Diversity in Biology

Now, I’m sure that seeing an article on this site about diversity and biology seems intuitive, and maybe even a little over-done at this point.  You might be thinking “Diversity again?” as you read this, but bear with me.  This time around, I’m not discussing the usual issue of biodiversity that we so commonly see on science-minded sites like Fireside Science; I’m talking about diversity within the community of biology researchers.  Biology, like other sciences, has a history and historiography that is pretty well dominated by white men, for a number of reasons.  At the same time, there has been for a few years now discussion about how to improve the representation of minority groups (or “subalterns” as I’ll be calling non-majority individuals from here on out) in STEM fields (1,2).  I teach biology classes, but I’ll admit to often being put off by my own courses at times.  As a not-a-white-male, I don’t often see myself represented in the stories that I teach my students and that my teachers taught me.  Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Aldo Leopold, Watson and Crick- all critical thinkers that helped to shape the lessons I learned and characters whom I learned about in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

That’s not a bad thing- to discuss the history of our discipline along with the content- but I have to wonder what message it sends to students when they don’t see themselves reflected in the history of their field?  I happen to be married to a historian, and as luck would have it, my historian studies subaltern history, and the civil rights movement in the US, so he has plenty to say on the importance of teaching representative history.  Which got me thinking, how can I improve my courses to reflect more of my students’ perspectives and experiences in their educational experience?  I know of some people who have worked in biology who fit what I’m looking for, but I’m still learning a lot as I go.  Good examples that I have so far include Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathai, Rosalind Franklin, Tyrone Hayes, Temple Grandin, and Alan Turing.  Rachel Carson was the marine biologist who wrote “Silent Spring,” one of the books that opened the public’s eyes on the concerns around DDT usage and the environment (3).  Wangari Maathai was the biologist and environmental activist who founded the African Green Belt Movement, and was recognized with a Noble Peace Prize for her efforts in Africa (4).  Rosalind Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer who recorded the first images of DNA (5).  Temple Grandin has made great contributions to animal behavior and treatment of livestock animals (6).  Tyrone Hayes’s work on atrazine was some of the first studies to question the safety of this widely used chemical (7).  Alan Turing, while not a biologist himself, was a preeminent code breaker, mathematician, and early computer scientist, made advancements in computers, which have contributed greatly to biology through modeling, statistics, and other related disciplines made possible with today’s computing power.

So why would we be interested in having diverse representation in biology, or any field?  Simple- that diversity of individuals brings a diversity of perspectives, more discussion, and more possible solutions to problems than would otherwise be heard by a monoculture typically does.  There has been an argument made previously that humans are the ultimate resource (9), owing to our brains, thinking ability, and compassion.  I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “ultimate,” but the idea that humans are an important resource is fairly common across many disciplines, from biology to business.

Now, in the spirit of the crowd-funding that is currently going on with SciFund’s partners at Experiment, I’m going to try a bit of crowd-sourcing on this classroom make-over project, and ask for your help.  So, scientific community, readers, researchers, educators, and everyone else out there- who’s your favorite minority/subaltern biologist, and what’s their story?  They don’t have to be famous or dead, maybe your dissertation adviser has made huge advancements in their specialty- tell the world about them.  And help me build a more inclusive and representative class all at the same time.  Thanks in advance, and I’ll update here as I get some good resources.  If you’re an educator who would like to learn more along with me, then a list of reading material that was recommended to me by a history of science colleague of my husband’s follows (with a debt of gratitude and a hat-tip to Assistant Professor Matthew Crawford, History Department, Kent State University):

Bergland, R. L. (2008). Maria Mitchell and the sexing of science: An astronomer among the American romantics. Beacon Press.
Conner, C. (2009). A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks. Nation books.
Des Jardins, J. (2010). The Madame Curie complex: The hidden history of women in science. Feminist Press at CUNY.
Schiebinger, L. L. (1993). Nature’s body: Gender in the making of modern science. Rutgers University Press.
Schiebinger, L. (1991). The mind has no sex?: Women in the origins of modern science. Harvard University Press.
P.S. You can contribute to more traditional diversity-oriented biology research here and help undergraduates experience the thrill of science, and see themselves as a part of the scientific process.

1. Hurtado, S., Newman, C. B., Tran, M. C., & Chang, M. J. (2010). Improving the rate of success for underrepresented racial minorities in STEM fields: Insights from a national project. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2010(148), 5-15.

2. Tsui, L. (2007). Effective strategies to increase diversity in STEM fields: A review of the research literature. The Journal of Negro Education, 555-581.

3. Carson, R. (1951). The sea around us. Oxford University Press.

4. Maathai, W. (2004). The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. Lantern Books.

5. Franklin, R. E. (1950). The interpretation of diffuse X-ray diagrams of carbon. Acta Crystallographica, 3(2), 107-121.

6. Grandin, T. (1997). Assessment of stress during handling and transport. Journal of Animal science, 75(1), 249-257.

7. Hayes, T. B., Collins, A., Lee, M., Mendoza, M., Noriega, N., Stuart, A. A., & Vonk, A. (2002). Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(8), 5476-5480.

8. Turing, A. M. (1948). Rounding-off errors in matrix processes. The Quarterly Journal of Mechanics and Applied Mathematics, 1(1), 287-308.

9. Simon, J. L. (1998). The ultimate resource 2. Princeton University Press.