Zila Renfro, University of Illinois Journalism Class of 2017

One afternoon during the fall 2014 semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I arrived early to one of my African-American studies classes. At a predominantly white institution like Illinois, where I am faced with being “other” at almost every turn, I look forward to the sense of community I feel during AFRO classes.

Soon, a fellow student, a black woman I’ll call Mel, walked in and sat beside me. Mel is usually bubbly and bright. That day she was upset and began to tell me about an experience she just had with her academic adviser.

Mel aspires to be a physician, but she had mainly C’s in her molecular and cellular biology class, a prerequisite for medical school. Upon asking her adviser about her future as a pre-med student, Mel was met with discouraging pessimism and what she felt was a dismissive response that stereotyped her based on the color of her skin.

“You need to do something else. Nobody wants to have a person in the medical field with C’s,” Mel said the adviser had told her. “You need to go into African-American studies, I think you’re good at that.’”

Underrepresented students at predominantly white institutions — especially students going into the science, technology, engineering or math (known as STEM) fields — are too often reminded of the forces working against them in the pursuit of their goals.

The demanding STEM curriculum is just one challenge underrepresented students face. Add to it unsupportive environments, microaggressions from peers, failed student pipelines (the flow of students from one academic level to the next and eventually to the job market) and scarce financial resources. It’s no wonder that our representation in the STEM fields is so dismal.

And that underrepresentation is nothing if not dismal. According to The Grio, a news outlet for African-American stories and perspectives, in 2009 African-Americans received only 1 percent of the degrees awarded nationally in the sciences and 4 percent of the degrees awarded in math and statistics. The percentage of total STEM degrees earned by blacks actually decreased from 8.1 percent in 2001 to 7.5 percent in 2009. For underrepresented students, the STEM fields are lonely, forbidding places — veritable deserts of diversity.

A 2014 study published in the journal BioScience analyzed the inefficiency of the current pipeline from higher education to the STEM workforce. The paper concluded that the number of underrepresented students who earn STEM degrees and go into STEM careers could be increased in four ways: strong efforts by universities to not just preach diversity but also to put those values into practice; more collaboration between research institutions and minority-serving institutions; the recruitment of a “critical mass” of underrepresented students to cultivate a space where underrepresented students feel included; and greater engagement between minorities and faculty, not just between minorities and university administrators.

In 2015, the University of Illinois College of Engineering, one of the world’s best engineering programs, commissioned a study by its Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Committee to examine the best practices for increasing underrepresented minority graduate students in the College of Engineering. The committee found that Illinois must step up its institutional commitment to diversity. Given that African-Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population but less than two percent of students enrolled in the College of Engineering, it doesn't appear that diversity is a priority.

Influential thinkers in the STEM field, including Dr. Gary S. May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, were quoted in the study. “Institutional commitment is critical because you can’t just depend on some sort of outside funding forever,” May said.

Noting that short-term solutions seeking to increase diversity are ineffective, May said, “You have to put some of the activities into the fabric of what the institutional mission is.”

At Georgia Tech, May has created innovative programs that attempt to increase the number of underrepresented students annually. One program provides graduate students with fellowship supplements, workshops, seminars and grants to keep minority students both funded and motivated to progress through their degrees. Since the program’s inception in 2000, 430 students from underrepresented groups have earned Ph.D.s, and 32 have gone on to become professors.

May and others believe that early engagement is critical if more minority undergraduates are to go on to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees. To that end, May also founded a summer undergraduate research program at Georgia Tech specifically geared toward these students since 1992.

As an African-American, May is no stranger to the challenges of being a black student in a STEM field.

“I was lonely,” he said. “I think the underrepresentation is keenly felt by those of that are in the (STEM) field, and you sort of wonder why there aren’t more people pursuing the same sort of amazing careers and what can you do to make a difference.”

While administrative challenges are certainly part of the diversity problem, the Illinois engineering graduate students’ study cited social climate as especially difficult for STEM students of color. Underrepresented students report that their non-black peers often overlook them when it comes to group assignments, diminish the significance of their contributions and generally make them feel inferior.

So why do we need diversity in the sciences?

In an interview with the New York Times, Ridhi Tariyal, who holds degrees from Harvard, M.I.T. and Georgia Tech, framed the problem this way: “A small coterie of people are determining what our future looks like.”

“When you don’t consider all points of views, we don’t get the best answer,” May said. “The best example is voice activation. The first voice activation devices did not respond to female voices because there were no women on the design team. You can extend that any number of different directions, but that’s the basic idea.”

In May 2015, Dr. Yemaya Bordain became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering at Illinois.

“In the sciences and engineering, we solve problems,” Bordain wrote in a text message. “When it comes to using innovation to solve the world's most challenging problems, divergent thinkers are necessary. Without diversity, we are voluntarily missing the voices of those with unique perspectives that are critical in the process of problem solving.”

And yet, making sure that underrepresented students have equal access to STEM fields is more than just cultural pluralism.

Underrepresented students in STEM bring more than their ethnicities to the table. Undoubtedly, most black students in STEM are not going into STEM to become “the first black _____.” They are going into STEM because they love science. Or math. Or engineering. And these students make brilliant contributions not because they are black, but because they are brilliant.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most visible scientists in the nation, frequently speaks on his experience of being a black man in the STEM field. In a 2008 interview with Dr. Thomas Cech at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, deGrasse Tyson related that his first speaking engagement on a news broadcast did not include him talking about his blackness, and that it was a revelation for him. He was asked to speak as an expert, not as a black expert.

“Whatever is your next encounter with a black person — trying to squeegee your windshield at the red light [for example] — if you’re prone to saying, ‘Oh these black people, they don’t work, they’re too dumb,’ you’re going to have to remember that I just told you that Earth is safe from the plasma that came from the sun! You’re going to have to reconcile this. You’re going to have wonder, ‘Oh maybe this guy could have been one of those’ but for lack of opportunity, but for lack of institutions with foresight,” deGrasse Tyson said.

Shareefah Williams, a University of Illinois computer science major, put it this way: “They need us. Just as much as every other race or culture.”

It’s a powerful observation. We don’t need diversity in the sciences for the quotas. We don’t even need diversity in the sciences for the sake of diversity. We need diversity in the sciences for only one reason – the sciences need us.

#BlackScienceMatters was produced by University of Illinois students under the leadership of journalism professor Charles "Stretch" Ledford.