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A Composite Material

The materials science community seeks a path toward inclusiveness

by Andrea Widener
November 3, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 44

Photo of Boise State University professor David Estrada with undergraduate research assistant Kari McLaughlin.
Credit: Tony Varghese
Estrada works with a student in his Boise State lab.

David Estrada knows firsthand how a good mentoring experience can change a student’s life.

Estrada, the first in his family to attend college, initially foundered, so he left school and joined the Navy, where he developed an interest in engineering.

After his service, Estrada went back to school, this time at Boise State University in Idaho. He became a McNair Scholar, a program that prepares undergraduates for doctoral work. It gave Estrada a glimpse into research and connected him with people who work in science. Before that, “I had no idea what people with a Ph.D. did, how to pay for one, et cetera,” he says.

Estrada is now a professor of materials science and engineering at Boise State. He shared his experience of becoming a materials scientist at a 2012 workshop aimed at increasing ethnic diversity in the field. A report summarizing the recommendations was released earlier this year.

“If the community is aware of the issues and can address them, then we can cast a wide net” to attract more women and minority researchers, he says. “You will end up with a more diverse community.”

Diversifying Materials Science

A workshop report aimed at improving diversity in materials science and engineering set forward a five-year plan with several goals.

Immediate goal: Identify issues and challenges that have minimized minority participation in materials science.

Near-term goals: Gather and disseminate data on those challenges. Launch and track initiatives to increase the number of minorities pursuing degrees and careers in materials science.

Long-term goals: Create an ever-increasing number of minority role models in science fields who will, in turn, draw others in to contribute to the workforce of the future.

SOURCE: “Ethnic Diversity in Materials Science and Engineering” report

In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, the percentage of African American or Hispanic faculty in materials science hovered around 2% each. Women account for about 14% of faculty.

But unlike other areas of science, there is no straightforward track to becoming a materials scientist. Estrada is an electrical engineer, but many others working in materials science come from chemistry, physics, biology, or other fields.

Materials science “benefits from the strengths of all the disciplines that make it up, but it also suffers from the combination of weaknesses, particularly in the area of diversity,” says Guebre X. Tessema of the National Science Foundation, which was one of the federal agencies to support the report. “There is no one particular community that you can work on to improve.”

And that’s why materials scientists are taking it upon themselves to change things from inside, says Justin Schwartz, who is department chair of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University. Schwartz organized the workshop, which was the third meeting to look at diversity in the field. The first two examined the status of women and scientists with disabilities.

“There are so many times that this problem gets looked at and the finger gets pointed at K–12” education, Schwartz explains. “Why don’t we instead take a look at the things we can control?”

The report outlined recommendations that include research support for minority-serving institutions, the contributions of unconscious bias to recruitment and retention, and the value of mentorship.

Materials science already has one major diversity program: the Partnerships for Research & Education in Materials (PREM) at NSF. It develops collaborations between minority-serving institutions—historically black colleges are one example—and NSF-supported materials research centers.

Several of the report’s recommendations call for strengthening or expanding PREM. This could be done by extending support directly to minority-serving institutions or by funding more extensive collaborations between materials research centers and those colleges, Schwartz explains.

For Estrada, one surprising revelation was the role of unconscious bias in hiring. Several studies have shown that when presented résumés containing identical experiences and background but with different names, scientists will often choose the male over the female applicant. Being aware of that possibility can change how you respond, he says.

Even though he is part of an ethnic minority and is aware of favoritism, Estrada acknowledges that as a man he may still have an unconscious bias against women. Being aware of that possibility can change how he responds and can help him reach his own goal of having a diverse research group, Estrada says.

The role of mentorship for minority scientists is also essential to increase diversity, Tessema says. Because there are so few minority leaders, “it is a challege for those who are in that position but also for those who are up and coming and looking for mentors,” he says.

Moving forward, the plan is to begin working through professional societies in materials science to begin prioritizing the workshop’s findings and identifying ways to act, Schwartz says. The start might be a more extensive survey to find out what steps would make the most immediate difference.

“This is a topic where we can get away from a competition mode,” Schwartz says. “We all benefit if this succeeds.”



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