Raised in poverty in Mexico, Hector Aguilar-Carreno overcame obstacles as a first-generation student coming to the U.S. for graduate school and coming out as gay. He learned to work and live in English; navigate a new culture, and collaborate with peers who shared little of his background and formative experiences.
Now an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), Aguilar-Carreno credits his success to his persistence, his mentors and modeling best practices in research laboratory compliance. As a Hispanic principal investigator, he knows he is more likely to be targeted for errors.
Aguilar-Carreno participated in a panel discussion April 19, following the screening of the film, “Picture a Scientist,” which was available to the Cornell community April 16-18. “Picture a Scientist” chronicles three women scientists, Nancy Hopkins, Raychelle Burks and Jane Willenbring, who navigated harassment and slights as scientists in academia.
In the film, the women described getting passed over for promotion, being subjected to vulgar name-calling and profane comments about their bodies, exclusion from a scientific collaboration, and inequity in laboratory space – and while not all constitute sexual harassment, the experiences were challenging, persistent and isolating.
Willenbring’s Title IX complaint against Boston University professor David Marchant for how he treated her while doing field work in Antarctica ultimately resulted in his termination in 2019.
Willenbring’s experiences occurred two decades ago, but diversity inequities in STEM remain, said panelist Corrie Moreau, the Martha N. and John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity, in the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Moreau referenced the “leaky pipeline” in academia – nationally, about 50% of graduates in STEM disciplines are women, but the number drops to 37% for doctoral students and declines even further to 12% when accounting for full professors in universities across the United States. At Cornell, about 30% of professors in STEM are women.
“Everyone must work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion,” Moreau said. She suggested several ways to do this, including nominating women and underrepresented faculty for scholarly awards and starting a diversity in science organization.
Moderated by Cynthia Leifer, professor of immunology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology (CVM), the panel also included Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering and Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering; Christopher Lujan, associate dean of students and director of the LGBT Resource Center; Lauren Branchini, deputy Title IX coordinator for investigations and assistant director for institutional equity; and Kelly Kryc, director of ocean policy, New England Aquarium, whose journal writings corroborated Willenbring’s experience and were useful in the investigation of Marchant.
“Change does not come without discomfort,” Leifer said.
Cornell’s on-campus resources to help students, faculty and staff navigate difficult situations include the Cornell Victim Advocacy Program, Women’s Resource Center, LGBT Resource Center, Cornell Health, Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, University Ombudsman, and the Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making.
“It’s really hard to make decisions on your own. It is a lot easier to navigate the situation if you have someone on your side, rooting for you both informally and formally,” Lujan said.
Cornell’s Policy 6.4 prohibits bias, discrimination, harassment, and sexual and related misconduct. Those who believe they have experienced any of these situations may file a report with the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX, or someone may file a report on their behalf.
“When we receive a report, we reach out to the affected individual and offer them information about support and resources on campus,” Branchini said.
Conversations with the Cornell Victim Advocacy Program are confidential; a formal investigation through the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX is more complex.
Van der Meulen said statistics can be used to affect change. From 2006-13, she was a principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE Institutional Transformation award to increase the proportion of female faculty in engineering and the sciences.
When the grant was awarded, about half of Cornell’s 34 science and engineering departments had fewer than 20% women on the faculty, and some departments had far fewer or none. Cornell’s ADVANCE grant set a goal of achieving 20% female faculty across all STEM units through hiring and retention. Today, nearly 30% of STEM faculty at Cornell are women and only five departments have fewer than 20% women on their faculty.
The panelists recommended other tools researchers can use. Leifer stressed the importance of broad networks so trainees are not solely dependent on their primary adviser for a letter of recommendation. Kryc advised researchers to keep journals documenting their experiences.
The film and panel discussion were sponsored by organizations including CVM’s Office of Inclusion and Academic Excellence, HHMI-Cornell University Research Transfer program, Cornell University-Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, the Graduate School Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement and the Center for Bright Beams.
Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager for the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.