From a young age, Jae Bucknor ’21 knew she wanted to enter the public health field to educate and help people. Now as a biological science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she’s on a path to pursue personalized medicine.
“If I’m treating someone, I want the treatment to be made for them. Some people are allergic to things. People don’t all process things the same way. But no matter what, the people come first,” Bucknor says. “I was searching for that connection – how people have influenced the science – and not finding it.”
In August 2020, she discovered a new one-credit course, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in STEM: The Science Behind Bias (ENTOM 4040), which offered a unique opportunity to contextualize the history of bias and exclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“I didn’t learn about any person-of-color inventors, scientists, mathematicians or engineers growing up,” Bucknor says. “I feel if that representation were more present, I think I, and a lot of people, wouldn’t be as intimidated to explore STEM fields. And I think that would really help diversify and innovate science.”
As a woman of color and only the second person from her high school to attend an Ivy League university in the last 10 years, she saw the class as an opportunity to both reflect on her background and to learn how to shape the future of diversity in STEM.
Bucknor wasn’t alone. When registration opened, the new seminar filled up within hours. Capped at 35 participants, the class included undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from three Cornell colleges, and their experiences spanned nine STEM fields. The course will be offered annually, starting in spring 2022.
“The need for this course was clear,” says Corrie Moreau, lead instructor and the Martha N. & John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity (CALS). “We are all seeking to have a safe place for these important discussions around racism and sexism, homophobia and many other issues that we’re grappling with in our society.”
In June 2020, Moreau and two graduate students – Drea Darby and Amelia-Juliette Demery – seized the momentum from ongoing racial injustice demonstrations as an opportunity to act. The trio connected through social media and used their shared interests and experiences to build the seminar from scratch.
The course examines the breadth and depth of bias and exclusion in STEM – across both history and multiple axes of identity. They leverage literature to provoke discussion on how women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals have been marginalized by the scientific community.
“We all tend to think science is objective, fair and unbiased. And the data out there says that’s not, in fact, true,” Moreau said. “[But] when you know where the biases are and where the exclusion is coming in, it’s easier to say we must take steps to make this a more equitable and inclusive community.”
Over the summer, Darby, a second-year Ph.D. student in the graduate field of entomology, watched her professional mentors publicly acknowledging their own lack of understanding about the pervasiveness of bias in STEM, and she recognized the need for more tools that would lead to action.
“I think this seminar is really unique,” she said. “We ask the question, ‘How can we move forward in the future to mitigate this bias from occurring?’”
To create a safe discussion space, Moreau and her co-instructors designed a set of community guidelines where “stories stay, but lessons leave.” Each week, the virtual class went over the readings as a group, then segmented into breakout rooms where they discussed the ideas in more detail.
“This class engaged so many different members of the academic community of Cornell in discussions about how to shape a more welcoming and fair environment, that I can barely wait to see how the course will be continued and how we can follow up on what we learned and processed together,” says class participant Julia Dshemuchadse, assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering.
Demery, a third-year Ph.D. student in the graduate field of ecology and evolutionary biology, believes the students will retain lasting lessons that will help them in their careers.
“My hope is that students who take this course feel empowered to … provide a different assessment or challenge the perspective being presented,” she says. “In the future, if they’re in a position to influence change – with the media, at their institution or organization, or in their own work – they will have the tools to do that.”
“I’ve learned so much from this course already; it’s invaluable to STEM majors,” Bucknor says. “One lesson I’m leaving with is, disability has a much wider range than I ever thought. Thinking about how someone’s disability could even be invisible – that’s something I’ll keep with me as I continue my work with people. And I’ll be a better scientist because of it.”
The course has also prompted immediate action on the Cornell campus. The students have drafted a proposal to initiate a diversity, inequality and ethics requirement for all STEM majors across the university.
There aren’t that many opportunities for members of the community from different levels at Cornell to come together and have a forum to talk about issues like bias in STEM, says class participant Claire Meaders, a former Cornell postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology who is now an assistant teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego. “We created a space where they can bounce ideas off of each other, share their perspectives, learn from each other and grow together.”
Beyond Cornell, Moreau and the class coordinators are planning to develop a manual for other institutions looking to offer similar programming. They have already shared background information from the syllabus with peers in their fields.
“The thing that I take away from this class, more than anything,” Moreau says, “is that I have so much hope for the future, because it’s clear to me that people really do want to solve these problems.”
Jenny Stockdale is the associate director of marketing and communications for CALS.