Academia has a diversity problem, especially in STEM. There is a dearth of scientists who identify as Black, Hispanic or who are members of marginalized communities in STEM-related faculty roles at colleges and universities, studies show. These inequities can hurt students and result in harmful biases in tools and teachings of fields that affect the public.
We spoke with Aaron Streets, associate professor of bioengineering, computational biology and biophysics, Berkeley BioEngineering Scholars Program (BioESP) director, Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS) faculty advisor for graduate diversity and co-founder of the Stanford.Berkeley.UCSF Next Generation Faculty Symposium, about his journey. Streets discussed why he started the symposium, which aims to increase the diversity and quality of applicant pools for quantitative biological and biomedical sciences faculty roles, and its impact in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This Q+A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When and how did you first become interested in STEM?
A: Math was a subject that I was good at – not right away because when you're in grade school, it's a lot of multiplication tables and memorization. But around middle school and high school, where it's more geometry and algebra and calculus, is when it became more intuitive.
I didn't take a lot of biology or chemistry classes in high school. I wasn't good at those classes. But senior year I took an honors physics class, and that was really when it kind of clicked like, “This is cool. You can use math to predict the things that happen in the world.”
That's when I started thinking, “Okay, what do I want to study in college?” Engineering had sort of been the default, but when I started thinking about it, engineering seemed too applied for where my interests were. I was more interested in learning about math and physics. So I majored in physics [as an undergraduate]. The rest is history.
Q: How did you get to where you are now?
A: I was a physics and art double major at UCLA. I was really good at my classes, but I didn't know anything about research until a mentor of mine told me about a scholarship available for students who were involved in research. By that time, I was a senior and didn’t have any experience in a research lab, but thought, “Let me ask some of my professors.” I asked my optics professor, Dr. Douglas Durian, and ended up getting a position in his lab studying the properties of sand and foams. That opportunity turned out to be really instrumental for my future. I had no idea about graduate school at that point and no idea about the possibility of pursuing research as a career. I thought physics was just something you studied in class. Now all of a sudden, I saw research gives you the power to produce knowledge. Physics wasn’t just something that you could read about in a book, but something you could do.
That's back when we did five years in undergrad. So I did two years of research, my fourth and my fifth year. That experience helped me become competitive for graduate school. I was lucky enough to get accepted into the Ph.D. program in applied physics at Stanford University.
In my Ph.D. I shifted from physics to biophysics and bioengineering. Prior to graduate school, I didn't really like biology because I wasn't good at it. It wasn't intuitive to me. But I ended up working with Steve Quake, who was a physicist-turned-bioengineer. My Ph.D. research in the Quake lab focused on the interface of physics, engineering and biology. It was motivated by the notion that the history of science is really a history of people inventing ways of measuring things, from the telescope to the microscope. Anytime we have a new measurement tool, we can learn more about a subject. So we made measurement tools for biology. That’s how I made the shift from, “I'm a physicist and engineer,” to “I’m a physicist/engineer who studies biology” Then I did my postdoc in China.
I should add that during my Ph.D., I was part of a fellowship called the DARE fellowship – Diversifying Academia and Recruiting Excellence. The idea was very innovative at this time in 2009. The goal of DARE is to prepare Ph.D. students from underrepresented backgrounds for an academic career path. DARE provided a roadmap for this type of career and gave us the tools to navigate it.
It wasn't until my postdoc in China that I really started to fall back on the tools that the DARE fellowship provided, and started thinking about where my career would lead next. It was then that I started to consider what I wanted my career to look like from an impact standpoint. Being a professor at a place like UC Berkeley allows me to have an impact beyond research, through education and mentoring and in society broadly. That was when I shifted my mentality from being a scientist to wanting to become a professor.
"Being a professor at a place like UC Berkeley allows me to have an impact beyond research, through education and mentoring and in society broadly."
Q: You’ve led a number of programs focused on helping support, retain and hire students and graduates from underrepresented backgrounds in academia. What prompted you to lead these kinds of programs?
A: When considering a career in STEM, both in academia and also in the private sector, there are some things that you need to do in school to get a good job as a scientist or an engineer. In addition to learning the material, you need to distinguish yourself and develop a strong professional network. Research experiences are often the best way to achieve all of these goals. A lot of people know what they want to do and they know how to do it. But the process of going through college and graduate school is not just about becoming an expert. It’s also about learning what you are capable of and evolving your goals. Again, I believe that research can teach us these skills and provide us with the confidence to not only navigate the field we earned a degree in, but also to move between fields.
For me, it was sort of serendipity that I happened to do research as an undergraduate student. I was lucky that by my fourth year, I still had the opportunity to get some years in to be competitive for graduate school. Nowadays, you have to start research earlier. So if a bioengineering student, for example, realizes that they want to do a Ph.D. in their senior year now, it's going to be very hard to get yourself to be competitive in a semester before you send in your application.
That’s one of the things that the Bioengineering Scholars Program is aimed at addressing. Our goal is to provide research opportunities to students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in STEM, including first-generation college students. The program is designed around getting students into research labs the summer after their freshman year. Not only do you start to learn about what's out there, you get to exercise this whole other mode of doing science, learning through research and hands-on training, which is very different from the classroom with tests and homework. You also get to build your resume so by the time you graduate, you're competitive for graduate school. [Those steps are] key in terms of developing programs for interventions in STEM.
Q: It seems like there are lots of threads from your life that have guided you to be passionate about the programs you now invest your time in outside of your research.
A: You're absolutely right. Much of my work is rooted in my personal experience. But there's a really important distinction here. When it comes to designing a program to help a broad class of people with a huge amount of variation in their identity and experience, I think a failing of many programs is putting all the people that the program targets into the same box and assuming that they all need the same thing.
My unique path, while intersecting with the experience of a lot of scientists of color in some form or another, was also very unique to my own personal experience.
I think where my personal experience helps with BioESP is not so much knowing what to do for every student. It’s having an understanding or at least a sensitivity about what not to do or say, and in some cases, understanding what kinds of programs didn’t work for me as a student. For example, I was always frustrated that many DEI-focused [diversity, equity and inclusion-focused] programs were presented as remedial. It is important to me that BioESP is understood as a program that cultivates excellence in bioengineering and helps to facilitate a more diverse leadership class for the next generation of bioengineers.
"There aren’t any shortcuts to inclusion that avoid actually having a more inclusive group of faculty."
Q: What do we know about the unique challenges that individuals of color face in STEM?
A: Often we talk about inclusion – how to make an inclusive classroom, an inclusive syllabus or an inclusive lab. There's this notion that we can train to become more inclusive. If we learn more about other people's experiences, we will be more sensitive to things that they might be interacting with that we don't know about because of our own identity. That's good. But there aren’t any shortcuts to inclusion that avoid actually having a more inclusive group of faculty. You can't just teach people to be more inclusive. The process has to literally be inclusive. It has to include a bunch of people from different backgrounds.
I'm going to avoid talking about the challenges that people of color face broadly because I can only talk about my own experience. There's a bunch of research on this, but my own experiences are my own, and that research is not my field. What I can talk about are the challenges that universities have had recruiting people of color. The challenges universities have teaching and mentoring students of color largely come from the lack of faculty of color, the lack of people that have had certain experiences that can chime in on committees related to curriculum or recruitment efforts. You need to have a diversity of opinions within a group to get a good sample and have good opinions and discourse. The status quo of a STEM department that has one person of color or none is not sufficient. I don't think there's going to be much change until there are more people.
The goal of the Next Generation Faculty Symposium is to demonstrate that people [of color] are here, to dispel the notion that the candidate pool is limited for diversity recruitment and to help catalyze higher quality, more diverse faculty searches. Research shows that postdocs of color don't want to be the first faculty of color in their department. They’d rather be the second or third at least. As an example, I'm part of three departments, and anytime there's a diversity committee, I either have to be on it or risk there being no faculty of color on that committee. For me, it's just how many committees can I be on at any given time? If there are more people [of color] in the department, then that will make the work easier, not only for the faculty of color but for everybody who wants there to be more diversity on their diversity committees.
Q: Why did you and your co-founders create the Next Generation faculty symposium?
A: When a department opens up a faculty search to hire a new professor, our goal as a Research 1 institution is to hire the best research scientist available. But as one of the top universities in the country, our goal is also to hire the best professor available. Someone who will serve as a mentor, teacher, colleague, leader in their field, public liaison and general representative of our department and university. It is therefore imperative that our faculty searches are successfully recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds in order to address the needs of a diverse student body and a diverse public. This is, however, particularly challenging in STEM, and the explanation tends to be “Well, the numbers are so low.” The truth is that while proportionally, the numbers of postdocs of color may be low, we are there. And there really should be no excuse for one of the best universities in the world to not attract the most talented and most diverse applicant pool.
So Polly Fordyce at Stanford, Jason Sello at UC San Francisco and I came up with the Next Generation Faculty Symposium as a way to address this – to basically provide a front-end to recruiting. It started almost as a thought experiment. Can we demonstrate that there are plenty of amazingly talented and qualified – not only qualified but excellent – postdocs of color who are looking for jobs to disprove the notion that the numbers are low and it's hard to find people?
Q: How are you all going about finding and vetting postdocs for your symposium?
A: We use research to help facilitate this process. For example, the research focus of the symposium was very broadly defined. The focus was quantitative biology. This encompasses mechanical engineers, bioengineers, computer scientists, biologists, M.D.s and Ph.D.s, epidemiologists and people in public health. There's been research that shows that really specific, narrowly defined searches tend to disadvantage women and postdocs of color. People with more privilege will tend to ignore the specifics of the job posting and apply to a wider range of announcements. Whereas there are both anecdotes and research showing that women or postdocs of color are historically more likely to select themselves out if the description is too narrowly defined to overlap with their research.
We held this broad symposium. We advertised it through channels on Twitter using hashtags like #BlackInSTEM. We evaluated applicants not only through their research but through their diversity statement. We had a very specific way of evaluating the diversity statement. Instead of applicants talking about how they're diverse, we wanted to see how they articulate a particular issue that affects students in academia, how they have worked on that issue in their career up until now and what they planned to do as faculty. The rubric we used to evaluate candidates’ diversity statements was constructed the same way that we evaluate a research statement. This is not solely about your identity. This is about what you've done to address these issues. Again, we were not just looking for people that will be good scientists, but people that will be good professors – that are cut out for being on the committees, teaching students, mentoring a diverse range of Ph.D. students and so forth.
We created a search committee of about 50 faculty from all three universities to read the applications, and we gave them instructions on how to read the diversity statement. So that people weren't coming to the table with false notions of, “I'm supposed to score this high if somebody says that their identity is x, y and z.” It’s much more functional.
Q: How has the symposium helped to improve recruitment in the quantitative biological and biomedical sciences?
A: It's been incredibly successful. In the first year, we had more than 250 applications predominantly from women and postdocs of color. Of those applications, we picked 12 speakers and 20 honorable mentions. There were more than 500 attendees online. There was a lot of positive feedback and really phenomenal scientists. Then the next year, we had 12 [more speakers] and another 20 honorable mentions.
From the inaugural symposium, 11 of the 12 speakers and at least 2 of the honorable mentions have secured tenure-track faculty positions at Research 1 universities. From our second cohort, 6 of the 12 speakers have tenure track positions, and many more are starting their job search now. Six in total have been successfully recruited to Berkeley, Stanford or UCSF.
This past year we held the THIS Generation faculty symposium. It was a symposium that was designed to celebrate this success and highlight faculty from the three universities who are now faculty that were either Next Gen fellows or were hired through other successful recruitment mechanisms, who also identify as people of color and are in this broad space of quantitative biology, public health and environmental engineering. It was a fantastic event.
"I think having a symposium where a majority of speakers are women and/or people of color who are all amazing scientists not only impacts students but also faculty who would say, historically, 'It's so hard to find scientists of color who are really talented.'"
Q: Is there a benefit to the people who attend the event?
A: I think so, but it's harder to quantify that impact. This symposium is designed for two primary audiences: search committees, and students and postdocs. I think having a symposium where a majority of speakers are women and/or people of color who are all amazing scientists not only impacts students but also faculty who would say, historically, “It's so hard to find scientists of color who are really talented.”
[Another impact] is – I'm not going to claim credit for all of this – but you're starting to see a lot more symposia like this sprout up around the country. There's a lot more that are highlighting postdocs for the purpose of helping facilitate recruitment efforts. I think this is going to become more of a norm. It's very hard for a department whose search committee is run by busy faculty to put a lot of energy into effective and far-reaching recruitment. These symposia help provide an intermediary before faculty recruitments to highlight people on a broad scale and improve the pipeline.
Q: What's next?
A: It's a good question. We’re excited to continue the Next Generation Symposium in future years. There are questions like: what's the right frequency, every year, every two years? I do look forward to the future, too, where some THIS Generation faculty support future Next Generation symposium [participants].
We can also think about having more targeted or a little bit more domain-specific symposia, like a Data Science Next Generation symposium, which helps facilitate again a broad, field-wide opportunity that any individual search could draw from. There's a lot of data science involved in civil and environmental engineering, for example, that didn't fit into the purview of our last symposium.