Caroline Ajo-Franklin speaks about why diversity in science matters and how you can help

Caroline Ajo-Franklin speaks about why diversity in science matters and how you can help

On April 29, 2016, Dr. Caroline Ajo-Franklin discussed her opinions on diversity in science and provided some ways where we can help improve it. Dr. Caroline Ajo-Franklin is a Staff Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry. She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry at Stanford and was a post-doctoral fellow working on synthetic biology at Harvard Medical School. With a strong analytical chemistry background and a love for data, Ajo-Franklin approached her discussion on diversity with statistics combined with anecdotes.

Diversity in Science: Statistics and Anecdotes

Science and engineering fields are less diverse than the US population. Though, diversity is improving over time. For example, over the last 20 years there’s been a 15% increase in women professors.

Ajo-Franklin remarks that in graduate school she used to think that achieving diversity was a matter of time, but now she no longer thinks this is true. It requires work to achieve.

Ajo-Franklin discussed growing up in St. Louis as the only Cuban family she knew, the decreasing diversity in science as she continued to higher education levels and professionally, and how the pressures of being a women changed at each level.

Why does diversity matter to Caroline Ajo-Franklin? 

Diversity brings better science! Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working. Diversity encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leads to better decision making and problem solving. See this reference.

For Ajo-Franklin, science allowed her to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Access to science means access to stable, well-paying jobs. The unemployment rate among scientists and engineers is close to half of the general unemployment rate.

Why is diversity hard to achieve?

Achieving diversity is a challenge. Some specific challenges of note discussed included the competing demands of career and family and social challenges.

Unfortunately, the make-or-break years of one’s career also generally overlaps with when people want to start a family. Ajo-Franklin shared her experiences of motherhood while beginning her scientific career. These experiences don’t just apply to women. Increasingly, men are facing the demands of career and family and often with greater judgement.

Some of the social challenges discussed included unconscious bias and isolation. Ajo-Franklin admitted that she both experiences and also perpetuates these biases. “I’ve gone to conferences and people assume I’m an administrative assistant. But sometimes I assume women are graduate students when they’re actually post-docs.”

As the diversity landscape shifts with each education level, Ajo-Franklin noted social segregation of men and women within her friend circles at each level. “In graduate school, my friend group was 50/50 men to women. As a postdoc, this shifted towards mainly woman. Professionally, it can be even more segregated and this can be isolating. For instance, when men go out drinking at conferences, sometimes women aren’t invited–and these occasions often lead to important conversations for writing grants and establishing collaborations.”

What you can do to help

Find ways to be successful

Ajo-Franklin does this by striving to define her own metrics of success. Ask yourself ‘What do I want? What matters to me?’ because there is peer pressure to do something different. Ajo-Franklin also gets support and ideas from peers and mentors. Getting advice for situations from others outside of the field can lead to (sometimes simple) solutions.

As you succeed, fight for yourself and those lower on the totem pole. 

If you encounter institutional sexism/racism, don’t fight it be saying “this isn’t fair”. It’s more effective to change the rules.

Right now, as graduate students, you can:

  • ​Articulate what success for you looks like.
  • ​Understand & fight unconscious bias. Learn more about your own biases here.
  • Be inclusive in informal settings and social activities
  • Invite female and minority scientists to lecture, review, talk and write articles