SIAM News Blog

Race and Gender in the Scientific Community

Björn Sandstede offers a class titled “Race and Gender in the Scientific Community” at Brown University, where he is a professor in the Division of Applied Mathematics. Mary Silber of the University of Chicago recently chatted with Sandstede about his inspiration behind and vision for the class.

Silber: I was surprised to learn that you—a white guy from Germany—were teaching a course called “Race and Gender in the Scientific Community.” How did that come about?

Sandstede: A group of Brown University undergraduate students from a range of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments started it all in the fall of 2014. They wanted to learn more about representation in the scientific community and use this knowledge to advocate for change on campus. To accomplish this, they developed the course syllabus and ran it as a Group Independent Study Project (GISP), advised by many faculty members — including then-GISP faculty advisor Cornelia Dean. I became aware of the GISP much later while chairing a departmental committee that developed a diversity and inclusion action plan (as part of Brown’s initiative to create such plans in every unit across the university). Amy Butcher, Jasmine McAdams, and Jamelle Watson-Daniels (who were all part of the team that created the GISP) advocated for its upgrade to a regular course. I agreed that this was an important step to take, and also felt that pursuing this would give me an invaluable opportunity to engage with students on these topics. The initial plan was to co-facilitate the course with a faculty member or graduate student from Africana Studies, but when this did not pan out I offered it alone. 30 students enrolled last spring and 15 enrolled this spring, with representation across all STEM fields. All students felt strongly about the need to create a more inclusive and diverse environment in STEM disciplines.

Silber: I have taught some classes where I thought “never again” because they did not play to my interests and strengths, and others where I could not wait to teach a second and third time — to make the most of my initial investment, and also to improve on the first iteration. Would you teach this class again?

Sandstede: This spring was the second time I offered it — I was very nervous (scared is probably a better word!) when offering it the first time as I was all too aware of my nonexistent background in the areas we covered. I learned a tremendous amount and thoroughly enjoyed facilitating this class (“teaching” implies that I knew what I was doing…). Ideally, I would like to see the class rotate through STEM departments at Brown, perhaps co-taught with faculty from our Science, Technology, and Society Program. There are aspects I would like to change: allocating more time for guest speakers and more readings on intersectionality, for instance.

Silber: What did you find most challenging about teaching this class? What did you find most interesting?

Sandstede: My main fear was that I would say the wrong things in class. I worried about facilitating a course that consists exclusively of assigned reading and classroom discussions of potentially sensitive topics — I felt very inadequate. I tried to address this by being open about these misgivings with my students (I included a discussion of our hopes and fears for the class, which helped me articulate these concerns). The most interesting aspect was our ability to engage in these topics from an academic viewpoint whilst also discussing personal experiences.

Silber: The reading list for your course looks very challenging, especially for a mathematician accustomed to thorough reading. How did you generate it? One book I recognized was Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi about stereotype threat. That book had a big impact on me; I was left reeling from it. Did a particular book or article have that kind of impact on you? How about the students? Any recommended reading for SIAM members?

Sandstede: Fortunately, I did not have to create the reading list! A group of undergraduate students designed the list in 2014 with help from many faculty members, including (notably) Cornelia Dean. I had read Whistling Vivaldi as part of Brown’s Team Enhanced Advising and Mentoring program — the book had a big influence on me too, and I would definitely recommend it to everyone. I think what impacted me most were the experiences that my students shared; many of these were very shocking, and they reinforced how far we are from an environment where everybody feels welcomed, respected, and included.

Silber: How did teaching this course change the way you think about diversity in applied mathematics? Why do you think it is important to our field and to STEM?

Sandstede: If anything, offering the course probably made me more pessimistic and disheartened. Most of my students came into this class hoping/thinking that we could identify a few major issues that— once resolved—would change everything; seeing their frustration at the systemic nature of the lack of diversity was depressing. I also felt very inadequate when they asked me about the stagnation of applied math and other STEM departments at Brown, and I could not give any satisfactory answers. There are many reasons to create a more diverse and inclusive environment in the sciences. A consistent theme in our class discussions is the challenge students encounter in persevering in a field where it is rare to see STEM faculty that look like them. For me, the lack of equal opportunity this implies is reason enough to work towards more diversity.

Silber: With so few women and underrepresented minorities in faculty positions, there is sometimes an expectation that they will advocate on behalf of diversity within departments—perhaps unfairly—freeing up others to focus on a different set of priorities. It seems that you might now be in a position to champion diversity on committees. Do you agree?

Sandstede: University of Michigan’s theatre group, which creates plays that cover a variety of situations in academia, performed one about a tenure case of a female faculty member — the committee consists of one woman, and she argues against tenure in the end. When I saw that play as part of a “Women in Neuroscience” workshop, several people asked why the female member did not support the faculty member more strongly. We were then told that another version of the play has the female committee member advocating strongly for tenure. In this case, the group is usually asked why she endorses the candidate; nobody questioned the male committee members in this way. So, I agree that we often put the burden on historically underrepresented faculty to advocate on behalf of their groups — which is wrong, as nobody should be expected to be a spokesperson for “their” group. I have started to champion for diversity more strongly; I do find it very challenging, but I also care less about pushback than I used to.

Silber: Thanks for your candid responses. I learned a number of things from this exchange, and thought of a few more questions. Did this class change the way you teach mathematics or mentor and advise students? How can people find out more about this class and acquire the reading list? Is there a broader community of STEM educators and students developing these materials?

Sandstede: Offering this class has changed the way in which I structure my classes and mentor students. Some of the changes involve simply talking more about challenges and expressing support more explicitly. The syllabus and reading list are available on my webpage. This summer, I plan to work with three former students to develop a guide for this course. There is a broader STEM community interested in these kinds of courses; for instance, Amherst College and Yale University offer courses on “Being Human in STEM” (HSTEM) that have similar goals to the Brown course. We had an HSTEM summit at Yale in April, and one of the discussion items was the creation of a central repository for these courses to share instructor guides and class materials.

Björn Sandstede is a professor in the Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He is a former Sloan Research Fellow, a SIAM Fellow, and the 2001 recipient of the SIAM Activity Group on Dynamical Systems’ J.D. Crawford Prize. Mary Silber is a professor in the Department of Statistics and director of the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics at the University of Chicago. She is a SIAM Fellow, an American Physical Society Fellow, and recipient of a National Science Foundation Division of Mathematical Sciences CAREER Award. Silber and Sandstede are acquainted through their shared research interests in pattern formation.

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