Robert Dalka: The struggle for diversity in physics

Tuesday, April 10, 2018 - 5:56pm

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For much of its history, physics has been dominated by white men. Most well-known constants and equations are named after them, and when someone says “physicist,” what usually comes to mind is a white man. The stereotype is deeply rooted in the homogenous history of academia, but as our country and institutions become more diverse, shouldn’t the world of physics follow?

Sadly, this has not been the case. According to the 2016 population estimates based on the 2010 U.S. census, 17.8 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino and 13.3 percent of the population identifies as Black or African American. However, according to statistics from the American Institute of Physics, only about 3.9 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded to African Americans and only 7.6 percent to Hispanics.

To better understand the issue, I interviewed Brian Beckford, a presidential postdoctoral fellow here at the University of Michigan, to learn more about his own experience as a physicist of color, and an active advocate for diversity in STEM. His research concerns nuclear and particle physics.

When Beckford started as an undergraduate at Florida International University, he was initially interested in philosophy. Eventually, philosophy became limited in the answers it could provide him for the types of questions he had about how the universe works, and Beckford decided to switch his major to physics.

FIU boasts one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, but Beckford still found himself an outsider after switching majors.

“My friends and I joked that I was the best Black student in physics because I was the only Black student in the physics department at the time,” Beckford said.

While Beckford notes the department was never actively discriminatory, the idea of promoting diversity was never talked about. It was not seen as a priority of the department at the time.

Due to the fact that the traditional social and professional spheres of physics have not always strived to be inclusive, those who have been left on the outskirts have managed by creating their own spaces in which they could feel welcome in a community. The National Society of Black Physicists was formed in 1977, and since its inception has worked toward improving the experiences of Black physicists. Each year, NSBP hosts a national conference celebrating accomplishments by Black physicists from every field of physics. Beckford first attended this conference early in his graduate studies and goes back each year as his schedule allows.

“My faculty advisor at FIU and really good friend to this day, Professor Joerg Reinhold, German by descent, directed me towards the NSBP conference,” Beckford said. “(The conference) gave me some hope that there is a chance, and there is a space for physicists of color. I realized there would be a place for me in the field.”

Though conferences such as the NSBP meeting are well advertised at historically Black colleges and universities, they are not as talked about at institutions that are historically white. Helping to increase awareness of these kinds of opportunities is one way institutions such as ours can create a more welcoming, supportive environment for people from all different backgrounds.

“This year I am trying to encourage the department that we can attend the conference as a source of recruiting a more diverse group of students into the graduate program,” Beckford said.

In addition to his work as a researcher, as the department’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee chair, Beckford devotes as much time as he can to finding new ways the department can be more inclusive by bringing his experience as a project manager for the American Physical Society Bridge Program.

Many of Beckford's proposed changes and improvements are focused on the recruitment of graduate students, including short-term projects, such as the new recruitment brochure. It highlights the inclusive ideals of the department. It is small, but represents an important step toward much-needed change. Long-term projects are in the works, but will take more time, as they require more cooperation and coordination among the department before these changes are seen as necessary in order to create a stronger, more diverse physics program at the University.

I was also curious about what Beckford thought could be done to increase representation among undergraduate students.

“Stronger discussions of career opportunities after an undergrad degree would be a great way to bring more diversity into the undergrad program,” he said. “Particularly among first-generation students and students of color, there is a feeling of a need to give back, not only to their community, but to their family that might be sacrificing a lot for them to be there.”

I agree with Beckford, and a physics degree is really what you make it. You can put it to use many different ways. You can work in industry, research the frontiers of science in academia, affect social change as a teacher or community leader and much more. This is what makes a physics degree so exciting.

Once a school succeeds in recruiting a diverse student base, the next challenge is retainment. According to the Office of the Registrar 2016 report, of the freshmen who came to the University in 2012, 14.1 percent of those from underrepresented minority groups have left the University without finishing a degree. When comparing this with the 8 percent from all other groups that have left without finishing a degree, one can see the lack of inclusion most certainly plays a role in the discrepancy. We must recognize we can make the campus and departments more welcoming for everyone.

“The hard part is we have to change people’s mindset, and that diversity and inclusion is important for science,” Beckford said. “It's people who do the science, so it follows that if you want the best science, you get the best people from all groups, and not just one.”

Academia is not always known for its adaptability, and tradition still plays a major role in how institutions and departments run. It can be tough to get every decision maker on board, as not everyone believes that a change is needed at all. However, this way of thinking goes against what we are trying to do in science, which is to advance human thought and make new discoveries. So even though old styles of mentoring and teaching might have worked when there was one majority group, we need to make improvements on how we do things and take every new factor into account.

After my interview with Beckford, I began to think about how critical it is to be more inclusive in the sciences. I feel it is especially important in today’s political and social climate to ensure that science is a beacon of inclusivity, of higher thinking and unlimited possibility, where all are welcome to create, discover and succeed.

At the end of our talk, Beckford asked, “How many great ideas were lost to fear, hate, and intolerance?” Too many to count, I would imagine. As we are those who strive towards higher understanding, we must never let untapped potential be wasted because of the fear of change or the lack of willingness to allocate resources and time to undertake the challenge. We can spark this change, right here, right now, at the University.

For information on ways you can contribute, please contact your department's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rpdalka@umich.edu