“Building Diversity in Science, One Interaction at a Time”

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The Story

“Building Diversity in Science, One Interaction at a Time”
by Esther Landhuis
Undark, October 8, 2018

The Pitch

Hi Tom,

I submitted the following proposal for Thursday’s real-time pitch critiques at AHCJ2018. Not sure if you’re planning to comment publicly at the conference session but I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether the idea would work for Undark — via email before AHCJ, or in Phoenix if we can squeeze any time?


Esther Wei-Yun Landhuis, PhD



Here’s an idea for a profile feature I think Undark readers would enjoy.

I’ll be in Phoenix for part of the AHCJ conference (1p Thu 4/14 to 4p Fri 4/15) so we could talk there – or sooner. I’d be glad to work with you on shaping the idea to fit Undark’s needs and mission.

Esther Landhuis


Growing New Culture – A Latina biologist’s crusade for inclusion

News continues flooding in about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in many domains (e.g. biotech,environmental scienceclinical trialsnewsrooms). Attempts to fix the problem by sprinkling diversity into departments and speaker panels can create a veneer of progress, but they don’t address the crux – noninclusive culture.

San Francisco State University – a mostly minority campus where many students are first in their families to attend college – is tackling the culture issue head-on.

Last year, as part of an NIH initiative to diversify the biomedical workforce, the university won a $17 million grant to develop strategies to fight stereotype threat – the fear of confirming a negative belief about your group (e.g. Blondes are dumb, Blacks and Latinos struggle with math). In STEM fields, such fears can shake confidence, making some minorities feel they don’t belong — and many quietly leave.

In one project that I covered for NPR, SFSU researchers set up an online tutorial to educate students about stereotype threat and help them build resilience for future threats. The team also developed a reflective journaling program that’s helping students stay grounded and engaged in STEM classes. And more recently they’ve built a smartphone app for tracking microaggressions (small actions that insult members of a certain group) and microaffirmations (small acknowledgments of a person’s value). In a beta-test later this spring, several dozen students will log such incidents on their phones. The data will give a snapshot of campus culture that will help the team test future interventions to keep minority science students from falling through the cracks.

I’d like to write an Undark feature about the woman principally behind these efforts – longtime SFSU biology professorLeticia Márquez-Magaña.

Márquez-Magaña’s dad came over from Mexico as a bracero, picking cotton for $1.25 a bag as part of the program that brought cheap labor into the U.S. after World War II. Her mother grew up without running water, electricity or a second-grade education — but in 1963 made her way to Sacramento seven months pregnant. “She was hell-bent on me being born here,” Márquez-Magaña told me between slurps of coffee when we met on a recent Friday at Boulevard Café, a retro diner south of SFSU.

As one of few Latino kids bused to predominantly white schools, Márquez-Magaña braved playground taunting (“Too bad you speak two languages — it makes you look dumb”), fought exclusion from her high school’s top track despite perfect marks (“I had all the metrics but my last name was Marquez”) and, even after getting into Stanford, was told to settle for community college if she didn’t want C’s. Márquez-Magaña earned a masters in biology at the elite school and later a UC Berkeley doctorate in biochemistry.

Science-savvy Latinas often give back to their communities by becoming doctors. Márquez-Magaña trained as an ivory-tower biologist. But along the way she had an epiphany: Instead of treating patients, she could give back by transforming science culture.

For color and scene: During the app beta-test I could tag-along with one of the students to see where and how microaggressions and microaffirmations occur during the course of a normal day. I could also hang out in the Health Equity Research lab, where Márquez-Magaña and coworkers spin tubes of saliva in a centrifuge named “Justice” and process hair clippings in a pulverizer named “Wisdom” to fine-tune biological markers of stress in rural Latina women and other understudied populations.

Ideally the story would run this fall* coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 strike that launched SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies, sparked similar programs at hundreds of other US campuses and is now spreading to the sciences. Márquez-Magaña’s life – more so than hard statistics alone – provides a compelling lens into the biases and small acts (and inaction) that shut underrepresented minorities out of STEM careers, as well as the small acts that can help turn the tide.

*Since the time window is closing for print magazine pitches, I’m also floating this idea to a few other publications – not my usual practice but wanted to disclose up front.

About me: I’m an award-winning science journalist whose stories appear in NPRScience News, and Nature, among other national outlets. One of your reporters, Robin Lloyd, assigned and edited several of my stories for Scientific American andSpectrum. I especially like writing profiles. More clips are available at website (http://www.estherlandhuis.com). And as an Asian-American (don’t let my Dutch surname fool you) – an ethnic minority not underrepresented in science — I think I bring special insight and access to this story about building a culture of inclusion in STEM.

Would you be interested in a profile feature for Undark?


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