Monday, February 25, 2008

Are you being included in the scientific audience?

As an African-American Scientist I often feel like I am straddling the line of two worlds.

1. Black people World (defined as an African-American cultural experience).
Science, in any of its forms, is a non-traditional career path among blacks. Even among educated blacks and young professionals I and other Blacks in science and engineering are looked upon with an odd gaze. "Wow. That's interesting. How did you get into that?" are common replies. Then someone may ask about some hot topic in science. The conversation doesn't usually get deep. But I end up giving quick and dirty lectures about the topic, just enough to accurately inform them but not bore the mess out of them.

2. Science & Academia World (defined by graduate school & research cultural experience).
Black people and Brown people are just not common members of the science academy. So, my presence is often greeted with neutral surprise or excitement. Though I hate the idea of tokenism it does come to that at times. On a good note, all advertisements about African-American Science Fellowships come to me. On a not so good note, I get exhausted from the many request to 'represent' the department at events designed to show our diversity. "Call on someone else", I think; but there isn't anyone else.

So, I often try to blur the lines - Making science careers seem as common as business suits when I'm with black people and making sure the academics know that blacks and browns are viable candidates for research opportunities. But the truth of the matter is that Blacks (and Latinos and Native Americans) are woefully under-represented in science. Perhaps that has something to do with the audiences science news, science media, and science literature targets. Science magazines for example, target middle-class colleged audiences. That's great and fair, but at the same time this just leaves most poor people out of the loop. And from personal experiences, poor people (no matter what color) and Black people just don't seem to bite. It could be due to confusing jargon, talking over people's heads, too much information, boring delivery, snooty lecturers, or the information just isn't relevant. Whatever the reasons, the idea of Defining scientific audiences is an important one to consider if the science community wants a more scientifically literate citizenry.

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