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Q&A: Angela Byars-Winston works to grow and diversify the scientific workforce

By September 10, 2018No Comments

Angela Byars-Winston
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Angela Byars-Winston knows what it’s like to be a “lonely only.”
Now a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and counseling psychologist, she was one of only two black students in the School of Education at Arizona State University when she earned her doctorate. The pressures that come with being in the minority in such programs can change the trajectory of a budding scientist’s career. Mentors can be a crucial part of whether a student perseveres. Through her research, which focuses on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Byars-Winston wants to improve mentoring effectiveness, diversifying and growing the scientific workforce in the process. “Mentoring is the primary tool we have to grow the next generation of scholars,” said Byars-Winston, who came to the UW School of Education in 1997 and joined the Department of Medicine in 2011.
Byars-Winston and her colleagues, Christine Pfund and Janet Branchaw, were recently awarded a four-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to assess how mentors and mentees define diversity awareness and how important it is to the mentoring relationship. The trio is also part of a national team that has been awarded a five-year, $19 million grant from NIH to set up a national research mentoring network (NRMN). “We affectionately call him Norman, this new man who’s in our life,” Byars-Winston joked.
You’ve done a lot of research to help the sciences become more inclusive. What piece of that are you working on now?
Most of my focus is now is on mentor training. How do we facilitate mentors who are in the physical and life sciences who typically say, “That social science stuff like interpersonal skills, listening across differences, cultural competence, is the soft  stuff that you all do, and I’m training researchers. That has nothing to do with my lab experiments extracting DNA out of a plant.” I’d like to trouble that assumption. How do we broaden the skill sets of mentors who are in basic lab sciences or field- based biology research to be more effective mentors? We’re being told by the federal government it’s a priority to diversify the workforce in the sciences.
Have we made much progress diversifying the STEM fields?
It depends on what field in STEM. Biological life sciences are pretty much at gender equity. There’s more racial and ethnic diversity there as well compared to physics or engineering. I think the good news and why I focus on mentoring in particular is while we’re keeping the students and trainees, let’s make sure the relationships with mentors are the most effective they can be. I see more openness from mentors who say “I do want to be trained. I want to be a part of this.” Most are saying, “I want to help, I just don’t know how.”
How do you tailor mentoring to different people?
The goal is not to be prescriptive, but it’s to provide a process that mentors can go through that will help them be conscientious. Do I know what my mentoring style is? Can I articulate it? The curriculum, “Entering mentoring,” that’s exactly what it’s designed to do. What are the common features of what I do? (For instance,) “I haven’t asked my male students about work-life balance, I’ve only asked my female students about work-life balance.” Hmm. That’s an important person-in-the-mirror moment. So this curriculum is designed to create not the prescription, but to be a self-reflective space to be more intentional about one’s mentoring practice.
Why is diversifying STEM important?
The most important reason is because research shows that teams that are more diverse in terms of backgrounds, ways of thinking (and) disciplinary training, come up with the most creative and the most complex and the fastest solutions to problems. The data are clear over and over again — when you have teams of people, the more diverse groups are the most successful, the most creative, the most productive.
So if this is true, why have the STEM fields been slow to diversify?
I don’t think everybody is convinced yet. The response you most get is the moral rationale for it — it’s the right thing to do, we’re leaving a whole group of people behind, the largest group of new labor market entrants happen to be brown and women, there are fewer and fewer white men in the workforce, the white men who historically had these positions are retiring. So those are labor market trends and those are moral (issues) but I don’t experience that that moves people. But this other piece — that it will make you better, your products will be better, your productivity will be better… it actually behooves you, from a selfish, self-serving perspective, to be more diverse.
What are the particular challenges for women and people of color entering STEM?
A common theme for some, not all, that I’ve seen in my studies is that some students of color and some women are still dealing with other people’s assumptions, underestimations about their intellectual chops — other people’s low expectations of them. That they’re not here because of their intellectual merit. It can be these small slights that over time can accumulate to — you know that metaphor of a ton of feathers — over time, it just weighs on you. It’s that cumulative effect of what’s been called these microaggressions. Those microaggressions are really challenging. It’s more of these subtle, disaffirming experiences.
How do both mentors and mentees deal with these microaggressions?
We focus on cultural diversity awareness — raising awareness for mentors, actually giving mentors these scenarios. Our “Entering mentoring” curriculum is case study-based. And we talk about it. On the mentee side, it’s helping them to what I call “name it and tame it.” If you can articulate what the experience is — what the knot is, what the lump is every time you get to that one class, whatever it is, then we can start to work with it and unpack it and look at it like a Rubik’s Cube from multiple perspectives and then make intentional choices.

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