Diverse ecosystems require diverse ecologists

By Linh Anh Cat, Alyssa Frederick, Michelle Herrera, and Evelyn Valdez-Ward

Rapid Ecology 2

Undergraduate researchers, Emilie Chien, Binghao Zou, and Minglong Xu, collecting soil samples at Loma Ridge, CA, for their research projects. Credit: Evelyn Valdez-Ward.

As ecologists, you may have noticed the lack of diverse practitioners in our field. This lack of diversity prohibits the field of ecology from reaching its full potential of nurturing a variety of ideas, theories, and perspectives. We study and advocate for protecting the Earth’s biodiversity and we should hold to the same principles for our practitioners. A recent study by NSF shows that of 1416 total graduate students within Ecology fields (U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents), 68.9% are White, after, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander make up .28%, Black or African American makeup 1.27%, American Indian or Alaska Natives make up .56%, Hispanic or Latinx make up 3.8%, and Asians make up 2.4%. Additionally, people of color (POC) make up only 9% of membership within the Ecology Society of America.

Our sciences deserve fields representative of our nation’s demographics. As researchers in our field, we ALL have the responsibility to address barriers to diversity within ecology. We can begin to address barriers to diversity by focusing on recruitment of diverse students, and implementing strong support systems to nurture and retain diverse students in ecology.

The first step to increasing diversity in the field sciences is recruitment. Underrepresented minorities face barriers to STEM engagement, which includes gender and ethnic stereotypes, low exposure to STEM role models and professions, and lack of knowledge of STEM. These barriers affect the ability of minorities to build a positive STEM identity and forge STEM connections. In order confront these obstacles standing in the way of increasing diversity in the field sciences, we should encourage early exposure to science and nature. We believe outreach programs should make a directed effort to engage underrepresented minorities in science and the outdoors. Programs should strive to find communities that have a high percentage of Title I schools with a high proportion of underrepresented minorities, such as the city of Santa Ana or Los Angeles County. Outreach should raise awareness of the opportunities and the needs of underrepresented minorities to connect them to science education and careers. These experiences among youth contribute to the development of a STEM-related identity against the cultural stereotypes.

By serving as role models, we can influence the STEM identity of underrepresented minorities and transform their perception of themselves into scientists. We have the power to inspire the students and to serve as an example, showing them that they can achieve their dreams, too. While it is important for youth to be exposed to science early, it is fine to decide later if you want to pursue the field sciences. It is very common for students to have a life-changing research experience that steers them towards graduate school and a STEM career. These efforts cannot ignore that significant economic and other barriers that disproportionately affect underrepresented groups in science. Mentors must recognize that awe and understanding of nature is not enough on its own to get students engaged in science. After leaving the classroom, we must work tirelessly to break down economic barriers to participation, including writing grants for paying research assistants and providing other aide necessary to help mentees success in science.

The work isn’t over after recruitment – ecology departments must actively nurture and retain diversity throughout the graduate program. Imposter syndrome affects underrepresented grad students disproportionately. Minority grad students may struggle to find friends that can relate to them and consequently support and help them understand that imposter syndrome is a common challenge. We suggest increased formal mentorship opportunities with the aim of reaching a “critical mass” of diversity –  where informal mentorship can be sustained. However, departments should be avoid placing an unfair burden on faculty from underrepresented groups. Data has shown that women and minority faculty spend more hours (outside of their research and teaching responsibilities) mentoring students and conducting outreach (U Mass Work-Life Study). Departments can help compensate for this additional time by providing research/travel funds as or funding food and drinks for a social hour where mentors and mentees can meet. Mentor-mentee relationships often cover topics not directly related to research that can help mentees understand issues such as budgeting on a graduate student salary, persevering through multiple failures, and facing micro-aggressions and/or harassment (important for first generation students or underrepresented groups that might not have learned this anywhere else). We also recommend that departments track their students’ employment in ecology or STEM after graduation, especially for underrepresented groups. Many diversity programs may initially increase representation within ecology but often fail to provide the support to keep participants involved in STEM due to feelings of not-belonging, failures related to lack of support, or economic barriers.

The few barriers we’ve outlined here are: recruitment, retaining diversity, support systems, and economic equity. How do you address these and other barriers to maintaining diversity in science? Let us know and follow the conversation using #ecologist_diversity!

Author biography:By day, the authors are Ph.D. students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. By night, they are the co-hosts of the Turn of the Tide podcast which gives diverse female voices a platform for their research and advocacy on climate change (@turnoftidecast). Linh Anh Cat (@linhanhcat) studies dispersal of fungal disease in the environment and is the National Center for Atmospheric Research Public Policy Fellow. Alyssa Frederick (@paua_biologist) studies the impact of anthropogenic and natural stressors on marine animals and ecosystems. Michelle Herrera (@michellejoni95) studies how environmental changes impact the diet specialization and physiology of prickleback fishes. Evelyn Valdez-Ward (@wardofplants) studies the effects of climate change on the interactions between plants and their soil microbes. You can listen to their episodes on diversity in ecology and other issues here.

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