Black and Latinx STEM professionals share their stories of struggle and success in science
Adrianne Gladden-Young, Scott Matthews, and Pauline Serrano reflect on the systemic barriers that disadvantage underrepresented students in STEM and advocate for better mentorship.
Adrianne Gladden-Young remembers a time during college when she wishes she had access to better mentoring. She was offered an unpaid summer research internship in a lab, but turned it down, opting instead for a paid job at a nearby Six Flags theme park. At that time, Gladden-Young says, neither she nor her parents had access to a mentor who might have shared that a research opportunity, even an unpaid one, was far more valuable for a career in science than a summer working at a theme park. She wonders whether that kind of undergraduate research experience might have accelerated her progress in her career. She went on to spend nearly a decade as a research associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. This fall, Gladden-Young will start a PhD program in molecular microbiology at Tufts University.
Pauline Serrano, a Latinx scientist with a doctoral degree in chemistry also says a lack of exposure and awareness of opportunities during high school and college contributed to her slower start in STEM. She was a chemical hygiene manager at Broad for more than three years before moving to the biotech industry in June. Scott Matthews, a principal software engineer in the Broad Genomics Platform, thinks he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for an advocate and champion during high school — in his case, his mother.
The experiences of Gladden-Young, Serrano, and Matthews illustrate just some of the barriers many young students, especially those from Black and Latinx communities face, when trying to pursue studies and careers in STEM.
Those barriers have led to stark disparities in biomedical and computational research in the US. According to the National Science Foundation, Black individuals, who are 11.5 percent of the US population, form just 3.8 percent of the life science and 9 percent of the computational workforce. Latinx individuals are 16.6 percent of the US population, but comprise only 7.7 percent of the life science and 6.9 percent of the computational workforce.
In a 2020 report, Assessing Our Workplace—Part II: Black and Latinx People at Broad, the Broad looked at the experiences of Black and Latinx individuals at the institute, and outlined some key questions to explore as the organization continues to build a diverse, inclusive and equitable culture and community.
To discuss systemic barriers that disadvantage Black and Latinx students in science, we spoke with Gladden-Young, Matthews, and Serrano earlier this year about their experiences as students and researchers, and their thoughts on how to increase exposure, awareness, representation, and mentorship for underrepresented populations in STEM.
What were some early motivations that encouraged you to pursue science?
Gladden-Young: As a little girl, I remember our next-door neighbor, who was dear to all of us, especially me, died of AIDS. I recall being devastated by the news of his death. At that time, I didn’t know what the disease was and asked my dad about it. My dad told me, “I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure that you can find the cure for it.” He convinced me when I was six years old that I could find the cure for AIDS, and I believed him, so from that time on, I had made up my mind to do some work in the fight against infectious diseases. I went on to get a bachelor's degree in biology from Tufts University, and right out of college, started working as a lab tech in an HIV research lab at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard.
Matthews: I grew up in Brooklyn and my parents were blue-collar workers. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some cousins who were professionals, mostly lawyers, and had white-collar jobs. So that inspired me to want a job and not just any job, but a good, well-paying job to support myself and eventually a family in the future. That didn't seem to be an impossible reach for me. So I would say, recognizing the need for financial stability was my earliest motivation.
I took an aptitude test and scored high enough to get into Brooklyn Technical High School on a computer engineering track. I also chose computer engineering as a major in college, as that was what I was aware of, and at that time, personal computers were a big deal. I graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from Clarkson University and continued pursuing a career in software engineering ever since.
Serrano: The biggest factor that led me even to pursue graduate education in chemistry was my work experience, right out of college, at Baxter Pharmaceuticals. They hired me as a Quality Analyst I, which was an entry-level position. I liked the work, but then I saw the hierarchy of things in the workplace and it became very clear to me that I needed to get an advanced degree to move up in my career.
As a first-generation college graduate, in a Mexican-American family, my decision to quit my job to go back to school came as a shock to my family. My dad was really upset because I was making more money at my job than he had ever made. At that time, he couldn’t fathom why I was quitting a well paying job to go back to school. I told him I wanted a bigger and better job someday. In fact, he was the one who had always taught me to look forward and to not stop fighting for the things I wanted. I went on to get a master’s degree in chemistry from University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), where I also went for my undergrad.
Were there individuals who advocated for you and helped you get to where you are today?
Gladden-Young: One individual who greatly influenced me was my mentor, who was a postdoctoral researcher when I worked as a lab technician at the Ragon Institute.
As a lab tech, I was following protocols I was given. I remember I had been there for a couple of years already in the lab, and one day I was sitting at my desk, and my mentor came up and asked me: "Do you want to be a scientist? I see you and I know that you're smart. Nobody cares if you can follow steps one through 10 of a protocol. If you want to be a scientist, you have to understand the science behind everything that you do. I will teach you everything that I know. But you have to do the work.” He taught me, helped me, and pushed me forward. In fact, he was the one who encouraged me to eventually pursue a master's degree at the University of Maryland.
Matthews: I honestly wouldn't be here without my mom pushing and driving me to do better. She may not have understood a lot of what I was pursuing career-wise. I don't think she still knows what I exactly do. For her “it's something in computers.” But she knows that I am successful.
Even though I didn't appreciate it at the time, my mom was always trying to get me into the best schools that she could. She is the one who encouraged me and pushed me to take the aptitude tests and apply for the best high schools that would get me on track for a successful career in STEM.
Serrano: My graduate advisor during my master’s program at UNLV has been my greatest mentor. He has always guided me and helped me make important career changes and choices.
One time, while working in another lab, there was a researcher who was trying to take the first authorship on my paper, even though it was my work. Not knowing what to do, I reached out to my old mentor to seek guidance. He said something then that always stuck with me: "Pauline, the world is filled with white males in science. Do not let them push you around. If you have gathered the data and made those figures, then you are the principal researcher on this project and you deserve to be primary author. Go to bat. You fight for this, because this is your first author paper.” Ultimately, I ended up publishing it as my first first-author paper.
What were some experiences that discouraged you during your STEM journey?
Gladden-Young: I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, an area with a relatively large Black population in the state, and went to Springfield High School of Science and Technology, one of the first high schools in Massachusetts to offer a biotechnology course and a few other specialty sciences. My school was pretty diverse and all through school, I was used to being the cream of the crop in academics.
After high school, things changed. When I went to college at Tufts, it was a culture shock for me, as there were very few Black students. Most of the time, I was the only person of color in many spaces. And all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I was experiencing biased comments. I remember, it was the first week that I was there, someone said, "Oh, you must be here on scholarship. You're just here to fill a quota."
They just diminished me and all of my hard work in those brief comments, implying that whatever I had accomplished so far or yet to accomplish in my career and education — it would only be because I am a Black female in STEM.
Other factors that heavily discouraged me were some of my early interactions with some academic staff and advisors. People who are supposed to be helping you along the way discourage you in many ways.
I was hearing, "You don't belong here or you can't do this." It would have been nice to hear from people whose opinion matters: "You can do this. Let me help." I feel like I could have been a lot further in my career, if I had the support and guidance early on in my educational path.
Matthews: My high school was very, very diverse. But when I went to college at Clarkson, I saw very few Black students during my entire time at college. That was shocking for someone coming from a school in Brooklyn. And with that shock, came self-doubt, a feeling that stayed with me all through college and even beyond in my career, while navigating predominantly white spaces. Am I safe? Are people going to have my back? It can be maddening to perceive any barrier in your education and career and not wonder — is it because I am not doing enough or is it because I am Black?
For example, on LinkedIn, I have never used a profile photo and would get tons of requests from recruiters. I remember being told when I was in high school that I had a white-sounding name. I can’t help but wonder if not having the photo up led to so many recruiter inquiries. Once again, it’s that element of self-doubt — does this have something to do with my perceived identity?
Serrano: I was the first one in my family to graduate with a bachelor's. I was the first one to graduate with a master's. I was the first one to graduate with a doctorate degree. And so I had to navigate these waters with zero knowledge, all by myself.
While growing up I loved science and math but in Las Vegas where I grew up, there was really no industry for science. Most of the jobs were in the hospitality industry. There were only two science jobs offered through campus recruitment when I graduated college, and my classmates got them. We had limited exposure to STEM careers even in college. We only knew about the “pre-professional” career paths, pre-med, pre-dental, pre-pharmaceutical, or pre-law. So I just went on a pre-med track.
If I would have been exposed to different careers, in high school or even during undergrad, who knows, I would have probably become an MD-PhD research clinician or done something completely different, because I would have known that that's an option.
What do you think are the key systemic barriers that disadvantage students and professionals from underrepresented groups in STEM?
Gladden-Young: One of the systemic barriers that I think about a lot is the lack of help with the application process for internships, college, and other opportunities. What about the students who need help writing their applications? What if they don't have anyone to help them? When the applications are reviewed, their application will get tossed aside. It would seem like they're not qualified because they don't know how to write a good application.
Lack of role models in STEM can also be a major barrier for aspiring scientists. Representation matters a lot for Black students. It's important to have role models so they can see what they want to be. A lot of students, aspiring scientists, and people in STEM are discouraged even before they get to college because they don't have the role models. They don't have anyone to look up to, who assures them that they would be able to reach these goals and positions. They don't see anyone else who looks like them in those positions.
Matthews: It is hard for Black and Brown students to get to that next level if they don't have someone who's fighting for them, or if they are not fighting for themselves. I can't speak for every kid out there, but I have to imagine that that's a barrier, right? To not have exposure to what is a possibility. If one doesn't know what’s out there, it is hard for them to know what they could be.
You need someone who is fighting for you and I was lucky I had my mom. But there are kids who don't have someone in their lives who know how to do that, or their parents are so bogged down with their own jobs of trying to just put food on the table, and they don't have time to do that.
Serrano: I feel like lack of exposure is the number one barrier for underrepresented folks in STEM. That is clearly one thing we should help address and open their eyes to different dreams that they could have.
It is important to identify pockets of underserved communities within our own cities — where various STEM-related opportunities don't pop up. When organizations design programs and initiatives to help underserved students, they have to be really intentional about who it is that they are inviting to these programs and there needs to be some equity.
I've also tutored a lot for families who can afford tutors. When I think about my childhood, we grew up relatively poor and there was no option for me to get a tutor. I either had to learn it on my own or not learn it.
How do you think institutions like the Broad can help address some of those systemic barriers?
Gladden-Young: If Broad or institutions like Broad could offer one thing, if they had to choose just one thing, I would say starting a formal mentorship program for underrepresented members would be the most valuable thing to do.
I feel like even at a place like Broad, which is such a resourceful place and the people here are so well connected and smart, in my seven years here, I have never had a mentor — someone who’s not necessarily your boss but who really helps you reach your goals. That would have been so important for me, just to have someone who will say, "Here, let me show you the way.”
I don't think everyone is meant to mentor. A mentor has to be just right. The mentor-mentee relationship has to be right. Whatever their role or their position is at the institute, they have to know that they are here to mentor too and that is expected of them.
Mentors would be aware of your goals, help shape them, and they would be committed to helping you reach those goals. The mentor will be somebody who has already reached that goal, and they could guide you and show you the path to get there.
Matthews: The Broad seems to be blessed with all the tools necessary to really assist in addressing these barriers — it's just a matter of prioritization and expansion. Black and Latinx youth need examples of what they can become in order to know that it is even an option. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) employees of the Broad can serve as that example. Our institution has the right people and access to many more we can partner with who can design and execute programs to introduce STEM concepts to students at a young age. Our Diversity, Education, and Outreach office is already doing that, however, we could use more of that and increase scale.
It is important to remember that each person is different and has different experiences. That should be foremost when considering any approach to address systemic barriers. Institutions must ensure not to lump all of us into one group that needs to be “saved” — that will help them to see us as the whole individuals we are, while recognizing the barriers that we experience.
Serrano: My biggest piece of advice for Black and Brown students and professionals at the institute is to find a good mentor. My advice and request to the broader community is to please mentor! Mentorship is just the number one way to really make an impact.
The moment that I get a chance to mentor someone, I am there to share my story, advice, and job references. I am a champion for women, my LGBTQIA folks, my Brown folks, and for BIPOC people. And I think if we all just took some time and mentored one to two individuals, it would make such an immense difference.