The Art—and Science—of Embracing Diversity and Fostering Inclusion

In my own way, I defy the stereotype of what it is to be an engineer. For starters, math and science were not my first loves. My first loves were art and music. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by live music and raised by parents who poured their creative energy into music and poetry. During college, I realized my love of drawing, painting, and piano was not exactly common among engineers.

As I navigated my education and research career, I realized beauty and art were present in my newfound loves of chemistry, physics and materials science. I focused on applying advanced characterization techniques in metals to reveal the nanoscale structures that control their performance. Running experiments felt like being an atomic-scale photographer, and, at times, the structures I analyzed were so beautiful, it was like unveiling works of art.

Yet, while I found a path that married my dual loves of art and science, I struggled with the outsider experience, and sometimes felt as if I didn’t belong. I became keenly aware of the power of inclusive practices to ensure that all individuals feel valued and reach their full potential.

In engineering, this inclusion is critical. We need diverse teams to solve the complex technical challenges we are facing. Yet, we can’t take full advantage of that diversity if individuals and their ideas are not fully included. When we get it wrong, we limit engineering successes, and can even drive otherwise brilliant minds to leave the field altogether. But, when we get it right, the breakthroughs we achieve are incredible!

I used to think that this— embracing diversity on teams and fostering inclusion—was an art. But it turns out, it’s a science. Cognitive neuroscience shows that our brains define stereotypes and apply bias in decisions all the time.

So, what should we do? First, I’ve learned that we have to boldly seek out diversity and push ourselves to invite those with different ideas and approaches onto our teams. Next, we have to challenge our assumptions and recognize that we control our response to our biases. And last, success is founded in relationships. When we support and mentor others, and embrace the talents of our peers, our teams become more than the sum of their parts and the beauty of diversity in engineering is realized.