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‘We’re undermining science and that’s a great shame’

Kerstin Perez has reached the position of Assistant Professor of Particle Physics at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For people from minority groups this is by no means a common experience. Perez will explain how improvements can be made at the annual Diversity and Inclusion Symposium on 22 January 2021.

What are you going to say on 22 January?

‘I’m giving a workshop on how lecturers can improve students’ sense of belonging in the classroom. Many students feel as though they don’t belong, students from minority groups in particular. Students of colour in an almost completely white group, for instance, or female students on some technical programmes. Research shows that this lack of belonging is a key reason why students leave undergraduate programmes, even if their grades are good.’

You too feel somewhat of an outsider at times. In a recent blog post you wrote: ‘At award luncheons, I am constantly aware when the only other brown faces in the room are the catering staff.’ How does this make you feel?

‘In my non-academic life it’s completely normal for me to be around a very diverse group of people. My group of friends is a good cross section of society, with black and white people and roughly equal numbers of women and men. But at university it almost feels as if you’re in a world that is completely separate from real life. And I’m programmed in such a way that I notice immediately if there are no other people from minority groups. “Not again!” is what I sometimes think.’

But you yourself are an excellent example of someone with a successful career. After all, you’re a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I’d be tempted to think: see, it is possible to rise to the top as a woman of colour.’

‘Let’s take a closer look at that logic. Because you are in fact saying that intelligence and motivation are all you need to reach a high position. If that is the case, why am I one of only roughly four professors who identify as underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities, out of 79 faculty members? It’s not as if they’re inherently more intelligent or motivated, so something else must be going on.’

And the problem lies in that feeling of belonging?

‘You’ve probably heard of the leaky pipeline, a metaphor that we often use. At each rung in the ladder – during their studies or academic career – more people from minority groups drop out. Until there are hardly any black or female professors at all at the top. As I already said, this is also because they don’t feel at home in that homogenous environment.’

How can we resolve this?

‘I often see faculty members passing the buck. One person will say that they are unable to appoint faculty lecturers from minority groups because there aren’t enough postdocs from that group. But there aren’t enough postdocs because there aren’t enough grad students. They blame a lack of undergrad students, et cetera. I decided I’d had enough, and said to myself: the buck stops here. I’m the boss of my own lecture hall, and I’ll do all I can to stop students leaving academia. At the diversity symposium, I’ll therefore talk about my own experiences of how to increase students’ sense of belonging in the classroom.’

Visit the Diversity & Inclusion Symposium

The Diversity & Inclusion Symposium has become an important moment for us to reflect on our ambitions in the area of diversity and inclusion. Hosted by the Faculty of Science, this year’s symposium will focus on central questions facing us in translating our ambitions in the area of diversity and inclusion into practice.

All students and staff members are welcome to participate. Attending the symposium is free of charge, but registration is required.

Universities are generally considered to be progressive environments. Are the open to change?

‘To some extent. Most people in high positions at universities want the right outcome. They don’t like to see themselves as white dudes living in isolation from the rest of society. The problem only arises when you show what this change actually entails. It means that you must change the way you run the university. But then you are tinkering with the system that has brought the present generation of professors and administrators to the top. You have to invest more time in good, inclusive teaching, for instance, when their academic careers are often built on research and publications. Top universities are scared that this will be at the expense of their competitive position.’

What are the long-term benefits of this extra diversity?

‘Take my own discipline. I’m looking for dark matter, a hypothetical matter in the universe that is not visible to the naked eye. We’re actually on a gigantic fishing expedition that no one has an answer to yet. But as our universities are not always accessible to ethnic minorities, women and first-generation students, we are actually excluding a large part of humanity from our hunt. We’re undermining science and that’s a great shame.’

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