Improving Health Through Medical Physics


Skye Haynes, AIP Marketing and Communications Intern | College Park, Maryland

AAPM Newsletter — Volume 43 No. 5 — September | October 2018

How AIP's TEAM-UP is Addressing Racial Diversity in the Physical Sciences

The number of physics degrees awarded to African Americans is stagnating, and AIP's TEAM-UP plans to find out why.

As the number of physics bachelor's degrees increases each year, one group remains consistently underrepresented. African Americans earn only four physics bachelor's degrees for every 100 that are awarded. This dilemma has many asking: why do so few African Americans pursue a degree in physics or astronomy? AIP's Task Force to Elevate the Representation of African Americans in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP) intends to find out.

AIP has dedicated itself to ensuring that inclusion and diversity are represented in the physical sciences. In 2017, AIP launched TEAM-UP to examine and assess the persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy at the bachelor's level. The goal of TEAM-UP is to eventually bring the rate of African Americans obtaining physics and astronomy degrees to parity with their overall graduation rate (from 4 percent to 9.5 percent).

AIP's Arlene Knowles, the project manager for TEAM-UP, graduated from Cornell with a degree in human development and pre-medical studies. At Cornell, Knowles enrolled in her first physics course and instantly felt the disparity.

"I came from a regular public school, and there were a lot of students who came from private schools that had a lot more resources. They just had better preparation. It was a little intimidating at some points," Knowles said. "There was a physics class where there was no instructor, so you had to teach yourself. I had major questions, and only had ten minutes with a grad student. That was discouraging. I believe I could have benefitted from some good teaching."

After school, Knowles spent many years at a member society doing diversity work in the physics community.

Reflecting on her diversity experience, Knowles believes the low participation of African Americans in physics and astronomy programs is in part due to bad PR, but also due to experiences once they have entered programs.

"People don't realize what you can do with a physics degree," Knowles said. "If you get an engineering degree, you're an engineer. If you get a law degree, you're a lawyer. When you get a physics degree, what are you? Nobody knows. Most people think you have to become a physics professor and that may not be what they want to be. Studies have shown that women and minorities are really motivated by helping their communities, and there's a disconnect between getting a physics degree and what you can really do to advance your community. I don't think we do a good job of educating people on that."

With regard to experiences in their departments, members of the physics and astronomy communities can do ordinary, everyday things to help close this racial gap, Knowles says.

"First, faculty have to build trust with students. Particularly students who are from different cultures and races… Letting students know that you believe in them and that they have what it takes to succeed, and that you're willing to support their success… Listen to what they have to say and what their motivations are. Figure out what they want to do and help them achieve that."

Knowles says that AIP Member Societies can shape the culture of physics and astronomy by prioritizing diversity and creating initiatives to uplift African American physicists, and society members can do the same by communicating the need for diversity to member societies.

"You can't solve problems with people who are all the same. You need different perspectives and ideas," Knowles said. "Diverse teams care about diverse problems."

TEAM-UP created a survey to measure the experiences of African Americans who are either studying physics or dropped out of their physics studies. This survey, which Knowles says is the first of its kind, seeks to uncover the factors that impede or encourage African American participation in physics and astronomy.

Once the survey's data has been collected and analyzed, TEAM-UP plans to visit institutions that produce higher levels of African American physics and astronomy bachelor's degrees. Afterward, the task force will develop evidence-based recommendations for the broader scientific community.

"My hope is that the broader community will see these recommendations and really feel it's important to act on them," Knowles said.

On Twitter, TEAM-UP hosts Twitterchats that are aimed at explaining their mission and showcasing the staff dedicated to accomplishing it. Follow @AIP_TEAMUP to stay updated on TEAM-UP's progress as they work to end the disparity in African American representation in physics and astronomy.

APS is a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics, a federation of scientific societies in the physical sciences, representing scientists, engineers, educators, and students.

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