September 2020


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 29 Sep 2020 22:36:30 -0500
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Black scientists call out racism in the field and counter it
By Christina Larson
September 28, 2020 at 11:02 p.m. CDT

University of Washington ecologist Christopher Schell is studying how
coronavirus shutdowns have affected wildlife in Seattle and other cities.
But when planning fieldwork, he also thinks about how he is perceived in
neighborhoods where he installs wildlife cameras.

“I wear the nerdiest glasses I have and often a jacket that has my college
logo, so that people don’t mistake me for what they think is a thug or
hooligan,” said Schell, who is African American.

The recent episode of a White woman calling the police on a Black birder in
New York’s Central Park shocked many people. But for Black environmental
scientists, worrying about whether they are likely to be harassed or asked
to justify their presence while doing fieldwork is a familiar concern.

Tanisha Williams, a botanist at Bucknell University, knows which plants
she’s looking for. But after being questioned by strangers in public parks,
Williams, who is Black, has started carrying her field guides with her.

“I’ve been quizzed by random strangers,” she said. “Now I bring my
wildflower books and botanical field guides, trying to look like a
scientist. It’s for other people. I wouldn’t otherwise lug these books.”

Overt harassment and subtle intimidation during fieldwork compound the
discrimination that Black scientists and those from other underrepresented
racial and ethnic backgrounds already feel in academic settings.

Now researchers in the environmental sciences are increasingly raising
issues of discrimination and marginalization in the wake of a national
reckoning on race. They are also pointing out how a lack of diversity among
scientists can lead to flawed or incomplete research.

A National Science Foundation survey found that, in 2016, scholars who
identified as Black or African American were awarded just 6 percent of all
doctorates in life sciences and less than 3 percent of doctorates in
physical and Earth sciences. Students who identified as Hispanic or Latino
were awarded less than 8 percent of doctorates in life sciences and about 5
percent of doctorates in physical and Earth sciences. According to the most
recent census, Black people make up 13.4 percent of the population, and
Latinos 18.5 percent.

“The issue is not lack of interest” on the part of students from the
underrepresented groups, said the University of Washington’s Scott Freeman,
who studies educational pipelines to degrees in science, technology,
engineering or math (STEM). But many of those students come from families
with fewer financial resources and face gaps in access to secondary
education that is geared toward the sciences or college preparation. Those
factors can influence how well they perform in freshman general chemistry —
considered a gateway course for pursuing these STEM majors.

It’s possible to decrease the impact of these disadvantages by adjusting
teaching styles, such as replacing traditional large lectures with hands-on
learning, according to Freeman’s research. And students from
underrepresented backgrounds who overcome initial obstacles are “hyper
persistent” in their studies, continuing at higher rates in STEM fields
compared with their white peers, he found.

Addressing these gaps has taken on new urgency as the United States
confronts systemic racism in the wake of nationwide protests after the
death of George Floyd at the hands of police.

At a meeting this summer of the Society for Conservation Biology North
America, one panel was devoted to “why conservation science needs to
prioritize racial and social justice.” Hundreds of scientists have joined a
wider discussion among academics about racism, posting their personal
experiences of discrimination under the Twitter hashtag #BlackintheIvory,
referring to the ivory tower.

But environmental scientists must confront discrimination not just in the
halls of academia but in the field, as well.

Carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, a fellow at the National Geographic
Society, said she has to put her “feelings aside” when her fieldwork takes
her to places where she encounters racist symbols. While driving in rural
Maryland to study bears, Wynn-Grant, who is Black, passed several
Confederate flags and a cloth doll of a lynched man hanging from a tree.

“This is the extra labor Black people have to do in order to participate in
something they’re interested in,” she said.

Many researchers say that exposing middle school and high school students
to scientists from diverse backgrounds is essential to combating systemic

“Growing up, the only Black botanist I’d heard of was George Washington
Carver,” said Williams, the scientist at Bucknell, who helped organize a
Twitter campaign to highlight the achievements of Black botanists.

Itumeleng Moroenyane, a doctoral student at the National Institute of
Scientific Research in Quebec, grew up in ­post-apartheid South Africa and
said he was the only Black botany student in his university’s graduating
class. Moroenyane makes it a priority to mentor younger Black scholars.

Corina Newsome said her passion for biology started during a high school
internship at the Philadelphia Zoo, where a zookeeper who mentored her was
the first Black scientist she had met.

Now an ornithologist at Georgia Southern University, Newsome, who is Black,
said institutions can promote diversity by helping students find mentors
and offering paid internships.

“To enter wildlife studies, you are often expected to do a lot of free
labor and free internships early in your career,” she said. “This
automatically excludes many people.”

Empowering ecologists and other researchers from diverse backgrounds can
improve the research itself, scientists say.

Deja Perkins, a Black conservation biologist at North Carolina State
University, has studied gaps in how community-science birdwatching projects
are conducted in wealthy and poor communities.

“It’s a problem if data from poor neighborhoods isn’t collected, and that
shapes wildlife management plans,” she said.

The University of Washington’s Schell noted that Black scientists have led
the field of urban ecology to examine crucial questions about how redlining
— racial discrimination in mortgage-lending practices — has shaped urban
landscapes, influencing which neighborhoods have more or less green space
and biodiversity.

“Who you are affects the questions you ask and the type of data that’s
being collected,” Schell said. “We cannot understand how our natural world
interacts with our cities without understanding the problems and legacy of

— Associated Press