Science: An Exercise in Privilege

A little over a year ago, I spent my entire holiday break stalking professors. As a freshman, I wanted to get involved in molecular biology research and move beyond labeling the parts of a flower. So I started keeping tabs on local labs, poring over research papers, and eventually sent out e-mails to a handful of professors, asking if they had a spot in their lab.

Within two weeks, I was rejected twice. It was only a month later that I received an e-mail from a professor, asking me what time I was available for an interview. Fast forward a year, and I’m glad to say that I’ve had an extremely valuable experience working on my own project at a university laboratory. I get to work with P. gingivalis, the bacterium that causes gingivitis, a gum disease that results in inflammation and swelling of the gums.

This sort of experience isn’t uncommon among Stuyvesant students because of the support we receive from the administration and alumni. For instance, the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association hosted its first annual Research Night last month, with Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) semifinalist alumni and current students talking about their research experiences. Biology teacher Jessica Quenzer teaches a freshman honors research biology class during the spring semester where students receive guidance while tackling their own projects. In fact, one of Interim Acting Principal Eric Contreras’s main objectives is to increase the number of Regeneron Science Talent Search (formerly named the Intel STS) semifinalists by bringing back Regeneron classes, creating a network of alumni for students to contact, and possibly starting a summer program for underclassmen to get a head start.

This level of support, however, is unheard of in many other schools. And without preparatory classes, facilitated connections with previous winners, and guidance when it comes to finding mentors, many other students are at a disadvantage.  Thus, the students that succeed in science competitions and fairs such as Regeneron can’t simply attribute their success to their creativity and work ethic. Ultimately, these competitions weed out students without access to laboratories and money, therefore choosing privilege over ability.

Sarah Scripps, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, told Hana Schank of The Atlantic that these competitions started off as a way for urbanized students to get in touch with nature by observing the natural world and then displaying their findings. However, “After World War II, [the competitions] took on a dimension of national security. Instead of being about children’s learning and general appreciation of science they became more about grooming a workforce.”

The focus of science, at least among grade-school children, has morphed from a curious observation of backyard organisms into a cut-throat race for college scholarships and professional careers. At its heart, experimentation and research are about answering questions. But when Regeneron finalists are competing for more than $5 million in awards and the prestige that comes with the title of “finalist,” it becomes more about that fame and the opportunities that being a winner opens up.

Yet the students competing for this prize money aren’t the ones that necessarily need it to pay for their college education. A 2009 study of the Canadian National Science Fair, published in the International Journal of Science Education, found that “Qualification for participation in the fair appears to favour students from advantaged, resource-rich backgrounds.” The study looked at participants and winners of the fair from 2002 to 2008. The majority of the winners came from middle and upper class families and worked in universities and professional laboratories. Their mentors were often family friends. Even earlier studies, from 1992 and 1996, named access to professional laboratories and professional mentors as stronger predictors for success in science fairs than grades in school.

privilege within STEM

by Klaire Geller

In middle school, I experienced this firsthand. When I was fourteen, my school decided to participate in the Future City Competition. This competition dealt mainly with city planning and engineering a “city of the future.” My team had to design a sustainable way to grow and deliver food to the citizens of our city. We worked for months, staying after school late and coming in early, to design a system where we harvested the electricity given off by electric catfish using electrolytic cells. Compared to what we were learning in school (the parts of a leaf and the food chain), this was extremely advanced and required outside learning. And while we won the regional New York City competition, the national finals in Washington D.C. were very different.

There were other students presenting projects where they had in-depth research on genetic engineering and seawater-powered fusion plants. Compared to our hand-drawn posters, their pseudo-research posters seemed like the work of professionals. It was only after our mentors started talking to their mentors that we found out they had been working on their projects for months with the help of bioengineers. All of the students at the finals were in the same age range (most were thirteen), but the winners of the competition were the ones that had the most support from their school and professionals in their area.

There’s also the undeniable race issue. Just like money opens doors, a student’s skin color and even name can close them. In a study done by The New York Times, researchers sent emails to 6,500 professors from 259 colleges. The emails were sent from fictional students asking for information about their PhD programs. All of the emails were identical—the only difference was the carefully selected names. According to a report on the study written by Dolly Chugh and some of her colleagues that worked on the project, “The messages came from students with names like Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang, names that earlier research participants consistently perceived as belonging to either a white, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese student.”

Chugh and her colleagues then tracked the average response rates for each type of student. They found that “professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost every discipline and across all types of universities.”

The combination of being barred by race and economic status is what makes science a difficult field for students to break into, but with proper backing, disadvantaged students have interest and potential. A 2013 study done by Texas A&M University found a connection between STEM-field clubs and science competitions with post-secondary matriculation. The survey study worked with Harmony Public Schools, which implemented a mandatory science fair project for all students in the fourth through 12th grades and encouraged participation in MATHCOUNTS, the American Mathematics Competition [AMC], and Science Olympiad. It concluded that “HPS outperformed the national average in terms of post-secondary admissions and STEM major selections. Multiple years of science fair project competition were positively related with students choosing a post-secondary STEM major.” Another example is Samantha Garvey from Long Island, New York, who was homeless when she found out she was a 2012 Intel semifinalist. She thanks her chemistry teacher, who fought for and enrolled her in a research program at her high school.

Science should reward curiosity and skill as opposed to privilege. But at the same time, it shouldn’t punish students who have the means to take advantage of professional assistance. Trying to find the balance between these two extremes has lead to the field bending in favor of students whose families can fund it, since this is where lucrative deals are made and progress develops quickly.

One option in remedying this is to limit the resources students can use to create their projects. For instance, judging “professional” and “home” projects separately would even the playing field. In national competitions such as the Regeneron STS, students are required to have a mentor and even get a recommendation from them in order to enter the competition. Mentors identify how much work the student did in coming up with the project idea and collecting data. This information could be taken into account when judging projects.

Another possibility requires work on the part of competition alumni. Like the Stuyvesant Alumni Association’s mentoring program, the alumni of science competitions can offer a support system to students who want to participate, but have no idea where to start. This support can range from advice on finding a lab to recommending students to their colleagues.

Organizers of larger science fairs may want to consider reaching out to universities and laboratories in advance so that they can compile a master list of professors and researchers that are willing to work with students. Getting assistance will then be less about finding personal connections and more about how proactive a student is in finding connections.

As students attending school in the Greater New York area, where eight out of the ten top schools that send finalists to the Regeneron STS are located, our success in these competitions cannot simply be attributed to a natural inclination towards the STEM field. While my dedication and hard work at the lab allows me to continue working there, it is likely that the name of the school on my resume landed me an interview in the first place. Getting started in the science world depends too much on titles that students can’t always control. It’s time to rid science of elitism.

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