Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Cultivating joy, community, and diversity in science

Black Americans have long called on one another to “lift as you climb,” stressing the mutual responsibility to increase access to a work space when you are the first in your community to enter it. This guiding principle set the tone for “Breaking (and Reshaping) the Mold: Advancing Diversity in Science,” a February 9th webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Panelists (L to R) Anjali Boyd, Elliott White, Jr., Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, and Iris Gibbs discuss diversity efforts in the sciences on February 9th, 2024.

Convened and moderated by Elliott White, Jr., Center Fellow, by courtesy, at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, this panel explored the importance of finding role models, allies, and a sense of joy in the scientific profession. Each one is key to the success of Black scientists, panelists agreed, and to creating a supportive space grounded in the values of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). 

White, an assistant professor of Earth System Science at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, invited three trailblazing Black women from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Stanford School of Medicine and Duke University’s School of the Environment to join the discussion. Each shared their motivations, experiences and aspirations for the future of diversity in their respective fields and the world of scientific research. 

“The opportunities that are there through pathway programs and in supporting a range of individuals from marginalized backgrounds are why I’m here,” said Iris C. Gibbs, professor of radiation oncology and, by courtesy, of neurosurgery, at the Stanford School of Medicine. While speaking about her roots as a scientist, Gibbs also highlighted the world-is-your-oyster mindset she had as a first-generation student, encouraging her to explore all of the fields open to her as an undergraduate before finding her love of chemistry and, later, medicine. She emphasized the importance of participating in research projects, such as the fellowship she received with the National Science Foundation. These opportunities were all made possible through the support of scientists around her, many of whom did not share her background but were committed to helping Gibbs succeed while fostering diversity in their field.

One of the most important things senior folks at institutions can do to help minoritized scholars, especially those in the early part of their careers, is to help them surround themselves with people who understand their experiences and backgrounds, who serve as role models for the future careers that they would like to have.

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe Director, Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy

For Anjali Boyd, Ph.D. candidate and dean's graduate fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, her parents supported and nurtured her curiosity and dreams of becoming a wildlife veterinarian or a SeaWorld dolphin trainer. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the Office of Science for the U.S. Department of Energy, was also encouraged from a young age to learn for the sake of knowledge, giving her a foundation and sense of joy in learning that she’s carried throughout her career.

Early support and encouragement did not temper the challenges the panelists faced as minorities in the workplace. “Many Black science professionals have gone through the experience of being the only one in the room, in all sorts of scientific and professional workspaces,” said Berhe. “For me, that was always the norm - it’s still the norm, even today.” Berhe addressed the persistent issues of underrepresentation and minoritization, expressing gratitude for the mentorship she’d received but bringing up a key point echoed by the other panelists: it’s vital for students to have role models who look like them in their field. 

“One of the most important things senior folks at institutions can do to help minoritized scholars, especially those in the early part of their careers, is to really… help them surround themselves with people who understand their experiences and backgrounds, who serve as role models for the future careers that they would like to have,” Berhe said.

The discrimination that the panelists have faced as Black women in largely white-dominated fields is a direct result of an unfair playing field, one that has still not been leveled and detracts from a crucial sense of belonging that promotes the success of students and researchers. This spurred Berhe to make the issue a focus in her life as a professor, and it drives Gibbs as a professor today. When talking about what drew her to the DEIB space in college, Boyd addressed her sense of discomfort at being the only Black student in her field, but said that joining DEIB efforts felt like a natural continuation of the work that had already been done to create opportunities for other students by “giants in the field,” like Berhe and Gibbs.

When asked how she thinks about issues like Affirmative Action from the perspective of a university professor and former dean, Gibbs emphasized that education has clearly served as a key opportunity for all panelists. This showcases the importance of universities continuing to invest in pathway programs that equalize opportunities for educational experience. Gibbs noted that Affirmative Action has been misinterpreted as prioritizing equity over merit and qualification. “On the front end, if you're not managing at least some level of equality or equity in terms of opportunity, there will always be barriers for individuals to get into education.”

When asked about her experience as a Black woman in science, Boyd said, “The part of my identity that is most often overlooked is the fact that I’m multifaceted.” Many times, Boyd has had to compartmentalize her gifts and separate her cultural identity from her role as a scientist, a distinction that she says has caused issues for other Black professionals regarding both mental and physical health, as well as a loss of critical knowledge. “I’ve had to consistently figure out innovative ways to merge the things I’m really good at so I can… bring all of me to the table. A lot of my work is trying to make sure that isn’t an issue for other people that come after me.”

The panelists said that creating and finding joy in the scientific process is at the core of their lives and work. All three spoke on the importance of finding a sense of community and common humanity, thanks to the work of individuals and DEIB-focused organizations. 

“How I approach [DEIB] work is essential to who I am, and building on the legacy that the folks who came before me have built for me to stand on. I guess it’s just my way of saying ‘thank you.’” Boyd said.

The panelists also brought up the happiness they each find in sharing their experiences and love of science, as well as the delight they feel as they watch their scientific communities grow and diversify, an enjoyment that Berhe says is rooted at the very core of our identity as social human beings. “Finding a community of people that you can be part of and have fun with, in whatever way you derive joy, is key,” she added.

Explore More