Raising Our Voices for Diversity in the Geosciences

Raising Our Voices for Diversity in the Geosciences

Almost 50 years ago, in June 1972, attendees at the First National Conference on Minority Participation in Earth Sciences and Mineral Engineering [Gillette and Gillette, 1972] held one of the first formal discussions on the lack of diversity in the geosciences. Unfortunately, despite the many conversations since then addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the geosciences still face many of the problems cited in that meeting. These problems include, for example, difficulty recruiting youth from marginalized groups into a field that is often hostile to them and scientists from underrepresented backgrounds routinely needing to go above and beyond their peers to prove their professional value and right to belong.

Clearly, drafting statements in support of diversity—as many institutions have done—is not enough to effect change in the geosciences. Individuals and institutions must engage deeply and with a long-term mindset to ensure sustainable efforts that translate to real, personal success for geoscientists from a diversity of backgrounds. In addition, the community must continue to create spaces for conversations that highlight and share best practices focused on improving DEI.

Panelists sit on stage at a town hall during AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019
Panelists (from left to right) Robert Ulrich, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Sujata Emani, Tamara Marcus, Heather Handley, and Bahareh Sorouri sit on stage during a town hall event at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019. Credit: Lucila Houttuijn Bloemendaal

As members of AGU’s Voices for Science 2019 cohort, we learned several effective methods of science communication. For example, we learned that by sharing lessons learned and blueprints for action with broader audiences, we can more effectively use our voices and power to demand real, tangible goals to make the geosciences inclusive and accessible. From among the 2019 cohort, a small team of scientists from a variety of fields and career stages thus convened a town hall at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019 to discuss improving DEI. At the town hall, titled “Power of Science Lies in Its Diverse Voices,” panelists highlighted their approaches and work to increase diversity in the geosciences for an audience of roughly 100 attendees.

To make the town hall an example of a diverse event, invited panelists represented a wide array of fields, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and career paths and stages. Below, we highlight the advice and work of the panelists, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Sujata Emani, Heather Handley, Tamara Marcus, Bahareh Sorouri, and Robert Ulrich, to provide avenues for readers to promote diversity, incentivize DEI work, and enact change in their own fields, institutions, and lives.

Recruitment, Mentorship, and Sponsorship

As scientists, we have an obligation to serve every member of society. The first step toward this goal is to cast a wide net to ensure that the makeups of our academic institutions mirror those of the societies they serve. One way in which institutions seek to increase diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is through programs intended to recruit students and faculty from underrepresented groups. However, they should start with K–12 students who are still exploring options in STEM—a necessary, yet often overlooked, group.

By recruiting broadly and starting early, we can abolish gatekeeping in science. Sujata Emani, a 2018–2020 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, highlighted this thought by sharing the need to reduce the number of people who feel like “the only one” of their demographic in their social, professional, or academic groups. To see one’s identity in spaces that otherwise appear unwelcoming is empowering. One current, successful recruitment effort is ReachOut TeachOut at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), which is co-led by Bahareh Sorouri. Since 2017, the program has connected high school students from minority and low-income communities with hands-on research activities at UCI to help inspire students to pursue careers in STEM. Currently, the program works with a neighboring high school whose student demographic is more than half underrepresented minorities, and 78% are from low-income families. Such experiences provide early exposure to careers in science and foster a sense of “belonging” for these students.

Efforts to advance DEI cannot stop with recruitment, however. Bringing individuals from diverse backgrounds into spaces not designed for their needs can cause more harm than good, as it can lead to poor retention and mental health problems. All early-career scientists, but especially those from underrepresented groups, need adequate mentorship to succeed in STEM fields (see sidebar).

Mentorship and Success

Panelists at the town hall session titled “Power of Science Lies in Its Diverse Voices” at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2019 highlighted important suggestions to help students, postdocs, and early-career scientists find mentorship and success.

Consider having a “board of advisers” rather than a single mentor, suggested Sujata Emani. These advisers may come from unexpected places. For example, they could be senior scientists who know you and your work but are not your direct adviser. Peers are also immensely important as sources of support at any career stage. And try returning the favor whenever possible and serving as a mentor to others or helping them get in contact with potential mentors. Compile and keep updated a list of up-and-coming scientists, especially from underrepresented backgrounds, whom you can recommend when someone is looking for seminar speakers or panelists.

Are you a scientist from an underrepresented community? Berhe reminded attendees at the town hall that as you navigate academia and continue your work in the geosciences, “one of the biggest contributions we can make in this space is to succeed ourselves” because your own success can pave the way for the next generation of underrepresented scientists.

At the town hall, Robert Ulrich, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he felt supported by his principal investigator when Ulrich founded the Queer & Trans in STEM organization to advocate for LGBTQ+ experiences in STEM. Ulrich says that principal investigators can help increase diversity in STEM by being “open and vocal with [their] support” of students.

Although mentorship opportunities are becoming increasingly available, scientists from underrepresented groups are not receiving equal sponsorship from their institutions, departments, and instructors. These scientists often do not have their work championed by scholars in their field, nor are they often suggested as candidates for seminars, panels, or awards. Together, mentorship and sponsorship become especially powerful forces for recruitment, retainment, and career advancement when networks are formed among institutions.

Heather Handley, an associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, aims to increase mentoring and sponsorship opportunities in the Earth and environmental sciences across Australasia. In November 2017 at the inaugural Dorothy Hill Women in Earth Sciences Symposium, she cofounded Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences in Australasia (WOMEESA) to support regional networking and collaboration among women in academia, industry, and government. The organization also highlights women’s achievements and expertise, and it makes its database available to symposium and conference organizers looking to invite scientists from a diversity of backgrounds for panels and seminar talks.

Peer support is also vitally important in increasing and maintaining diversity in STEM. Although there are diverse and qualified scientists who are willing and able to join leadership positions and become the keynote speakers at conferences, organizers often do not easily find them within their own networks and, consequently, do not invite them for these opportunities. Emani says that when scientists become “a recommendation engine of diversity,” they can help put a stop to the “we couldn’t find anyone” excuse. It is our responsibility as part of the STEM community to advocate and become a recommendation engine—to have a list of our peers ready and be ready to suggest their names for opportunities. Promoting peers and championing their achievements make organizations like WOMEESA a great resource for peer support.

Incentivizing and Supporting DEI Work

The responsibility of improving DEI in workplace environments, including across academia, has fallen mostly on the shoulders of community members from minoritized groups and their allies. The core problem with this situation is that these individuals typically have little control over systemic shortcomings with respect to DEI in academia. Compounding this issue is the fact that those working to improve DEI are usually not compensated for or supported in this work. In fact, departments and institutions may tacitly consider DEI efforts a waste of time or a detriment to research progress, even though organizations often tout those same efforts in shows of support for diversity.

Hosting DEI trainings, workshops, and task forces is not enough, and minoritized communities cannot keep shouldering the burdens of advancing DEI. Institutions must allocate resources to improve DEI, rather than relying on individuals’ volunteerism. It is only through systemic action that we will move beyond statements of support into real action. As Ulrich put it, “the whole culture of the scientific community needs to change. What currently exists will never achieve true JEDI [justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion].”

Positive institutional change should start with the academic tenure process. Tenure is meant to provide job security that encourages scientific freedom, but unfortunately, it can also be counterproductive to efforts to improve institutional diversity and inclusion. Ulrich pointed out that whereas individual students are transient members in academic environments, faculty are more permanent fixtures who contribute significantly over longer time frames to departmental and university culture. Universities thus need to evaluate faculty seeking tenure not only on the basis of their science but also on their contributions to DEI and to the community. Incentivizing DEI work in the tenure review process will shift the burden from a few volunteers to the entire department. At the same time, institutions must disincentivize unproductive or harmful behavior.

Institutional change should also involve development of more comprehensive support programs. At Macquarie, Handley said, programs and associated scholarships aim to “encourage students to feel that the university is their place.” One such program is the Refugee Mentoring Program, which helps high school students from refugee backgrounds successfully transition into higher education. Formal programs such as this, and, importantly, monetary support to participants and the personnel administering these programs, help shift the burden of DEI work from volunteers to entire institutions.

Improving Inclusion Through Community Collaboration

Funding agencies provide additional opportunities to incentivize, support, and prioritize research that promotes DEI by requiring consideration of broader impacts and community input in the research design. Research should incorporate contributions from and collaborations with communities at all steps, starting before a proposal is even written. This opportunity can be strengthened by inviting diverse groups of collaborators, including community members, to meetings about DEI, said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a professor at the University of California, Merced. Participating in these discussions can help researchers and funding agencies advance larger DEI conversations and help promote proper implementation of community-engaged research.

In the AGU town hall, Tamara Marcus, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, detailed her research working alongside the Sámi people in Scandinavia, where she used surveys to understand how local science communities access climate data. Frameworks that outline effective ways for researchers to work with local communities, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Community-Based Participatory Research, can help scientists achieve more inclusive collaborations in their research. Teaching such frameworks in workshops and classes and encouraging their application throughout the funding process would further incentivize and normalize inclusivity components in research plans.

Emani suggests that scientists should incorporate human-centric design more broadly into their research. That is, scientists should think deeply about incorporating community perspectives in their science, considering who benefits from their research and how the scientific knowledge produced is shared.

Making scientific practices more inclusive ensures that the questions addressed in research and the knowledge it produces will benefit communities affected by the work. Only through radical and institutional-level changes made to encourage and reward DEI work will we enact the long-term changes our geoscience community sorely needs.

From Aspirations to Actions

We call on individuals, institutions, funding agencies, and scientific societies to move beyond aspirational diversity statements and to set ambitious, actionable, and measurable goals. When scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds work together, the result is more innovative science. And importantly, these scientists bring their work back to their communities—places that may benefit the most from the findings of research but that often experience the largest barriers to accessing that academic knowledge.

During the AGU town hall, Ulrich noted that “knowledge is powerful, and supporting diverse voices in science is supporting access to that knowledge.” It is time to support “the only ones” and let them know that there is a community behind them—a community ready to put in the time and resources so they no longer are alone in addressing the barriers keeping the next generation of diverse geoscientists from succeeding. As Sorouri elegantly put it, “our voices are powerful, and we can spark change.”


We thank Olivia Ambrogio, Shane Hanlon, and the rest of the team at AGU for their vision and support in creating the Voices for Science program. We also thank all the Voices for Science “Avengers” for their amazing science communication work and for turning the Voices for Science program into a supportive, hardworking, and inspiring community. In addition, we thank Benjamin Keisling (@palaeobak), who brought the initial First National Conference on Minority Participation in Earth Sciences and Mineral Engineering report into the spotlight, making it available for others to read. Finally, we thank our amazing and inspirational panelists, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (@aaberhe), Bahareh Sorouri (@baharehsorouri), Robert Ulrich (@robertnulrich), Heather Handley, Sujata Emani, and Tamara Marcus, for sharing their perspectives and experiences, which inspired this article. Views expressed here are personal and do not include those of the authors’ or panelists’ institutions.

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