Episode 6: STEM: Will I fit in?

Bryce Hughes: There's solid research that shows that bringing together diverse teams produces better results. People from different backgrounds can think of different ways to solve problems often just based on having lived different life experiences, that if you bring together that have too homogenous of a worldview, you may fall subject to problems like groupthink or not being able to get outside of that box. Because they're very comfortable with the way things have always been done.

Diverse teams are also better at identifying a diverse set of problems to address, as opposed to people who share similar backgrounds and similar experiences who may have a narrow idea of the problems that a technology company or the research and development arm of an industry might find important to address.

Dr. Amy Shepherd: Hello, welcome to episode six of The Secret Life of STEM. My name is Amy Shepherd, I am one of your navigators for this episode. Here with me is Buffy Gorrilla, one of the producers of this podcast.

Buffy Gorrilla: Thanks Amy. Can you tell our listeners a bit about yourself, and why you are so well-suited to take us through this episode?

Amy: Well, I just finished my PhD at the Florey Institute, I am from New Zealand, I am a woman in STEM and I was the president of WISE…

Buffy: What’s WISE?

Amy: It stands forWomen in Science and Engineering, and its goal is to encourage more women to go into and stay with a career in STEM - getting more women working in STEM is just one facet of the diamond-like diversity that we are going to tackle in this episode. Opening this episode was Dr Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor with the Adult & Higher Education Program at Montana State University in the United States.

Oh and Buffy, on a side note, I think it’s important to know that WISE isn’t the only group promoting diversity in STEM at this university or any university. Most universities have communities, clubs or societies where you can meet people and get support - depending on your background.

Buffy: Such a good point Amy. Dr Hughes’ research examines the academic lives of LGBTQIA+ students in STEM - an interest he developed from his own experiences.

Bryce Hughes: Part of it began when I was an undergraduate. I had majored in engineering, so I had been in a STEM field. I actually ultimately decided not to go into engineering even though I finished my bachelor's degree. I stayed at the university and went into education instead. But where I actually went into LQBT support, I helped start a center at the university for LGBT students.

But later on, I got involved in a project at UCLA when I was a doctoral student where we were studying the experiences of racial minorities and STEM. That's where I began to wonder has anybody looked at the experiences of LGBTQ students in STEM? There were elements of my experiences in undergraduate that I felt like, being gay, I didn't completely fit in within engineering. I would say my interests probably drove me out of engineering more than anything. But reading some of the research on what it's like to be different in STEM got me thinking about whether anyone had studied it.

Amy: So Bryce has been studying LGBTQIA+ inclusion in STEM almost ever since. While Dr Hughes’ focus is on one area, there is a lot more research happening in other areas that shows why it is such a good idea to have diversity on our teams.

Buffy: One pair looking into this are Nicky Howe and Alicia Curtis, who wrote The Difference Makers. They are champions of inclusive leadership, talking about strategies to overcome bias, fostering open dialogue and sparking innovation by getting more voices to the table.

Amy: That’s fascinating. It’s super exciting to see all of the good stuff we can unleash by getting different viewpoints on our team. During your STEM career, you are going to meet a huge range of people of different genders, cultures, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, and of course age, and people from different countries and backgrounds.

Buffy: Such a good point Amy. Let’s build our own diverse dream team… and see what their experiences can bring. First up...

Sofia Frentz: Hi, I'm Sophia Frentz. I have a PhD from the University of Melbourne in clinical genetics. I currently work for Deloitte as one of their consultants in their technology, strategy, and architecture team, which essentially means we go into companies and we tell them how to do computers better.

Dr. Frentz: I've always been fascinated by science. I say science sort of hesitantly because really what I like is solving problems. I've always been someone who wants to figure out how the world works. Not quite to the scale of taking apart a washing machine, but I sure would have, had I been given the chance. Considered it a couple times. I hope my parents don’t hear this.

I really like pulling the world apart and seeing how it works. That leads you often quite naturally towards genetics, if you're more biologically inclined. It can lead you towards quantum mechanics and physics. It can lead you towards even technology, because so much of our life is controlled by technology these days. To pull apart what affects our lives is to look at the code, is to look at the algorithms, and is to look at how machines interact with each other because they are our way of engaging with the world. So much of my friendships I predominantly communicate with through Facebook, and a lot of them aren't in Australia. Some people have heard my accent. I'm from New Zealand originally, so technology is how I stay in touch with my family, with my friends back home. That's why I think the movement both into science and then across from science towards technology consulting is quite natural almost, because it's looking at those underlying problems. It's looking at the really basic level of how we engage with the world and how the world works really, and starting to pull that apart and make that better and see where we can improve it.

Buffy: What excited you about year 10 science if you can remember that?

Dr. Frentz: I took all sciences 'cause I'm a massive nerd. My year 10 science teacher really liked me. I don't think the actual content of the curriculum really excited me, but the fact that we would chat after class and he would talk to me about really cool interesting developments today. Those were the things that interested me. I'm very self-willed, is probably the nice way to put it. I would do a lot of reading and a lot of learning outside classes. I wasn't particularly engaged in year 10. I probably got there more in year 11 and year 12, but in year 10 it was like, "okay, fine. I will study this because I have to in order to get to the interesting stuff later."

Buffy: You use that word 'nerd' with no hesitation. Why?

Dr. Frentz: Being a nerd is being unapologetically enthusiastic about something. I think that's a Dr. Who quote. Oh my goodness.

Buffy: You're just leaning in.

Dr. Frentz: Yeah, I am. I don't have any questions about who I am, really. I mean I've got a PhD. I can't really deny the fact that I'm a massive nerd now. Right? I spent three and a half years studying genetics at this tiny specific level. I think there's nothing wrong with being really interested in cool things.

Buffy: Have you faced discrimination in workplace or education?

Dr. Frentz: That's a question I'm gonna have to answer delicately. There are instances where it is obvious that people have never thought about people like me being scientists.

Buffy: Describe people like you.

Dr. Frentz: I'm non-binary, but I'm very feminine, so I'm typically read as a woman, so I experience all the discrimination that women in science do. So often I will lump myself in with that group. Also, I'm disabled. I was particularly walking with a stick during the last about year of my PhD. The big thing that was coming to mind when I said that, was the fact that no one had really thought about people using walking sticks in the lab before, so I just had to figure out how to do it and how to do it in a sort of aseptic technique manner so that I could use my walking stick in the PC2 lab because I needed to do that. I sort of jury-rigged up something where I put one glove over my handle and another one over the base so that I could use it in these spaces. But it was just something that had never been considered previously as maybe being necessary. I wouldn't say that is hard and fast discrimination, but it certainly isn't inclusion.

Buffy: Why had that never been considered do you think? 'Cause no one else has ever needed a walking stick in a lab?

Dr. Frentz: Because no one in that context had needed a walking stick in the lab, so people had not thought beyond their experiences, and their experiences were predominantly ‘scientists don't need walking sticks’. Or if they need crutches then they can leave them outside the lab. Or if they need a walking stick, they can. They have the ability to leave it outside the lab. It hadn't been considered.

This is not to cast any shade on people. Ignorance isn't in or of itself a bad thing. This is why I'm sort of being very careful, because I don't want to say these people are bad for not knowing. No one is bad for not knowing, but it does make it difficult from my perspective to engage with the world.

Buffy: Physical stuff aside, what are other ways of seeing the world? How can we get more views on our team?

Amy: I think we might have a good candidate.

Chloe Stewart: Alrighty. Hi, I'm Chloe Stewart. I am studying environmental science at RMIT Uni. I was diagnosed when I was like 15 in high school, and it took me a while to get my head around. But when I first was diagnosed or when it was first suggested, it was a real relief honestly. It was just a moment of, that explains a lot about my life. Before then, I'd just been really struggling with anxiety and stuff like that, and also communication and chatting to people in high school and a bit of social anxiety as well. Whether that's cause or effect I don't know, but anyways. I started seeing a psychologist and then later a speech pathologist and together they put their nerdy powers together and worked out that I probably had autism.

Buffy: How has your life changed since that diagnosis?

Chloe: It's had its ups and downs. Like there was a time in high school where I was just, since I was diagnosed I was just acutely aware of it and how different I actually was to my peers, and I started noticing that. But also on the other hand it was really helpful to have a word for what it was that I was living with that made me a little bit different.

Buffy: I think a lot of listeners will probably be familiar with some of the stereotypes that come along with autists and STEM. And I was wondering if you can tell me because you said you excelled at some of those science and STEM courses when you were younger. Do you feel that those were because you're on the spectrum or can you talk a little bit about that?

Chloe: Sure. Frankly, no. I did think about it for a bit. Like okay, I guess I don't entirely think it's because of my autism. I'm also just a very curious person and I like to know the cause and effects of things and why that ... why things happen. All that. But I think there are also certain strengths that perhaps it is my autism that helps me in that kind of thing. I'm very creative, I'm fairly good at retaining knowledge that's interesting to me. And I'm really good at making connections between bits of information which is quite good when it comes to analyzing say experimental results, stuff like that. In the process of getting diagnosed with autism I took one of those classic intelligence tests and one of my major strengths, it found out was, again my higher reasoning in connecting things. So yeah, I do have reason to believe that it is partially my autism helping me out in my science. But then again, it's also kind of hard to say because, because when you're a person with autism that "condition," I'll say that in quote unquotes. It’s just intertwined with your personality. I'm sure you've heard it a million times if you've seen much about autism that it's just part of who you are and you can't change that. So then it's kind of hard to separate the autism aspects from the me aspects.

Amy: We don’t care how people come to STEM - our team just needs awesome thinkers who can crush whatever problem we bring to them.

Buffy: Let’s meet David Cameron Staples - he works at the University of Melbourne - he tells us how autism can be an asset to any team.

David Cameron-Staples: When autists are growing up, part of the very definition of it is a difficulty connecting with other people personally. You don't know how people work because they're all confusing and changeable and nothing seems to make sense. When you think you've figured out a way of dealing with it, it's different the next day and it's all very confusing, and then you find a computer and a computer does what you tell it to do. No matter how stupid the thing is you've told it to do, it will do it.

If you figure out how something works, it works the same way tomorrow. You don't have to figure out what the computer's mood is. You don't have to sweet talk it and for my generation, when we first got on the internet, which was a brand, shiny new thing interacting through green text on a black screen, we would type in text and we would see text, and there were people on the other side of that text, but all of the stuff that gets in the way, all of the noise in the background, all of the facial expressions, all of the emotional side-channels of communication that we can't see, suddenly it's not an issue anymore because they can't see it either, and they were all brought down to our level, which is why back then the internet was our natural home.

Building the internet was natural for us because everyone had to argue on our sort of intellectual level. It was sometimes about feelings but if you couldn't make a good argument for it, no one would go along with you. It was all originally built on consensus, and it was consensus mediated through the screen, so you didn't have to meet people to have this meaningful connection with them. To some extent, the internet is built by autists.

The other thing is the way we tend to think, we tend to think in systems. We like systems. We like to know how the whole thing works together and a computer is an understandable system. It's much more understandable than a human being so we tend to understand how computers work and when you understand how something works, it's much nicer to work with it, to play with it, to spend time with it. For us, working with technology tends to be fun - more than work.

Amy: Yes, that’s what they say… find something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!

Buffy: So we’ve had some gender diversity and neurodiversity. Let’s take a little break to review a couple more candidates.

Amy: Good idea, and I actually have some data to bring to that impulse Buffy:

McKinsey did this report in 2014, - it was called Diversity Matters. They compared diverse companies that employed more women and minority groups with companies that were more or less homogeneous. And guess what? The diverse companies won! They were more likely to make above average returns. Being diverse is good for the bottom line… and you know… it’s the right thing to do.

Oh! It’s that time in the episode for a reverse engineering segment. University of Melbourne students have told us about skin pigments, irrational numbers, wireless chargers and home assistants, and if you haven’t listened to these, you definitely should. Fascinating! Today, it’s my former VP of WISE, Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, and she explains neuro-racism.

Catriona Nguyen-Robertson: I’m Catriona, and I’m doing a PhD in biomedical sciences, studying how your immune system works. – but I’m interested in all sorts of sciences. Today I want to chat about racism, our brains, and neuroscience.

In 2017, one in five Australians experienced racism - perhaps you may have experienced it yourself. Australia is a reasonably culturally diverse society that is dominantly Anglo. A recent study from the Western Sydney University revealed that a surprising number of Australians have negative feelings towards people of different backgrounds. Not a majority, but a significant proportion.

Perhaps you might not have racist feelings yourself, but we all might have prejudiced thoughts from time to time. Part of that thinking - and I stress only part of it - is to do with the brain and familiarity.

While it’s true to say that we’re not born racist, by the age of four months, babies show a preference to be held by people of similar skin tone to their parents. As you grow up, you begin to form your own opinions about people, but there are still stereotypes that are portrayed in the media and other factors that may influence how you view ethnicity.

A study looked at which parts of the brain were activated when looking at faces. Caucasian individuals were shown glimpses of a Caucasian face, the part of the brain that lit up was the region that deals with facial recognition, but when they were shown African-American faces, the region of the brain that lit up first was the one responsible for driving the fight or flight response, and then the facial recognition part. This shows that they initially saw the face as a threat – if only for a brief instant.

The good news is that it is about familiarity, because if the people were shown faces of well-known African-American people, such as Morgan Freeman and Barack Obama, then there was no response in the fight-or-flight region of the brain.

A similar sort of thing is seen with empathy, in that people watching a sports game were more empathetic to players who got injured if they were from the same ethnic background, no matter which team, but if the player was on the team they go for, it didn’t matter what the colour of their skin was.

This goes to show that there is, in part, a biological explanation to why prejudice exists. But our emotional and biological urges do not rule us. And I’m not at all saying that this is an excuse for racist behaviours. There is no excuse. But it’s interesting to know that it’s partly because our brain processes unfamiliar faces differently, and we can change this by being more familiar with people of different racial groups – and by increasing diverse representation everywhere. By the way, workplace diversity has been shown to lead to greater business success.So good luck in your science adventures, wherever you’re from.

Amy: Thanks Catriona.

Grace Kalinin: My name's Grace Kalinin. I'm studying at the University of Sydney, I'm currently studying a Bachelor of Science and Advanced Studies, majoring in food and international business.

Amy: Grace is a participant in the Indigenous STEM Education Project which is sponsored by the CSIRO in Australia.

Grace: I got involved by a teacher who I encouraged me, the Indigenous Coordinator who encouraged me to apply for it. However, I was a bit hesitant that I wouldn't get it. But after getting it, I got to go to Townsville and work with people my own age and work on a little project that we then did a presentation on at the end of the camp, which was incredible and made me love science even more. Which was great.

Amy: Grace explains how this program blended Indigenous traditions with science-based learning.

Grace: In our off-time, when we weren't doing the presentations and the experiments, we were working with elders and learning more about our culture and the traditional lands and the way they do stuff up in Townsville. Which was really a great experience. And we learned a lot about their history and culture from what they ate and how they conducted their traditional ways. And they taught us how they lived, which was incredible.

This program not only guided me to where I am today, but it's also provided me ongoing support during Year 10, 11 and 12. It actually gave me an opportunity between Year 11 and 12 to go and work in Wollongong Uni with the chemistry lab there. Which was incredible because it not only helped me in my studies at school but it also helped me with my degree.

Amy: It is so true that you can’t be what you can’t see. Some people out there even try to change what others see as possible. This team we are building is turning out to be an amazing group of thinkers.

Buffy: Another Grace is auditioning for our team, and she has what it takes to change the story about women in STEM. Research says that the main influences on students’ decisions to study STEM (or not) is something called ‘identity perceived ability and aspirations’. These factors are culturally determined, we have the power to change them.

It's currently true that some areas are still very male dominated. It’s been shown that actively including a wide range of people and creating a welcoming culture in STEM fields can boost the number of women in STEM, and will make our dream team super cool.

Grace Mckee: Hi, my name is Grace and I'm the founder of Sisters in Science, a student run organization where we try to connect young women with women who do STEM.

It started when I was finishing year 12, and my sister was going into year 11 for the first time, and this was an all girls school. She wanted to do specialist maths. But out of 180 girls, not enough were interested for the class to run. And I, I don't know, I saw that number and I'm like that can't be right. Because you hear about discrimination in classrooms between boys and girls and girls feeling like they're not as good as boys, or the barriers that come from a girl/boy classroom that stop girls from doing STEM. But that number is extremely low compared to an all boys school. So there has to be other factors there that are stopping these young women from thinking about maths as a pathway for them.

Buffy: Grace went to an obvious source for help, but she came away a bit frustrated.

Grace Mckee: I had a discussion with my science teacher and he's like yeah, yeah, we're doing everything we can. But what he was doing was very, very token gesture efforts and also efforts that I didn't believe were deep enough to the cause. He would write a list of famous mathematicians and all they've done throughout history, but that would be all men and how is that supposed to inspire girls. Like it's a great cause, but also doesn't really tap into the deep issue. So I had this discussion with him at the end of year 12 and I listed a whole lot of ideas that I could've done and I don't think many of them happened. And then I went into uni - my degree is science, but it's called a Bachelor of Science Advanced Global Challenges. So we look at science, but we look at also a little bit of politics, business, entrepreneurship, social impact, and how that all correlates to what's going on in science and how to use the overlap of all of those to improve global issues that we have.

Buffy: Her status as a STEM influencer came from a class assignment.

Grace Mckee: Such a stressful assignment. Especially as a science student where you get the science and then you break it down and then you learn it and you understand it then you do something with it. This felt like the fluffiest, most abstract thing, we all struggled very much. But I went back to my high school and I said, "Hey, I wanna do something. I wanna see more girls doing science." And so for about three months I was brainstorming and talking to everyone I knew about what can I actually do for my old high school to actually have a specialists maths class run and have enough girls to get 30 girls interested in doing specialists maths. And what I did was I talked to everyone I knew, every single person was on board with the cause, they're like yeah, that's great, do it. 'Cause it's, yeah it's very easy cause to support. It's a very buzz sort of cause right now. And a few friends from Uni Melbourne actually came on board, we pulled a few all nighters, came up with the idea of getting women who actually work in STEM, who have a lot more knowledge about actual STEM career pathways to come to my high school and then chat to the girls instead of us, because we're uni students so we don't, we're not the outcome yet. We're still in the journey.

Buffy: Our team is coming together nicely, and of course, this is only a smattering of the diversity available - here’s Dr. Sophia Frentz again.

Dr. Frentz: Be conscious of how you're including people and being conscious that you are. Having accessible events. I've been to conferences where the walls between the poster presentations were narrow that it was difficult for two people to walk past each other. A wheelchair is never going to fit down there. Be aware that people exist in the world in different ways. So you need to make sure that you have accessibility available. You need to make sure that people feel welcome.

There's been some studies done that suggest that at conferences when a woman asks the first question then you have more women asking questions. That's a hugely important thing for engagement in conferences and awareness of people's visibility in STEM. Those are probably the big things. And also just being aware of any conscious or unconscious bias individuals may hold. I think that's a very important individual thing to be conscious of in yourself and to say, "Hold on. Why do I think this about this person?" I've definitely had the experience where people who in a lot of their actions are very feminist and very on the side of women in STEM, just don't take me as seriously as a guy with less qualifications. That's like, well, you're doing the external thing, but you also need to do the internal thing as well.

Buffy: And Amy, as a former president of WISE, do you think we are nearing a point where we may not need special interest groups in STEM?

Dr Amy Shepherd: There's still a big gender equity problem in STEM. So, in some fields that when you come in, so say things like engineering and maths and physics, they have low numbers of women going in, depending which field you're looking at. In biology, for example, at even the PhD level, it's about 50/50.. but then as soon as you start getting to the more senior positions, you just see this huge attrition rate of women, so we need to find ways to make sure that they can stay.

And even now, there's a cool study that came out very recently that showed women who had a higher publication rate than men, were still less likely to be invited to speak at conferences. And the only way to actually fix that was to have 50% gender equity on the committee who organised the conference. So, we do need to actively keep fighting, because if we're just like, "ah, it's fixed," it's just gonna fall back and we're gonna lose all the progress we made. So, until I can be shown on every graph in every measure that women are being treated equally, I think we still need WISE.

Amy: Time for some credits!

Buffy: This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories. This episode was hosted by me, Buffy Gorrilla and Amy Shepherd joined in on the fun - thanks Amy!

Amy: You are so welcome! It was great fun. The reverse engineering segment on neuro-racism was researched and presented by Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall. This podcast was produced and edited by Buffy Gorrilla.

Buffy: The supervising co-producer and science advisor is Dr Andi Horvath.

Amy: Additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson .

Buffy: To explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne have on offer, you can visit study.unimelb.edu.au - and of course we’ll pop a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!

Amy: So fast.

Buffy: So fast. Umm...the first thing I say is...