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Let's Continue to Value Diversity in Science

Mary Sue Coleman Wins Science Research Competition

In 1961, 17-year-old Mary Sue (Wilson) Coleman was a finalist in the science talent search, the nation’s most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors.

Last fall, I attended the induction ceremony for new members of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), where we had the opportunity welcome the newly elected cohort. The diversity of this class of prominent scientists, physicians, and scholars was striking and differed dramatically from when I was elected in 1997.

For 2016, of the U.S. members, 43 percent were women, and many were from underrepresented groups. In comparison, only 21 percent of the inducted class from 1997 were women. This surge of diversity in the NAM is good for the organization and also good for science and medicine in America.

I have long believed that solving complex problems benefits from teams of people who tackle the issue from different perspectives and differing expertise. There is compelling research to substantiate this belief, too. Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan, has used mathematical modeling to demonstrate that groups of problem solvers from diverse backgrounds – gender, race, economic circumstance, and intelligence – produce better ideas, particularly when the problems are hard, really hard.*

Isn’t this what we need when pursuing answers to the scourge of deadly diseases, assessing the potential impacts of climate change, finding ways to better defend against foreign threats, and solving other immense societal challenges of our time?

My own life and experiences mirror the sea change in our country. When I was a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, half of my class of fellow graduate students were women, but none of our faculty mentors (and precious few in the entire university) were. We women felt this. That fact limited our aspirations.

It was only late in our graduate careers that Dr. Mary Ellen Jones joined the department as a full professor and added a new dynamic to the program: she invited prominent women scientists from all over the country to speak on campus and made sure that students interacted with these accomplished professionals. These visits made a tremendous impact, lifted my career sights enormously, and her presence and new ideas changed our department forever.

As we near the end of Women’s History month, I offer this vignette as it reminds me that diversity remains one of our nation’s greatest strengths. For America’s enduring success and global preeminence, we must continue to find ways to take advantage of it. By exposing students to faculty from different walks of life, patients to physicians from diverse backgrounds, research teams to people from different disciplines and life experiences, we create environments that lead to better ideas, better solutions, and better citizens.

Together, we should not accept anything less. For the future of the young people we educate, for the future of the academy and the future of our society, we must support and encourage diversity in all disciplines and occupations.

* Page, Scott. The Difference, How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. 2007 Princeton University Press.