Sunday, January 16, 2005

Racy biology

The Boston Globe has an article about a professor in the Biological Engineering department saying he's being denied tenure because he's black. Regardless of the merits of his case, it is pretty amazing how few black people there are [at least at MIT] in biology and biological engineering, both professors and students. Granted, the scientific thing to do would be to go look up the actual numbers, but here's my anecdotal evidence: other than James Shirley [the professor mentioned in the article], there's only one other black professor doing work related to biological engineering, Collin Stultz, and I'm not aware of any black professors in biology. On the graduate student side, I know of three black students [myself included] in biology, biological engineering and CSB combined. In other words, few and far between. While this doesn't particularly bother me on the level of "Oh dear, I feel so isolated and want other people who look like me around me", it does make me wonder whether the situation is worse in the biological sciences than in other engineering disciplines. After all, we've now got black computer whizzes [like here ;-), here and here] -- where are they in biology and life sciences ?

I suspect, for no reason I can clearly enunciate, that minorities tend to gravitate towards fields that are "hot" [like computer science was/is, and biotech is now] later than other segments of the population ie the uptick in their enrollment tends to come later than that for say, white, Indian or Chinese entrants, and that part of this is due to a certain amount of risk averseness. In other words, there's kind of a "let's wait and see whether this field pans out" attitude. If that theory is true, we should see a spike in black/Hispanic/etc participation in life sciences in a few years, assuming biotech sustains itself and becomes a relatively low-risk, decent-reward career choice [in terms of job security, compensation etc] like engineering currently is. Guess we'll have to wait and see.


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