Diversity & Equity

The fields of Astronomy and Physics have a problem with diversity from the undergraduate to the faculty level. I felt this disparity during college when I frequently found myself observing a male to female ratio of ~4:1 in my Physics courses. While I no longer find myself in the minority as a woman in astronomy graduate school, it’s still clear there are not many minority students and the faculty is dominated by white men. If I were to take the short walk over to the Physics Department, I would once again find women outnumbered and still see the lack of both students and faculty from marginalized groups.

Why does diversity and equity matter?

I think we can all agree that we should have equity in the process of becoming a scientist. However, given the biases that exist in society, we lack equity in the pipeline to become a professional astronomer, and STEM in general, for a wide range of sub-populations (people of color, women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, etc.).

In case that’s not motivation enough, there are reasons diversity will improve science. In each subset of the population, there are the top individuals with the potential to contribute to STEM fields. If one, or more, subsets of the population are not equally represented, then STEM  fields will miss out on these top individuals. We will make science better through equal representation of women and minorities. By having a more diverse STEM population, we also open the door to greater diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is necessary for innovation and change, potentially opening the doors for discoveries we currently cannot even imagine.

What can we do to change?

There are many “leaks” along the pipeline from K-12 education to college to graduate studies to post-docs and finally on to faculty. Being a graduate student myself, I thought the most appropriate “leak” to try to improve is the transition from college to graduate school. In the Spring of 2013, I applied for and was awarded a Moving Maryland Forward Grant from the University of Maryland Office of Diversity and Inclusion for a program now called GRAD-MAP (Graduate Resources Advancing Diversity with Maryland Astronomy and Physics).

Left: Members of the GRAD-MAP Team and the 2014 Winter Workshop students met with the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Minorities. Right: Me receiving the Graduate Student Distinguished Service Award, May 2015.

GRAD-MAP connects Maryland’s Astronomy and Physics Departments with the mid-Atlantic Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs; mostly Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and provides a 10 day Winter Workshop for ~10 underrepresented minority students to give them a crash course in research, programming in Python and other necessary skills for graduate school. The National Society of Black Physicists has recognized GRAD-MAP as a best practice, and GRAD-MAP was featured in three special sessions at the 2015 Conference of The National Society of Black Physicist.

For more information, visit our website: gradmap.astro.umd.edu

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I’m happy to report that after being one of four finalists in 2014, I won the university-wide Graduate Student Distinguished Service Award in 2015 for the work I’ve done in the Astronomy Department, including creating the GRAD-MAP program (see below)! It’s great to see the University recognizing the importance of equity and diversity, even at the graduate level.