LettersNextgen Voices

Prejudgment call

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Science  06 Jan 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6320, pp. 22-23
DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6320.22

In his 30 September 2016 Working Life “Doing science while black” (p. 1586), E. J. Smith wrote that a fellow researcher had once mistaken him for a delivery man. To follow up on his story, in October, we asked young scientists these questions: Have you ever been prejudged based on your appearance or background? What advice would you give to a scientist who had the same experience that you did? What can institutions, professional societies, or individuals do to prevent such experiences in the scientific community? We heard from researchers facing a variety of assumptions and stereotypes, some of whom requested that we withhold their names. Here, we present some of their experiences and advice.

WHEN I SOUGHT a faculty position at top universities in China, they often replied that faculty positions were reserved for those who have a foreign Ph.D. degree or many years of research experience. Such staff recruitment policies postulate that all domestic Ph.D.s are inferior to foreign ones.

My advice: Institutions or professional societies should establish comprehensive evaluation systems that rely on ability and achievement rather than foreign diplomas and university ranking. This would open the door for domestic scientists to show their potential.

Han Lin

School of Engineering Management, Nanjing Audit University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, 211815, China. Email: linhan@gmail.com

“OVERSEAS RETURNEES” (those with degrees from foreign institutions) are expected to be more productive in research than those trained in China, but we are also required to spend as much time as local faculty members teaching courses, applying for grants, advising students, and providing administrative services.

My advice: Leaders in Chinese institutions of higher education should dispense with the double standard and adopt a fair evaluation system for all faculty members.

Liangyan Wang

Department of Marketing, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Shanghai, 200030, China. Email: WLY@sjtu.edu.cn

WHEN I SHARE my interest in pursuing a career in the biomedical field, many assume that I want to be a nurse, whereas most people assume my male colleagues want to be physicians.

My advice: Institutions and professional societies should hire more women in executive positions and invite more women to be keynote speakers to reflect the number of women in the biomedical workforce.

Yuka Takemon

The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME 04609, USA. Email: yuka.takemon@gmail.com

WHEN I WAS in college, I was often asked, “What do you study?” When I replied “geology,” I would receive incredulous stares, followed by, “Ah, theology! That is good for a girl!”

My advice: Stand your ground and explain exactly what you do. Do not let people diminish you or your work.

Liane G. Benning

Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Telegrafenberg, 14473, Potsdam, Germany. Email: benning@gfz-potsdam.de

WHEN I WAS 6 months pregnant and directing an archaeological project, I was often confronted by male landowners and village chiefs asking directions to the PI. “You are speaking to her,” I would say. The responses were guffaws, disbelief, and an insistence that I didn't understand the question. Frustrated, each abruptly turned away and approached my male crewmembers, who pointed back to me. At least one said, “But she's a woman.”

My advice: Rely on patience and humor, and focus on the passion that drove you to your discipline in the first place. Altering a cultural habit or tradition is like shifting the tides—it takes perseverance. Over time, your expertise and integrity in your research will be recognized, trusted, and respected by the local community.

Felicia Rounds Beardsley

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of La Verne, La Verne, CA 91750, USA. Email: fbeardsley@laverne.edu

I WAS THE invited speaker at a meeting. When I arrived, the organizer told me that I could set up the coffee and snacks on the back table.

My advice: Organizations and professional societies need to be mindful of including scientists of all races, genders, and ages. The more people see diversity, the more “normal” it becomes!

Wendy Bohon

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), Washington, DC 20005, USA. Email: bohon@iris.edu

I AM A MUSLIM who wears a niqab that covers my face. My niqab doesn't prevent me from doing or teaching science. Still, even in a Muslim country like Egypt, I was forbidden from teaching an international program because of my religious clothing.

My advice: Institutions and professional societies should make clear that researchers have the right to follow their religious traditions, as long as those traditions do not prevent the researchers from doing their jobs.

Basant A. Ali

Department of Chemistry, Alexandria University, Alexandria, Egypt. Email: basant_walieldeen@alex-sci.edu.eg

A FEW DAYS after September 11th, 2001, I was walking around the campus of the University of Michigan and a woman yelled out, “I know you bombed us!” Until that moment, I had not realized my brown skin and goatee might cause someone to think of me as a terrorist threat. I was devastated.

My advice: We all need to work to make academic settings safe for people of all sexes and races.

Prosanta Chakrabarty

Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA. Email: prosanta@lsu.edu

MY SUPERVISOR MADE no effort to hide her resentment of my abaya and headscarf. I ignored her insulting comments and kept it on. I was the only student in a headscarf attending her classes. I was proud to see that my refusal to back down paved the way for others.

My advice: Try your best not to succumb to pressure. Be aware of your rights and what to do if they are violated. Universities should provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment.

Name Withheld


AS AN INTERNATIONAL student from India, people assumed that my spoken language would be atrocious and that I would be able to handle everything technical/IT related.

My advice: Develop patience and a dry sense of humor.

Naga Rama Kothapalli

Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA. Email: ramakn@ou.edu

AS A YOUNG international student with limited English, I could see people slowly disconnect from me while I was talking, avoid me, or act as if I could not do anything on my own. I was not sure how to react. I needed a little extra help but I did not want preferential treatment.

My advice: Students and professors should talk to international students directly. Universities should educate the campus community about how to interact with international students and where to direct them for help.

Felicia Olmeta-Schult

School of the Environment, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA 98686, USA. Email: folmeta@wsu.edu

I WAS ONCE told by a member of my lab that PCR stands for Puertorricans Can't make the Reaction. Everybody laughed, even me, but now I can see how inappropriate that comment was.

My advice: Every semester, departments should invite speakers from all backgrounds, especially first-generation scientists. In addition to science, speakers should address gender equity, unconscious bias, and cultural sensitivity.

Lilliam Casillas-Martinez

University of Puerto Rico-Humacao, Humacao, PR 792, USA. Email: lilliam.casillas@upr.edu

DROP OUT OF a graduate program and it will haunt your career like a felony conviction. Despite the prejudice I've faced for lacking a graduate degree, I have built a career over many years that matches the success of many of my colleagues who completed graduate programs. We express concern over the lack of public engagement in science, yet feel free to excoriate fellow scientists who lack advanced degrees. We need to embrace our own diversity.

My advice: Always be the best-prepared person in the room.

Robert L. Martone

Memphis, TN 38103, USA. Email: rlmartone@mail.com

I HAVE FOUND that people tend to prejudge research quality based on the authors' affiliations.

My advice: For those judging, focus more on the research itself rather than the rank of the researchers' institutions. For those being judged, high-quality research products are the most powerful rebuttal to affiliation prejudgment.

Chuan Zhang

School of Mechanical Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 639798, Singapore. Email: chuanzhang1990@ntu.edu.sg

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