October 2011

Fostering diversity in science and public science literacy

 

 

An obvious need

 YSP_photo1 
Lesley Rankin scrapes off a colony of cells from a petri dish in the lab of Justin Fay, an assistant professor of genetics at Washington University at St. Louis, while Devi Swain, a Ph.D. student in molecular genetics and genomics, assists. Rankin was part of the School of Medicine’s summer Young Scientist Program designed to attract high-school students primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds into scientific careers, and she continues to volunteer in the lab.

Few would argue that scientific discovery and progress benefit from the diverse perspectives of individuals in the field. Yet while underrepresented minorities make up 29 percent of the U.S. population, they make up just over 5 percent of full professors with science and engineering doctorates, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2011 report on Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. While women made up 5 percent of this group in 1979, that figure had increased to more than 20 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, underrepresented minorities made far fewer gains, with their numbers growing from about 2.5 percent in 1979 to 5 percent in 2008.

With these disparities in mind, the Young Scientist Program seeks to expose underrepresented minority students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to experimental science and thus encourage science literacy and the pursuit of careers in science.

“YSP is unique in the United States, as the program is primarily run by volunteers, comprised of Ph.D. and M.D. students and postdoctoral fellows,” says Thomas Woolsey, the program’s faculty adviser.

Each year, YSP works in partnership with St. Louis public schools to engage more than 1,000 high-school students and teachers through a broad repertoire of programs. Over 20 years, about 500 volunteers have worked with more than 7,000 students. YSP was honored for its contributions to the St. Louis community when it received the 2011 Science Educator Award from the Academy of Science St. Louis.

With the support of the university and community members, YSP continues to have a major impact by attracting students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in science. In turn, YSP volunteers benefit from these programs, gaining a variety of skills and experiences not formally taught during graduate and post-graduate training.

Bartlett, who serves as a research adviser for graduate students, says he sees “the profound impact that instructing younger students, including high school students, has on their ability to communicate science."

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