Universities like Penn have seen dozens of protests in the aftermath of Ferguson, and student activism continues to call attention to national race relation issues. But some racial issues hit even closer to home at universities, right in the field of academia.
Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, a postdoctoral researcher at the Luo Lab in the Department of Neuroscience, who received his Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Penn, said academia is hostile to blacks. He identified three structural roadblocks that impede black success in the sciences: graduate school admissions, an inability to get research funding and professional humiliation.
Equally educated blacks are less likely to have their research grants approved by the National Institutes of Health compared to whites by 10 percentage points, a 2011 study by Donna Ginther and colleagues found.
Zahra Parker, a Nigerian Ph.D. student in her final year studying cell and molecular biology, said blacks benefit from affirmative action in the sciences. Nonetheless, she believes blacks feel isolated in academic environments where there are few black professors, are turned off by a competitive and aggressive culture and are disadvantaged from the get-go due to a legacy of discrimination that goes back centuries.
Graduate School Admissions
Before applying to Ph.D. programs, students must identify potential mentors with whom they can conduct their research. Finding a Ph.D. mentor may be more difficult for black students, research shows. A 2014 study conducted by Wharton professor Katherine Milkman found having an identifiably black name in an email reduces the likelihood of a positive response from mentors for men, but may increase the chances of a positive response for women in the sciences.
“To even get into grad school, you have to prearrange this relationship before you apply,” Abdus-Saboor said. In the study, “The white names got, ‘Sure I would love to work with you, yeah you’re on campus, let’s meet tomorrow.’ But the black names, they got no response, or ‘no I’m busy,’ or, ‘I can’t take any new students,’” he said.
Parker said her experience applying to Penn was highly positive. Not only did both professors she reached out to get back to her quickly, but she was offered a position in one of the labs.
“I think it’s unique to Penn,” Parker said. “I think a lot of the biomedical programs across the country want to fill a quota. The folks at Penn believe you are a person. There’s a very specific and tailored program for you, based on your experiences.”
Abdus-Saboor agreed that his experience at Penn has been very positive. “My time at Penn was really good actually. I had good mentors, good support — black, white, Asian, Indian — people really bent over backwards to support me, to help me, to make sure I did well,” he said.
In fact, it was during the summer after his junior year of college, when he came to Penn for a summer program meant to engage minorities in the sciences, that Abdus-Saboor decided that he wanted to get a Ph.D. These programs are a “a step in the right direction,” he said. “It will hopefully increase the critical mass.”
In the sciences, the phrase “publish or perish” is thrown around quite often. It means that to rise up in the ranks, academics must publish important research consistently. Research grants are especially important in the sciences, where they are used to pay professor salaries.
“In the sciences, the currencies are the research grants. In the Perelman School of Medicine, a professor is typically paying anywhere between 50-90 percent of their own salary based off research grants. The only way to stay afloat in the sciences is to get these research grants,” Abdus-Saboor said.
“We’re not saying that people are bad, that people are evil people. But we do harbor these biases that are inherent from the media, the way we are socialized,” he explained.
Parker said her experience on this end is very different. She said she is advantaged in applying for grants because she is black and the National Institutes of Health is looking to increase minority participation in the sciences.
“They like to hear the story, we started at the bottom, and now we’re here,” she said. Parker said this sentiment seeps through in grant reviews. She noted a specific grant in which the reviewer noted the importance of “bridging the gap.”
In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice John Jackson recounted a lunch he had with many accomplished black academics. He wrote, however, that many of them shared that “down to a person, they felt under-appreciated, disrespected and dismissed as scholars. They had achieved everything, yet they felt that many of their white colleagues treated them with little more than contempt or utter indifference. It was disheartening to hear.”
Abdus-Saboor said many black professors feel that they face a career “full of constant humiliation, constantly being put down, constantly not being selected for promotion.”
He said that many black professors are not selected for tenure, because they were not part of the right social circles. “All along they weren’t invited to the social networks, they weren’t invited to the dinners, they weren’t invited to the beach trips,” he said.
Abdus-Saboor said that most black students leave academia after getting their Ph.D.s. “Most of the people in the EE Just Society [a club for Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds], none of them stay in academia, they all get out,” he said. “I know I’m going into hostile territory.”
“I think that when we talk about race in the sciences, and how race plays a role in your success in this field, it’s like 50-50. Fifty percent your work, who you are surrounded by, and 50 percent your race,” Parker said.
However, unlike Abdus-Saboor, Parker does not attribute the lack of blacks in the sciences to a hostile culture, but to a history of discrimination.
“We came in at a disadvantage. I think it just comes from years and years and years of being marginalized,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something that can change overnight because the culture is so deep-seeded in science.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Zahra Parker was offered a position in her lab before applying. This article has been updated to reflect that this is false. The DP regrets the error.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that EE Just Society is a club for black Ph.D. students. The article has been updated to clarify that the club is open to students of diverse backgrounds.
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