Challenging STEM traditions

In recent years, the demand for inclusivity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields has grown exponentially. While we have seen great strides in the diversity of STEM organizations, we still have a long way to go. We at Cybernews Academy had an exclusive interview with Kenneth Seals-Nutt and Katherine Thornton of Science Stories, where we explored inclusivity in STEM and discussed what proactive measures we can take to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive STEM environment.

  • Kenneth Seals-Nutt, Lead Software Engineer, Researcher at Yale, and Co-founder of Science Stories, U.S.
  • Katherine Thornton, Information Scientist, Researcher at Yale, and Co-founder of Science Stories, U.S.

What is inclusivity?

Inclusivity is defined as “including all types of people, things, or ideas and treating them fairly and equally." However, this isn't always the case in many industries. Despite the growing number of people entering the tech industry, diversity and, thus, inclusivity within the industry is still lacking.

Untold stories

We at Cybernews Academy spoke to Kenneth Seals Nutt and Katherine Thornton, the founders of Science Stories, about their motivation behind creating this platform and showing diversity and inclusion within the STEM field. Science Stories is a website that uses technology to tell the untold stories of women and other underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “Science Stories tells the tale of some of the most important scientists, academics, and technologists while bringing them to the forefront when historically they would have been placed in the background,” Kenneth explained. “We partner with research institutions, museums, and archives to digitize content and create metadata about their lives and works.” Through their work with Science Stories, Kenneth and Katherine promote inclusivity in STEM by presenting the vast array of underrepresented individuals who have done so much for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Creation of Science Stories

Katherine told the story of how Science Stories was founded: “We were getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first time women were allowed to be students at Yale, and in my graduate school, one of my classmates was a student in that first class of women at Yale.” This woman was Alison Krebs, one of the first female students at Yale. In honor of her friend who passed away from breast cancer and the 50th-anniversary celebrations, Katherine began thinking about how to make Alison’s and other people's stories come alive. ‘I was discussing this idea with Kenneth casually, and he had this vision of building a dedicated website for Science Stories that would reuse data of underrepresented individuals from whatever web sources we wanted and present this data all in one place.” Kenneth brought the website to life and built the website so that individuals could explore the data (which was pretty unfriendly to begin with.) Katherine and Kenneth are pioneering researchers promoting inclusion and diversity in STEM fields. But why is inclusion and diversity in STEM so important?

Importance of inclusivity and diversity in STEM

Throughout our discussion, we came across the question of the importance of inclusivity and diversity in STEM subjects. Katherine expressed that diversity is so important in STEM because we need our professional worlds to reflect the human experience. “For so long, white men have been controlling technology that will only lead us in one specific direction. If we want science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to serve our vision, we need to be able to include an array of visions, perceptions, and experiences.” Kenneth spoke on the importance of STEM and why diversity only helps make STEM stronger. “One of the things that makes STEM careers so special is that every outcome could potentially impact humanity. I think we have a responsibility and an obligation to improve humanity for the better. The reason why diversity is so essential in this process is because diverse teams build better products. Everyone’s shared experiences interweaving together make the product stronger. With diversity, we can also build empathy for other use cases that, without those experiences, we might have overlooked.”

The pain points

Kenneth raised some interesting questions regarding his challenges and the pain points he experienced in STEM fields. “The lack of inclusivity and diversity starts with a long history of the intentional gatekeeping of information and this culture of exclusion.” Particularly now, as the tech industry has become a lucrative space, we are seeing a displacement of careers and wage disparities. Now we see that people are trying to correct this trajectory.” Kenneth explained why he wanted to pursue a career in STEM: “One of the biggest reasons I’m still in STEM and choose to advocate for STEM careers is because when I was growing up, I didn’t see many people like me in these fields. I didn’t know many people who knew how to code or had a STEM career. I had no one I could talk to as a mentor, and when I was in college, I knew I needed to be someone who could pass the torch to future generations.” One of the most important factors that inspired Kenneth to pursue a career in STEM was the lack of representation and his desire to one day be that role model he always wanted.

Blockades and barriers

Katherine expressed her experience in her field and the apparent privilege that pervades STEM. “There was an elitism surrounding the subject; if you didn’t grow up taking computers apart and spending all your time online, programming, and coming up with your programs, then you weren’t suited for computer science.” Katherine raises an essential fact about inclusivity and why diversity might not be a natural component of STEM subjects. If a person has to try hard to prove that they are meant to be in a field constantly trying to push them out, it can be disheartening. “I did find it unwelcoming at first as I struggled to resist that message, and it was hard to understand that there are no fixed rules for STEM. Anybody can have a relationship with computing. But over time, I found these opportunities to collaborate and work with incredible people and begin achieving something meaningful.”

Anything is possible

Kenenth also felt this unspoken privilege that permeated the STEM field. “I felt this sense of imposter syndrome firsthand as I was the first person from my high school to attend an Ivy League university. I felt that imposter syndrome throughout my entire career. You see, the starting point for many other students with families that have exposed them to different aspects of academia.” Which makes it difficult for students from specific backgrounds to envision themselves in STEM careers. “Other families may be exposed to different industries that you didn’t even know were possibilities until you so far down into higher education that it might be considered too late.” Kenneth opened a new pathway through his work with Katherine as he discovered he could work on his project while applying everything he had learned from a software engineering perspective. Kenneth and Katherine’s work is a testament to the phrase 'if you believe it, you can do it.'

Breaking down barriers

As we’ve discussed the different barriers experienced by both Kenneth and Katherine, it’s important to note that these barriers are slowly being broken down by incredible people advocating for changes in STEM. “I feel like the stigma is starting to change where it’s no longer starting to feel like such a barrier. Many organizations like Black Girls Who Code inspire the youth to take on STEM careers and get people interested in programming,” Kenneth exclaimed. Organizations like Black Girls Who Code are breaking down these barriers and creating spaces where individuals can thrive in STEM environments. There are other ways the industry responds to the need for diversity and inclusion in these fields. Kenneth told us that “in the industry, people have recognized the lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM, opening up new types of internships. Specifically, new internships for younger audiences that are getting more people involved in these fields.” Cybernews Academy asked our speakers about diversity and inclusion in STEM subjects. Most importantly, how can we encourage diversity and inclusion in academia? “It’s important to talk to people as young as possible to get into these fields because sometimes it’s difficult to break into the industry when you come straight out of college.” Spreading awareness of the incredibly versatile and curious nature of STEM subjects is integral to diversifying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Remember, STEM is for everyone and anyone.

Beating biases

While we discussed how to promote inclusivity in STEM, Katherine posited that we first need to dismantle societal structures that are complicit in perpetuating social biases. “We need to check ourselves and reflect on our behavior. How do I show up for my community? How do I change my behavior?” Katherine expressed. The small initiatives we see in institutions worldwide tend to act as band-aids that cover the gaping wound that desperately needs stitching. “We need a complete transformation where people hold themselves accountable by unlearning behaviors that contribute to systemic bias.” One example of reframing STEM subjects is when we ask the question, “What does a scientist look like?” Throughout our discussion, Katherine raised this question. “When we imagine scientists, what’s the first image that springs to mind?” We might imagine a mad scientist with white hair, a white lab coat, and someone who is almost always male. Katherine posits that we must challenge this image and give diverse examples of a scientist's appearance. “When asked to provide a Nobel prize winner or an incredible scientist, mathematician, or engineer, I challenge you to think of a diverse candidate.” We can create a more diverse and inclusive environment by introducing different types of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians into our collective consciousness.

Empowering individuals in STEM

But how do we empower individuals to seek STEM jobs and remain in the industry? Kenneth had some interesting insights into the current industry landscape and how we can encourage more people to pursue STEM careers. “We could form more inclusive hiring practices and retention policies in the industry. There’s a lot of talk in the industry about how we can find and hire diverse talent, but little is done to keep that talent in the company – oftentimes, it’s like a revolving door. Often, people of color or women in these companies come in and only see one kind of person, or they may be the token person in their group, which can be pretty discouraging. So bringing people in, keeping them, and making them feel a part of that community by giving them ownership and leadership will inspire more people to break into these fields.” At the same time, Katherine suggested that we need more community-based initiatives in academia. “Many initiatives target small groups. They’re amazing; however, they’re very limited in funding and tend just to support a few individuals.” We may need larger organizations that can reach underrepresented groups worldwide. Spreading the word and encouraging more people to involve themselves in STEM subjects.

Real role models

One of the most important aspects that helps encourage diversity and inclusion in STEM is the presence of role models. “I think it’s crucial for people, especially individuals who decide whether or not they want to pursue these careers, to have role models they can look up to,” Kenneth mentioned. A role model isn’t someone to look up to. Through this person, you will learn about your potential career, see their wins and losses, and how that person is treated within the industry. This factor can help someone make an exceptionally important evaluation of their future career path. “It’s inspiring to see a role model you know had no clear path forward and successfully broke through. It gives you hope that you could someday tread the path that this person paved.” As we discussed role models, Katherine ruminated on a special woman who inspires her daily: Alison Krebs, a former classmate and one of the first women to be accepted into Yale. “My role model is my friend Ali. She was older than the average student, but her lifelong commitment to learning and her holistic view of information technology and how we have a responsibility as people who build these tools to build them in a way that promotes the flourishing of human life rather than diminishing it.”

This powerful discussion prompted some questions that are yet to be answered. “Why do we still see a lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM subjects despite the wonderful work being done by individuals like Kenneth and Katherine? What’s important to remember is what we can achieve together. As we have discussed, dismantling societal structures that promote biases, spreading the word about STEM subjects, and smashing the facade of elitism that shrouds computer science and information technology is vital in promoting inclusivity in STEM. We want to make these environments safe and beneficial for everyone. The thing is, we need different types of people in STEM fields, as diversity sparks innovation. Many different minds are better than one.