Fostering Diversity and Mentorship in Research

August 5, 2019 Samantha Green

We were thrilled to award this year’s Women in Research Travel Grant to Rosario Marroquín-Flores of Illinois State University. This year we asked researchers to share  their experiences both with mentors and as mentors. Marroquin-Flores wrote:

As an undergraduate, I obtained an REU at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. My principal investigator, Dr. Carolyn Kurle, was a person of color up for tenure at the University of California, San Diego. She made a special effort to connect with me and discuss struggles associated with being a minority, and a woman, in science. She spoke of self-doubt. She told me about how easy it is to disregard, or devalue, your research experience and professional skills. She told me that I should never not apply for a position just because I didn’t know if I was qualified, because that’s how men get those jobs instead. She encouraged self-confidence and risk-taking when in pursuit of a research position. Hearing these words of advice from a successful woman and person of color, was incredibly motivating. She showed me that, by being successful in my prospective degree, I can occupy a position of leadership and serve as a representative for others. There is an intrinsic value to seeing a representative from a diverse perspective in a position of leadership. I remain committed to equity and inclusion in my community and have made an effort to serve as a mentor to younger students.

Q. Tell us a bit about your background – what got you interested in your area of research?

A. I identify as a developmental biologist and eco-physiologist. In our lab, we use turtles to study the role of temperature on the development of male and female reproductive parts. Turtles, and many other reptiles, lack sex chromosomes and become male or female based on the temperature that they experience as an egg. This is called Temperature-dependent Sex Determination, or TSD. I became interested in this field because I have always had a passion for plants and wildlife. When I first got into research, I was immediately drawn to field ecology, where I had the opportunity to travel, work with live animals, and spend time outdoors. I started to learn more about molecular research as a post-bac, where we used sequencing technology to monitor the prevalence of blood parasites in resident birds in New Mexico. Working in a TSD lab has enabled me to combine my two interests: field-work and molecular research. I get to ask questions about embryonic development and physiology, but still get to canoe out on the marsh during the summer!

Q. How do you think the research community can be more open and transparent about self-doubt?

A. Self-doubt is something that all of us struggle with. This is a tough field and it’s easy to feel inadequate when you are surrounded by such talented and intelligent people. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that everyone has been a student before, that we don’t always have to know everything. Trainees have a tendency to look up to their mentors and see that person as a figure of authority. They might even seem infallible at times. It would be useful to hear from established researchers about the struggles that they have experienced as students and in their current positions. The research community would benefit from taking down that pedestal and meeting the person behind the scientist.

Q. Is there anything you think the research community could be doing to encourage greater diversity in academia?

A. Yes. It starts with bringing in diverse faculty. Many underrepresented students experience an identity crisis when we enter into the sciences. It can be difficult to build a community when we may not identify with our peers and their experiences. It can be difficult to build a community when peers or authority figures do not recognize prejudice in their words and actions. Diversifying our faculty can help to build science identity and reduce instances of prejudice or exclusion. But, at institutions that have senior faculty that are predominantly older Caucasian men, how do you attract diverse candidates to apply for the position? The key to increasing diversity among our faculty is to alter the way that we advertise open positions. When we hire new faculty, we will often post the open position and desired qualifications, with a mandated anti-discrimination clause at the bottom of the advertisement. As prospective junior faculty, it is difficult to gauge the environment that you are walking into based upon that information. So perhaps you look up the faculty and apply for a job in a more diverse part of the country instead. And the cycle continues. I feel that we can remedy this problem by highlighting other qualities, such as outreach experience, in advertisements for open positions. If academic institutions place more value on candidates that have a demonstrated commitment to outreach and science communication, they are more likely to bring in faculty that will reach out to and attract non-traditional students. By emphasizing outreach in the advertisement, they signal to the candidate that they are specifically seeking out junior faculty with experience in science education and communication, as well as the requisite research qualifications. This may, in turn, make the position look more attractive, even if the location and the composition of senior faculty are less diverse.

Q. What would be the one piece of advice that you would give to a young woman hoping to pursue an academic career?

A. Believe in yourself. I have found that I’m often my own biggest obstacle to success. It took me a long time before I started to take myself seriously as a prospective scientist. I was a TRIO McNair Scholar as an undergraduate and I had enough research experience after I graduated to apply, but I just didn’t think I was good enough. I spent a lot of time psyching myself out, convinced that I wouldn’t be able to get into a graduate program. Now, I can see that feeling reflected in the faces of younger students. The advice that I have is just to believe in yourself, dive in. There is no straight-line to an academic career, the path curves and wanders a different way for each person. If you put yourself out there, the worst that can happen is that they say no, but best-case scenario, you’ve taken an important step toward your future.

Q. Where are you planning on going with your Travel Grant?

A. I’m planning to use this Travel Grant to attend the 2019 Society Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Research Conference. I recently started an unofficial SACNAS Chapter at my institution, with the goal of providing professional development opportunities and raising funds to bring students to the conference. The 2019 Conference is in Hawaii and therefore, more expensive than previous years. Prior to receiving these travel funds, I had given up on the idea of attending. Any funds we raised are going to students who have never presented or are first-time attendees. However, now that I have some travel funds available, I plan to attend this year. Any unencumbered funds will be used for the Society of Comparative and Integrative Biology (SICB) Research Conference in 2020.

This year’s Travel Grant was judged by:

Dr. Deborah Ashby, President, Royal Statistical Society
Dr. Mary Cushman, Editor, Research and Practice in Thrombosis and Haemostasis
Dr. Jenn Firn, Editor-in-Chief, Ecology and Evolution
Dr. Pamela Habibovic, Maastricht University
Dr. Jan E. Leighley, Editor-in-chief, American Journal of Political Science
Elizabeth Lorbeer, Director, Department of the Medical Library, Western Michigan University
Dr. Linda J Sandell, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Orthopaedic Research

About the Author

Samantha Green

Society Marketing, Wiley // Samantha Green joined Wiley in 2012, working in the Social Science and Humanities Community Marketing team at Wiley. She now works in the Society Strategy & Marketing creating content on publishing trends and the research community.

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