SF State News {University Communications}

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Equipping minorities to succeed in the geosciences

October 21, 2009 -- Management and networking skills are just as important for successful scientists as lab and field techniques, says Lisa White who spoke Oct. 20 at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Portland, Ore.

Photo of Professor Lisa White

Professor Lisa White

White, professor of geosciences and associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering, shared strategies for how professors and mentors can equip underrepresented minorities to move up the career ladder in the geosciences.

"For graduate students looking to step into professional roles, being a good manager and communicator is critical." White said. "This is true for any student, but for minorities, maybe we didn't have the role models -- the deans or managers above us -- who looked like us."

White grew up with a role model in academia, but not from her field. Her father, Joseph White, was a psychology professor and administrator, including a stint as dean of undergraduate studies at SF State. "I didn't have an example from geosciences and I went into a field that was very different than what most people in my demographic pursued," White said. As an undergraduate at SF State, inspiring teachers in a prerequisite geology class helped White connect with the discipline and she changed her major from art to geology.

In geosciences, which includes earth, ocean and atmospheric science, women and ethnic minorities are particularly underrepresented compared to other scientific disciplines.

White also believes that individuals from diverse backgrounds need to see the value of networking. "They need to understand the power of the scientific community," White said. "People of color might need to work harder to develop their network. For many, there is a lot of pressure to succeed so perhaps networking is seen as a luxury not a necessity, compared with publishing research, but career progression in the sciences still relies on word of mouth and personal relationships."

While training and support is needed to promote diversity among professional geoscientists, at the college and high school level, what's needed is exposure to research in the field. White is the founder and director of SF State's SF Rocks program which provides high school students with these transformative experiences.

She is now working with the University of New Orleans, the University of Texas and Purdue University to develop a new program called METALS, which will take high school students from urban areas on summer research trips to national parks.

When it comes to training and mentoring, White's experience is that everyone gains. "Who doesn't enjoy enthusing others about the sciences?" White said.

-- Elaine Bible


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