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Chemist Rigoberto Hernandez Heads Organization That Works Toward Diversity In Science

Aug 15, 2016

In an article for Scientific American, author Katherine W. Phillips suggests that diversity in the workplace can enhance creativity, encourage discovery and lead to innovation. According to Rigoberto Hernandez, those assets may be most important in the scientific community.

 

Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE)

Hernandez is a chemistry professor at Georgia Tech and head of Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE). Every two years, his organization holds a National Diversity Equity workshop with department heads and chairs at research and chemistry departments.  “We talk about what the barriers and solutions are to change the climate and consequently the numbers of the demographics of our faculties,” Hernandez says.

 

Hernandez, who is Cuban-born, believes social diversity can advance science, especially racial diversity. Over the last several years, he has been working within his own community to increase the diversity of the chemistry faculty at Georgia Tech. OXIDE began tracking the percentage of underrepresented minorities working for the top fifty chemistry departments in the country in 2010. Minorities made up three to four percent of faculty with only a small increase over three years.

 

“If we don't draw talent from our nation in numbers that are representative to the overall population, we are leaving talent on the table,” Hernandez says. “Would you ever ask a poker player to leave their cards on the table?”

 

Hernandez and Race Matters host Merleyn Bell talk about the research behind diverse chemistry faculty, how to inspire the next generation of diverse chemists, and how these ideas about diversity can expand to universities as a whole.

 

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Interview Highlights

 

On The Effects Of Diversity On Research

 

If we are at the forefront of that basic research, then we can be at the forefront in the next decade on the next round of innovations. If we fall behind in basic research, we'll fall behind in innovations. In the world marketplace of ideas, if we're not at the forefront, soon we'll lose that competitive edge and that will put us in a disadvantage for jobs and [to] generate those best ideas we need to harvest all of the best minds. And not only that, since we have a diverse population, harvesting a diverse set of minds is even more important…because not only do we have more minds, we have diverse minds that can approach a problem in different ways.

 

On Reasonable Expectations For Minorities

 

You can represent yourself. I can't represent all Hispanic, male chemists in the world. I can only represent myself. And if I can represent myself, that's a reasonable expectation. But if you represent all Cuban, male chemists, that's a big added burden that you have placed onto me [rather] than to someone else. And there's data that shows that when you place someone in that solo status condition, that they tend to underperform. We know that if we place someone in a condition or if we frame them for success, they tend to have success.

 

On Getting A Wide Range Of Kids Excited About Science

 

I do outreach K through 12 and many of my colleagues increasingly are, and when I do that outreach, I do that in a targeted way. And that is I look for opportunities to ensure that the whole population appreciates the point of diversity so I don't only go to diversity groups, or underrepresented minorities, I go to broad groups and make it clear that if we're going to succeed, we have to have a diverse group and we have to all be at that table. And so, I have done a number of outreach activities where I'll go to a high school or I'll go to a junior high school. And I'll speak with the students and try to infuse with them why I love the science and why just doing science is fun and hopefully in that way they'll catch the bug and they'll pursue it.

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

 

MERELYN BELL, HOST: Let's start by talking about how you yourself became a chemist. What sparked your interest in science?

 

RIGOBERTO HERNANDEZ: I was born in Cuba. And my father and I and my mother we immigrated to the U.S. when I was six. And my father always wanted me to be a medical doctor. That had been his dream. Unfortunately, while I think it's great that there are doctors out there, sometimes I even need one, I didn't want to be a doctor. And so, I wasn't sure what I wanted to be. But I was very lucky that I loved going to school. Every day I'd learn something new and I always wanted to ask questions. And I wanted to ask more questions. And sometimes people knew the answers, and sometimes they didn't. And it was kind of fun when they didn't because that meant that there was still something left to learn. So that curiosity was always there, the question was, "What should I use that curiosity on?" And I had a mentor who suggested to me that I think about chemical engineering, this is back when I was in 10th grade, because as an engineer I would have a profession that would be one that would be remunerative, that is that would allow me to pay for the things I needed to leave and for my family and maybe even others. And there by satisfy my father's desire for me to have such a profession. And then at the same time it would allow me to study science and engineering and math. So I went to college as a chemical engineer. I ended up double majoring in chemical engineering and mathematics. But along the way I worked in a chemical research laboratory. And it was the funnest part of being in college. And so, from that I just knew that the kinds of questions that I wanted to ask and the kinds of problems I wanted to solve and maybe advance the humanity could be done through, for me, in the chemical fields.

 

BELL: So, you’re a scientist, not a social scientist.

 

HERNANDEZ: Correct.

 

BELL: Right. So, I wonder why you decided to start focusing within your own department in your own profession on the subject of diversity, which most people would sort of consider more of a social science issue.

 

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, so that's a great question. As you alluded to in the introduction, the most productive groups are diverse groups. So, I look at inclusive excellence as one that has to include humans. I like to say that, science is science. But humans do science and in order to have humans do science, we need to engage humans, people and develop people to do that science. And so we have to promote people. As I was growing up, as I went through the system, as someone who had a Hispanic background, someone who saw colleagues that didn't make it through the system and succeed, I saw that there were opportunities for mentoring the community and for mentoring students from underprivileged backgrounds, whether they were underrepresented minorities like Hispanics or African Americans like myself, or whether they were coming from the disability community or if they were women or if they had gender identity or orientation that was different than the normative directions... That some of them were also experiencing barriers to success. So, I felt that I could advance science and I could advance people by taking the position the had as a scientist to also work with people, train them, open the eyes of my colleagues to the fact that some of the barriers that were there were actually there unbeknownst to them. And these were things that we could change and by changing them we could draw in more students from different backgrounds.

 

BELL: What are those barriers that you're talking about?

 

HERNANDEZ: There are so many. And I'm sure that on Race Matters you've been going through many of these. The one that you always hear about is implicit bias. And that's one which comes in when you're being tested or when you're being hired or when you're being promoted, whether or not the group that you're working in gives you the same opportunity of success based on your background. But there are other barriers. It could very well be as I was growing, or as you were growing up, or as someone was growing up, you didn't go to the best school for elementary school or the best high school, which then makes it hard to go to the best college, and which makes it then hard to go to the best graduate school. So this sort of accumulated disadvantage, can hurt some people more than others and that creates a kind of a barrier. And so one of the solutions to that is to ask yourself, "What did the person do given the opportunities they had?" And if someone exceeded the place that they came from, then once given an opportunity like being a professor at the University of Oklahoma, then they'll be able to be that much more successful. Or if they are a student at the University of Oklahoma, to have opportunities to be that much more successful, if you just give them that opportunity. There are other barriers like how people perceive you as being able to do one thing or another. If you are the only person in a room of that... You suddenly see yourself as being expected to represent whatever that only person in a room of that kind is. So if you're the only female in the room, then if the room suddenly says, "Oh! We need to understand women. Let's ask you to represent all of women." Well, you can't, as a women, represent all women. You can represent yourself. I can't represent all Hispanic, male chemists in the world. I can only represent myself. And if I can represent myself, that's a reasonable expectation. But if you represent all Cuban, male chemists, that's a big added burden that you have placed onto me than to someone else. And there's data that shows that when you place someone in that solo status condition, that they tend to underperform. We know that if we place someone in a condition or if we frame them for success, they tend to have success. And I'll give you a great example of that. You have a coach in the University of Oklahoma football who's very, very good at taking twenty two players, actually a bit more than twenty two, but eleven play on the offense and eleven on the defense at any given time, and making them perform better on game day than their opposition. And it doesn't matter if they played batter not on game day, but on game day, he knows how to take those players and make them be better than average. That means he knows how to help people perform better on the football field. My goal is to help people perform better on the scientific field.

 

BELL: And how do you do that exactly? I mean, I'm sure there's not a simple answer to that but what kind of steps are you taking to ensure that you can include somebody in your academic department and create an environment of success for them?

 

HERNANDEZ: So for context, I am the director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative and Diversity Equity as you mentioned. Those two c's become an "x" and if you don't have the unique ability of dyslexia you might have had trouble seeing how we got "OXIDE" out of Open Chemistry Collaborative and Diversity Equity. It’s part of our message that if you come to the field, or you come to the table with people from different backgrounds, they're able to see things that only one person cannot see. So we want to have that diverse work force. Messaging that to department heads and departments and universities is part of what OXIDE does. So we disseminate these ideas. Many of these ideas are ideas that have come from the social science community. Sometimes they have to be altered to how the professional culture of chemistry behaves so that we can contextualize how those barriers and solutions work in our field. And so we have to bring them in. One of the things that we do is that we hold a National Diversity Equity workshop every two years with the department heads and chairs from the leading research, active chemistry departments. And we talk about what the barriers and solutions are to change the climate and consequently the numbers of the demographics of our faculties.

 

BELL: Can you talk for a second about those numbers as they stand now? What is the demographic representation of these historically underrepresented groups? Especially racially, since we are talking on Race Matters.

 

HERNANDEZ: Funny you should ask. One of the things that OXIDE does is we work with the department heads to catalog the numbers with respect to women and with respect to underrepresented minorities and we publish them on both our website, OXIDE.gatech.edu, and we publish them in our trade magazine for chemistry, Chemical Engineering News. We've been running these numbers for about six to seven years now for women. And we just published the first survey for underrepresented minorities just this past year. Over the course of the last twenty years, the percentage women in the top fifty chemistry departments has gone from about 15 percent to almost 18 percent. And that's a far cry from 50 percent of availability in the national population and a far cry from around 30 to 40 percent among post docs, which is the last step before coming a faculty member. For underrepresented minorities, as a whole, the numbers have been between 3 and 4 percent from the cohort in 2010 to about 2013-2014. There was a small rise from about 4.3 or 4.4 percent to about 4.7, 4.8 percent over three years. By the way, that percentage is for all underrepresented minorities combined. So the national population, that number is on the order of 30 percent now and is slated to be over 50 percent by 2050. If we don't draw talent from our nation in numbers that are representative to the overall population, we are leaving talent on the table. This is like a... Would you ever ask a poker player to leave their cards on the table? No. Why are we not knowing how to play poker well and leaving our best talent on the table? And so the driver is to change those numbers so that they are commensurate and that doesn't mean affirmative action, that doesn't mean excluding white men, that means bringing all of us to the table so that we have a truly diverse workforce that can place us in a competitive advantage in the world market place of ideas.

 

BELL: Of ideas. I was going to ask you about that competitive marketplace... I don't know that listeners, and I certainly don't, think of that in an academic way. I think when you talk about a marketplace in more of a business way, I guess it could apply to business. But I wonder about that competitiveness if you can sort of expand on that idea of competitiveness in an academic sense.

 

HERNANDEZ: That's a great question. Right? We as a nation have moved into an information age. There's also materials that we produce such as the nanomaterials that chemists are producing, material scientists are producing, to solve some of this century's problems in energy and water and other things. But all of those being produced based on developing our understanding of science and engineering. And STEM areas: Science, Technology, Engineer and Mathematics. And so there is a marketplace of ideas in that there is value, capital value, to the ideas that we generate and how we can then drive those towards innovation. If we are driving those ideas and that innovation, and we're able to make the first products, those patents which become actual products in what you were thinking of as a marketplace. But they originate from basic research and advances in our understanding. If we are at the forefront of that basic research, then we can be at the forefront in the next decade on the next round of innovations. If we fall behind in basic research, we'll fall behind in innovations. In the world market place of ideas, if we're not at the forefront, soon we'll lose that competitive edge and that will put us in a disadvantage for jobs and we would like, and I would like, that we can generate those best ideas we need to harvest all of the best minds. And not only that, since we have a diverse population, harvesting a diverse set of minds is even more important than that because not only do we have more minds, we have diverse minds that can approach a problem in different ways.

 

BELL: You've explained to us what you're doing to increase diversity within chemistry departments at Georgia Tech and beyond. I wonder if you can speak to how that could be applied to universities as a whole.

 

HERNANDEZ: Sure, so just to be clear, there is only one chemistry department at Georgia Tech. There are many, many chemistry departments at the various universities. So our effort is initially has been targeting the universities that have the most federal dollars in chemical research because that volume of investment speaks to then the drive for new research, new ideas, etc. So we've been working with the chemical community, because that's one which had, as I just told you, those percentages I mentioned were to related to the faculties in chemistry departments. Some other departments are not too dissimilar, and so the problems exist in those departments, but we started with chemistry because we needed to be sure that we could emphasize the conversation as a peer to peer conversation. I'm an active chemical researcher. I'm experiencing the same difficulties that my colleagues are experiencing at all of these other chemistry departments. I am driven by being the best, having an excellent research program which is also one of the best at training students. And we're all competing on that forefront. And we can articulate with those chemistry departments, and those chemistry department heads, because we're at the same place in trying to drive chemistry that this really is about being the best. Okay? I'm not a physicist, although I am a member of the American Physical Society... I'm not a biologist, so in order to be peer to peer with some of those other departments, I would have to identify a partner that was a member of that community and has the gravitas with that community to be able to have the same powerful conversation. It's funny that you should ask... I am in the process now of engaging a cohort of people to do precisely that. And that is to expand our OXIDE program with other communities so that we can engage in conversations with other departments in STEM areas. Again that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics areas. So that we can diversify those fields as well from the top down, and what I mean "the top down" is the departments are the ones that train the students, undergraduates, train the students, graduate students, train the post docs, hire the faculty, promote the faculty... So these academic chemistry departments in my case or other academic STEM departments are the ones that are involved in that whole part of the pipeline. If we work with the administrators of those departments to change the climate, the policies and procedures, that will affect a large percentage of the pipe line of people going into STEM careers.

 

BELL: Let's extend that pipeline a little bit. You've mentioned STEM. You've mentioned how your love for science came in high school, was sort of sparked in high school. So I wonder if we can talk about how you extend that pipeline to the K through 12 educational experience for kids and spark that even earlier, like it was for you, so that you're early recruiting people who end up becoming interested enough in science to want to become a chemist like yourself and diversify the departments.

 

HERNANDEZ: Sure. So we really should be thinking about as a K to gray pipeline. And I've been focusing on the college to gray pipeline because as a faculty member in a university I have direct interaction with the college to gray pipeline. And if I can't do that part of the pipeline well, then I can't do anything well, because those are secondary. So I've been focusing on that part of the pipeline because there are significant drops though that pipeline. If we solve that, we solve over sixty percent of the problem, maybe more in some cases, depending on whether we're speaking about underrepresented minorities or women. At the moment for women, the percentage that is graduating in STEM areas at least in chemistry with bachelor's degrees is about fifty percent. And so there's not that much of a drop. However, are they graduating with a chemistry degree or a science degree from college with the intention of pursuing chemistry? Or are they graduating, using that to do something outside of chemistry? Either way, it's a success. But if I'm trying to change the professoria, I need them to go into chemistry graduate school. So there is a point in changing the experience they have as an undergraduate, and also to then going down and changing the experience they have in the K through 12 sector. There's also a point in looking at underrepresented minorities where we are having drops from K through 12 to college and effecting that. I was saying it is secondary only in the sense that I don't in my regular day job interact with K through 12. That said, I do add that to my day job. I do outreach to K though 12 and many of my colleagues increasingly are, and when I do that outreach, I do that in a targeted way. And that is I look for opportunities to ensure that the whole population appreciates the point of diversity so I don't only go to diversity groups, or underrepresented minorities, I go to broad groups and make it clear that if we're going to succeed, we have to have a diverse group and we have to all be at that table. And so, I have done number of outreach activities where I'll go to a high school or I'll go to a junior high school. And I'll speak with the students and try to infuse with them why I love the science and why just doing science is fun and hopefully in that way they'll catch the bug and they'll pursue it. And equally importantly, quite often the problem is that they might not have imagined that doing science was for them because they didn't have role models that did science. We have plenty of role models in the media that show them basketball is fun or that football is fun or that being an actor is fun. And that's true, there are only a very few number of people that are able to do that professionally and in a rewarding way. But we don't have that many where science is shown to them to be fun in the media. And so it's important and incumbent upon us as scientists to go out there and do that. Actually, that's kind of what the reason why The Martian, I think it was called The Martian, was so cool because in The Martian...

 

BELL: The movie?

 

HERNANDEZ: The movie!, yeah. Because in the movie, it's science that wins the day. And so they showed why knowing science, you could solve problems that allowed the astronaut to make it back.

 

BELL: What's one lesson that you'd like to impart on our listeners... Say there's somebody out there who maybe isn't even focused on academia, but is somebody in business... wants to sort of take the lessons that you've learned from working on this diversity program within your own profession and apply to theirs. What's a lesson that you can share with them?

 

HERNANDEZ: I think being open to new ideas and new possibilities can never hurt. In fact, can make you better. I have a keynote lecture that I sometimes give to students as they're graduating or as they're moving on, which I call "Reach for the stars, settle for the moon." Dream as high as you can possibly dream. You may or may not get there, but you'll get much further than you would had you not tried. And even just the process of trying to get there, if you remember that that's part of your joy and that's part of your drive that can also drive you and can be rewarding. And so, I would argue that you should do that. You should think globally and you should also pay attention to when you have a group, be open to the ideas that they bring in. Be open to the experiences that they've had, which might be different from you. Sometimes it's very easy to associate with a person that is just like you because you can understand them immediately. But it's so much rewarding if you get to know someone that you don't understand to begin with whose experience is different than yours and whose then, by you listening to their stories, adds to your concepts, the kinds of things that you can do. And now suddenly it your working environment you may be able to add something to the team that you didn't add before because you learned about this other thing from someone else.

 

BELL: Can you share with us a success story of an individual or a group that you've seen grow because of the work that you've done through OXIDE?

 

HERNANDEZ: Yes. Thank you for asking. So, we work with departments and department heads and one of the questions we ask ourselves is, "Have we converted a department head?" A department head might come in and might not have quite understood why they were coming in to talk about diversity for two days or three days in Washington D.C. And some of them come out thinking at the end and understanding why inclusive excellent is important and how they can use it as a competitive driver to increase the position of their department in this marketplace of ideas beyond their competitors. And so we've seen some department heads and then have gone back to their department and their university and have started to implement things like a diversity committee where you have faculty members. Some of them from diverse communities but you also include white males because everyone has to be involved in the solution to then address possible changes in policies or procedures who will go back and then will think about how they can re-do the way that they do their hiring. So that as they are evaluating the applicants and as they are interviewing the applicants, they are able to then identify members from diverse communities that were not being identified through earlier processes but which once done through an understanding and contextualization of the CV's, their backgrounds, the success stories that they've had, suddenly they realize that these individuals aren't just above the bar, they're actually their best candidate. And so that allows them to hire people that both contribute to the department in ways that they couldn't possibly have known they were going to contribute and be some of the best scientists in the department. I've also seen that they've changed the way that they message. The diversity inclusion both on their websites, on their materials describing the department, in discussing what inclusive excellence or what excellence means for their department and in doing so making that department's climate be more accommodating and accepting and encouraging for success for everyone in the department. And those are just a few examples of how one particular faculty member after having coming to a DEW... And I'm not going to put the burden on him or her to tell you which department that was, and actually the good news is it was more than one, that after having come to a diversity equity workshop that we hosted went back armed to make their department more hospitable to scientists that were... female scientists, scientists who have different gender identities and orientations than the normative binary, scientists who come from underrepresented minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics or Native Americans, or scientists with disabilities that if only given the opportunity to be a part of the process of science can also add to advancing science in ways that others of us cannot. That would be the main success up to now is that we've created across the country departments that are leading research active departments that are now able to be truly diverse and inclusive while being excellent.

 

BELL: Is it your hope that that faculty success will lead to student success as well?

 

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. That's the sense in which I was saying it’s top down. We work with the department heads and chairs to change the climate for the faculty, how they recruit, retain and promote the faculty, but in so doing they've started to implement policies and procedures for the post-docs, for the graduate students, and the undergraduates. So that changes how all the students are being trained, how all the students are being accommodated, and therefore we have the possibility of having a diverse workforce all through that pipeline.