientist. Have you seen any differences in how these two separate (but overlapping) groups approach STEM communication or outreach efforts?
Page: Yes! I think that, because engineering is application-based, you can typically point to an object and describe the value of your work. People are amazed, for example, by how things are made. So, typically, when I am talking about an engineering problem, I don’t have to spend a lot of time on the “why you should be interested.” Engineers often learn to speak the language of the “layman” and that is (to the detriment) left out of the training of scientists.
One: Science communicators tend to have to deal more with assumed conflicts with value systems. For example, I’ve seen people shut down at my use of the word “evolution” regardless of context because “evolution” (as they know the word) is in conflict with their values.
Two: Scientists are likely asking questions about the way that the world and universe work, and people want to know why that work should take up resources. And, sometimes, scientists don’t want to take the time to answer those types of questions.
Three: Scientists are dealing with a lot of misconceptions. For example, bacteria are by and large good, and I often spend a lot of time convincing people of that.
Four: And people have been wronged by science. There are valid trust issues there, and we need to address that – especially to the communities who have been marginalized by science.
These points make for different approaches. Having the experience of doing both has benefited me greatly.
SCB: Do you have plans for any new science communication projects in the future?
Page: One thing I don’t talk much about is just how much I do offline. As a graduate student I was trained in the area of science policy – of which science communication is a major component – by the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and I served on the executive board of the Science Policy Advocacy Group (student started and run) at UNC-Chapel Hill. Science policy is something that is very important to me – I plan to continue regardless of my career trajectory.
I was trained at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill as a science communication ambassador. I jump at the chance to do work with them any time that I can – my son loves when I do. Their STEMville Science Symposium and other NC Science Festival events are always on my calendar. I was honored to be the guest speaker when the Planetarium hosted an event for the Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) conference. Getting to speak on a panel of women in STEM as part of the NC Science Festival at the NC School of Science and Math is still a highlight.
UNC’s Science Writing and Communication Club afforded me the great opportunity to be a part of their science blogging series in the spring.
I am continuing to do work along those lines: workshops, outreach, public speaking. I would like to go back more to my Dad’s hometown in rural NC – maybe even start a STEM camp out there with the local community association. Once I get more established in my postdoc research (yes, I still love being at the bench), I would like to work with a mentor to do more science writing. I like telling stories.