We need more Black people in STEM research

Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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So, there is a need for more Black people in research spaces — particularly in science and engineering fields. No, I do not mean “diversity.” I mean more Black people.

Meeting this need seems to be an established goal of graduate research programs in the sciences for different reasons. Great effort and resources are dedicated to recruiting diverse groups to attend graduate schools, because they bring varying perspectives and backgrounds, which enrich the knowledge produced.

Many funding opportunities and fellowships are available for people from diverse backgrounds to obtain doctorate degrees or go into academia. However, what I still see is almost no Black people in research spaces on campus — whether that be at research talks and meetings, in lab buildings, or on lab websites. Our lab websites are more aligned with Cal’s demographics than our admissions website photographs — let that sink in.

By now, like other Black students I’ve talked to, I’m used to being an “only” in my science lectures of about 200, and I’m used to seeing other lectures with no Black students in them. I always nod and wave when I see another Black student anywhere on campus, whether or not I know them.

Think about whether you have ever had to do that. Think about whether you scan your lectures, club meetings and gatherings on campus to see if you can find another student with your skin color — because I do, constantly. It is my reality, as a part of a community which makes up less than 3 percent of the campus population, according to UC Berkeley fall enrollment data. I get hit by this reality everytime I walk into a new research space, and little is changing. I can tell those around me do not notice, because their realities are so different.

If you did not before, I hope you agree now: We need more Black people in research. You are probably asking, “Why isn’t that happening as quickly as it should be?” For starters, I’m sure administrators would agree the issue of diversity is not an easy fix. I have my hypotheses on why I tend to disagree, for the culture, of course, but also because it is my lived experience. While I am not in the shoes of administrators and faculty, I still believe they could be doing more to bring more Black people into science research and their labs.

Many factors determine whether or not Black students will get a chance to experience research, despite being at a research institution, right from birth until they enroll in college. While my focus is on the latter, I’ll say the majority of Black children do not get meaningful and positive exposure to the possibility of being a scientist, and representation plays a big part. Research experience is required for graduate school, because students need to understand what getting a doctorate entails, before dedicating four to six years of their lives to it.

Fortunately, we are at a top research institution. Yet, any undergraduate student who has ever tried to get into a lab on campus knows it is incredibly difficult to secure a research position without prior research experience, even when offering to volunteer. Although the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program offers students apprentice positions, few make the cut. I have heard traditional, four-year students say they send 10 to 30 emails to different professors, and are lucky to get a reply if they do not know someone in the lab to put in a good word, or have some other connection to the lab prior to applying. Keep in mind, these spaces are predominantly non-Black, so we miss out on the connects and don’t know the plugs.

Although GPA says little about research abilities, labs, research programs and department majors use it to weed out applicants. Obviously, some of us have higher GPAs than others. However, there needs to be institutional accountability in recognizing differences in our backgrounds, responsibilities and realities as they affect our grades. If my background and responsibilities in addition to classes affect what grades I get, then it is unfair to solely evaluate me based on grades without this context. Still, GPA cut-offs exist, which in my experience lead to a lot of Black students who start off as STEM majors switching majors, or leaving college entirely due to difficulties faced in being rated as a “failure.” This is not to support the notion that other majors in humanities, arts and social sciences are easier, as popular campus culture propagates, but to point out a trend which goes unaccounted for. We see Black students thrive when those in positions of privilege to do so “take chances” on us and provide us with these opportunities regardless of how we look “on paper.”

To bring it full circle, those same students with higher GPAs can probably also afford to live here over the summer and work in a lab they are interested in, full time, for no pay. But I cannot afford my rent without financial aid and my work-study job. I relied on stipends from summer research experiences to pay my first two months of rent in the fall — Cal Student Central Electronic Funds Transfer and check disbursements are delayed at the start of the semester.

Yet, I and others like me are expected to compete on equal footing as more privileged applicants, with no intentionality on the part of the labs in recruitment, even though merely not paying undergraduates stops the majority of the Black student population from considering research opportunities.

Now add being a community college transfer student to the equation. With only four semesters to complete coursework, and one summer in between, you might miss most of the research programs’ deadlines by the time your “Berkeley GPA” rolls around in the spring — sometimes even later, if you are a spring admit — and graduate without getting a chance to apply to, let alone be rejected from, a research program.

There is a large population of nontraditional students, and intersections in identities missed in selecting undergraduate researchers. Most conversations around diversity forget intersectionality, and leave out the identities of those not represented. Elite research programs across the country pat themselves on the back for recruiting femaleidentifying scientists, when most of the time, none of them in the entire cohort are Black. In my experience, they are predominantly white and East Asian, just like our campus population.

I wonder, “Is it not possible to be female, and Black, and queer and/or trans, and disabled,  and low-income, and first-generation, and from a small town, possessing all of these markers for diversity all at once?”

How do we get research experience if we cannot get into labs in the first place? I happen to be incredibly fortunate — the steps which led me to research were intentional on my part, and on the part of those who provided me with those opportunities. Black students are beyond ready to explore and choose scientific research careers. But first, our identities and experiences need to be accounted for by intentional recruitment into labs, with or without prior research experience, to enable us explore science in the context of academia.

For more Black gold and your listening pleasure, check out season 2, episode 3 of “The Fog at Bay” podcast to hear from two Black graduate students in the sciences here and at UCSF.

Ifechukwu Okeke is a junior transfer student, the community programs director for the Black Student Union and a part of the Biology Scholars Program. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program offers paid research opportunities for students. In fact, none of the positions offered are paid.