What can be done to increase diversity in STEM fields?

Increasing diversity requires retaining the diverse STEM professionals we have. Students entering STEM fields need to be able to see that there will be a place for them. It’s also crucial to prioritize reaching out to individuals who are just starting out.

A recent study suggests that introductory STEM college classes have the effect of disproportionately weeding out students from historically underrepresented groups. The study—which controlled for high school preparation—reported that students from underrepresented groups were more likely to abandon plans for a STEM career if they struggled in an introductory course. One way to try and alleviate this would be peer mentorship by more senior undergraduates who are also from historically underrepresented groups. Another would be mentorship programs with STEM professionals from historically underrepresented groups. In either case, the message should be that a poor grade in an introductory college course bears little relationship to the likelihood of success in a STEM field. And, ideally, the mentorships could be the beginning of long-term relationships.

How is the world changing with respect to STEM?

Geoffrey Hinton recently stepped down from Google, at least in part because he wanted to be able to speak freely about the potential dangers inherent in certain forms of artificial intelligence. While I appreciate the need for caution, artificial intelligence tools have, at the very least, sped up the pace of scientific discovery. We’ve seen these tools applied to improve diagnostics, predict enzyme function, and design better vaccines. We’ve also seen them used to design entirely new proteins, and to predict language based on non-invasive brain imaging of subjects watching films without dialogue. The artificial intelligence genie is not going back in the bottle, and we’ll continue to see artificial intelligence tools used across scientific disciplines.

What can be done to move women forward in STEM?

Moving women forward in STEM involves ensuring that women can see career development opportunities, regardless of the nature of the organizations that they work within. For example, women make up about half of the employees in the biopharma industry, but the CEO positions tend to be held by men. Similarly, although more than half of all U.S. law students are women, less than 10% of patent lawyers are women.

Being able to retain and advance women in STEM requires that we make sure they have the opportunities and the resources they need to succeed. It also requires creating collaborative cultures within organizations that foster trust.