What does a scientist look like?
“Close your eyes.”
Dr. Santiba Campbell welcomes new students to class at Bennett College, one of two HBCUs for women in the country.
It’s a new semester and a good opportunity to bring awareness to the pernicious impact of stereotype threat.
After closing their eyes, she asks: “What does a scientist look like?”
It’s a simple prompt that can lead to engaging class discussions. Initial responses, Dr. Campbell recalls, often fit a “crazy, old guy description.”
“He’s wearning a lab coat.”
“He’s holding a beaker.”
“He hasn’t combed his hair.”
For Zybrea, a student, grappling with the question was part of her learning journey. Before going to college, she didn’t see a lot of Black women working in the science or medical fields. “All I knew was what I was taught and exposed to in high school.” (She says her first answer to the question was “an Einstein.”)
Fostering a “Research Identity” across disciplines
As a researcher, Dr. Campbell studies the impact of racial discrimination, stereotype threat, implicit bias, and microagressions. To her keen eye, her students didn’t have enough positive connections to the kinds of professional fields that they were training for. To be successful in the world, whether they were social workers or chemists, they needed to develop a strong sense of self as a scholar of inquiry.
Asking young women of color to describe people working in professions where they are historically underrepresented is one of the ways Dr. Campbell begins to counteract negative stereotypes. It is part of her effort to help students foster a research identity in college.
That also means working to ensure classes, projects, and course materials represent diverse perspectives and voices that reflect Dr. Campbell’s students. She curates a list of guests, often women of color, who work as researchers and scholars from multiple disciplines. “Researchers are scientists too,” she says.
Over time, Zybrea changed her response.
“My answer became: ‘I think of me.’”
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