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IFLScience Meets: Grace, Virtual Avatar For Underrepresented Groups in STEM

Extraordinary Grace’s mission is to change science for good.

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Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockNov 24 2022, 15:00 UTC
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IFLS meets Extraordinary Grace

Grace is a virtual avatar who for the last year has been asking the STEM community online for advice on her career and future. Image courtesy of SCIEX. 

This IFLScience Meets is not like the others. Every incredible person we have featured so far was real, but this one is not. Extraordinary Grace is an initiative launched by company SCIEX, part of the Danaher family of global life science and technology innovators, to highlight the barriers faced by women and underrepresented groups, as well as spearheading a culture change in science – to one where everyone is welcome and valued.

Grace is a virtual avatar who for the last year has been asking the STEM community online for advice on her career and future. Grace is the product of a survey that included over 1,300 people from all over the world providing their ideas, opinions, advice, and solutions for how to improve science for future generations. Her words are the result of their words.

Why is mentorship so important, in your opinion? 

Everybody needs mentoring. Ideally, from somebody who has similar experiences. Everyone needs support and someone to be in their corner cheering them on. It can be hard to take a chance when you are alone and afraid of failure. Having support is critical in the journey to success.

Give kids, teens, and young adults more hands-on science activities in school. Tying theory to the real world is so vital for encouraging young scientists. Mentors should be accessible and approachable, by sharing their experiences and challenges with their students or employees. And, with all of their experience, can guide others experiencing the same challenges they went through.

Mentoring doesn't mean gatekeeping. It means nurturing, supporting, constructive criticism, and helping to see, create, and/or seize opportunities. Mentor someone so that their road is easier than your own, so that they will do the same. We need to encourage and inspire scientists to continue their work, no matter the subject.

What are some of the challenges underrepresented groups face in STEM? 

Science is a human activity. My experience and many others have been entering a scientific world full of gatekeepers and experiences that are demeaning and demoralizing. Our society is changing. More and more work is being done to promote gender and racial equality. But the work is not complete.

The face of science is changing and is now more diverse, inclusive, equal, and just. Still, we have a long way to make science more creative and innovative by taking actions such as: identifying and minimizing implicit bias; supporting minority groups in science through all stages of their careers; to secure diversity in institutions' faculty and staff; and highlighting the presence of minorities in congresses, journal editors, and committees. A lot of research gets halted by lack of funding or discrimination.

What are some things that we can all do to challenge that? 

Studies have shown that better science is produced by diverse teams and with less pressure to only publish papers as the measure of research success. I firmly believe that the future of science requires systemic changes to the culture within science and support systems which increase diversity.

Focusing on making scientific environments inclusive and safe, especially for those who are systemically and historically excluded (BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, etc.), can give a major boost to equalizing the playing field, and help recruit/retain a diverse group of future scientists that can finally, truly represent all of society and perspectives, not just a privileged few.

Changing a culture starts by changing individuals. We should cooperate more with our colleagues and appreciate everyone's achievements. Be persistent for your goals and help your colleagues when you notice injustice. Stay true to your science and your work. Build an inclusive environment to break down barriers for the next generation. Train early-career scientists as creative workers and not as cheap labor.

If one truly understands science, they cannot be racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or misogynistic. We have to educate individuals to rid our society of these blights. Well-practiced and sound science is the answer to a better future

Everything you have told us so far used the verbatim advice of the over 1,000 people who mentored you online. But you did more than that. You condensed all of their ideas and opinions into The Change Hypothesis. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I presented The Change Hypothesis at the 2022 annual conference of the American Society of Mass Spectrometry. I found the three aspects that my mentors felt were the most important when it comes to improving science for good.

I call the first piece of the approach “use mentoring as a catalyst”. Teachers were mentioned by over a third of the people that answered the survey. The importance of teachers, role models, mentors, and sponsors can hardly be overstated. They play a huge role in fostering the next generation of scientists.

The second element is defined as “bias needs a reaction”. Almost all of my mentors, 99 percent of them to be precise, told me to challenge prejudice and bias head-on. But also be a better ally, lessen the system barriers you encounter, and hold the door open for those that come after you. One of my mentors said it best: “We can’t change a culture if we 100 percent adhere to the current culture.”

Last, but certainly not least, is the plan to “grow a culture of opportunities”. For science to effectively change, opportunities need to be the lifeblood of institutions and companies. Two-thirds of my mentors didn’t feel that this was the case for them. They often felt overlooked on projects, or promotions, without substantial or fair reasoning.

I believe that The Change Hypothesis can help address some of the major problems the STEM fields are facing. And with better science, we can certainly expect a better world.

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