After eating lunch with Dr. Barabino and listening to her talk last week, I kept thinking about one thing she said: “Science is social.” I never thought of science or engineering as particularly social endeavors. When considering the humanities, social sciences, medicine, and business, science seems comparatively solitary. As a student, we go to class where we are talked at and we do problem sets to reinforce the material. Even with group projects and teams working on problem sets together, in the end you are the one taking the final exam. It is important to have confidence in your own ability to solve problems.
However, upon more reflection (and after listening to Dr. Barabino's talk again!) I realized two things:
1) The isolating aspects of science diminish significantly as a graduate student, post-doc, faculty member, or scientist in industry. There are no more formal tests to take. Instead, the important outcomes are research results, publications, talks, products, sales, patents, and impact on patients and customers. None of these are possible without a team of people working together.
2) As problems and questions in science and engineering become more complex, a single person, or even two or three people, is not enough to adequately tackle challenges.
Dr. Barabino expressed this point during her talk. “I think the level of collaboration is important. Our work, the science and technology; the level of sophistication, of intricacy, of complexity. These are all things that require multiple minds, multiple perspectives. The more we can work together in a collaborative fashion, the more we can push the field forward and make important discoveries. We [as bioengineers] think of ourselves as being interdisciplinary by nature. In our field we have to collaborate with others.”
Despite the need for interdisciplinary thought, certain factors remain that prevent the formation of strong cross-specialty collaborations. In the social science literature, “...they even talk about people being biased against interdisciplinary [work]. Some of this is because we are geared towards, 'Who is getting credit? Which field? Where are things coming from?'” This is another point I had not previously considered. Do people really care which field an idea emerges from? Apparently, the answer is yes.
In Ehud Shapiro's paper, published last year in eLife, he explains that, “Scientists who leave the safe haven of their home discipline to explore the uncharted territory that lies outside and between established disciplines are often punished rather than rewarded for following their scientific curiosity.” He goes on to explain that when scientists work at the boundary of two established disciplines, “There are no community elders to give guidance, to define and rank the important research goals, or to write recommendation letters to their intellectual offspring. There are no peers to compete with or use as reviewers; and there are no community-specific journals or conferences. In general, the intricate and encompassing community support structure present in dense scientific communities is completely missing.”
However, as a newer discipline, bioengineering (or biomedical engineering) has a unique opportunity to celebrate interdisciplinary research. “One really fascinating thing about biomedical engineering as a discipline, [is that it's] newer and less mature than other engineering disciplines. It's not as stuck in its ways. It's already showing signs of being a much more inclusive, innovative discipline. It's ripe for the youth [coming into the field], and people already in the field, to make a difference and really stand out to be a model, not just for our field, but for other fields as well.” In addition to being a heavily collaborative field, Dr. Barabino has hopes for it to become a field that welcomes and nurtures individuals with a variety of backgrounds and interests.
When Dr. Barabino first entered the world of education, this was not the case. During her childhood, she experienced the “separate but equal” policies in schools she attended. As part of a military family, she typically attended integrated schools on military bases. But, in the third grade, she went to the town school. “There was an elementary school that was walking distance from our house, but we could not go because we were black. We had to walk out to a dirt road and get a bus and be bused several miles to the black school. And everyday that I walked by that white school, I would think, 'What is going on in there and why can't I go?' And the class we went to in the black school had old, dilapidated rooms, it was a very old building, the books were very old.” Even as a new PhD student at Rice University, in 1981, the engineering graduate student office did not believe she was a new graduate student. “When I showed up at Rice in '81, they thought I was in the wrong place! [My department] had never had a graduate student who was black.”
Due to her own experiences, Dr. Barabino explains that, “...I came to look at career progression in terms of factors that are interrelated at multiple levels. There are levels that affect us as individuals, there's social [levels], institutional type things that are involved, and policy implications.”
“There were things that I was observing in my own career and looking at other peoples' careers, how their careers went along a certain path, and I was convinced that there were factors beyond individual characteristics and capabilities that said a lot about how someone's career would progress. And I thought about the identity piece of it because we have a lot of identities...eventually we will see ourselves as a scientist or an engineer. And being able to work together across these different identities really makes a difference.”
This interest in identity led Dr. Barabino to read about research in career identity and eventually partake in such research herself. “There is this sense of self-concept, self-worth, self-efficacy. I was taken by this model that was done by [Heidi] Carlone and [Angela] Johnson. They are saying that there are dimensions of forming a science identity: performance, recognition, and confidence. The point that they made in their model is that you can be confident and perform well, but these two dimensions coming together may not result in you forming a science identity if you don't have recognition. And the recognition comes from not just you seeing yourself as a scientist or engineer, but when others see you as a scientist or engineer. This is part of the results of their study. [They found that] your identity as a scientist or engineer can be interrupted if there are not sufficient cases of external recognition.” Importantly, this external recognition cannot come solely from your parents, friends, or partner. It must come from established people in your area of work. Even if a person is quite talented, performs well, and is confident— it has been shown that without external recognition their ability to thrive in their chosen field is significantly reduced.
Despite these challenges, Dr. Barabino left us with ideas for implementing opportunities for recognition. “There are simple things you can do. You can recognize your peers. Sharing research and recognizing. Coming together as a community is really important. Science is social! We are not doing it all by ourselves. It's not just about the quantitative aspects. There are a lot of personal interactions that go on.”
- Special Session - Valuing Diversity As It Happens: Exploring Laboratory Interactions Where More Is Going on Than Science (2006)
- Narrations of race in STEM research settings: Identity formation and its discontents (2009)
- The Pipeline Still Leaks and More Than You Think: A Status Report on Gender Diversity in Biomedical Engineering (2010)