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  Career & Employment  
  March 14, 2005
Volume 83, Number 11
pp. 49, 52, 54, 57

Laboratories model the diversity that many seek in an increasingly global chemistry community


Walk into the inorganic chemistry research laboratory of Richard A. Kemp at the University of New Mexico, and chances are you'll fit right in. From Agnes Mrutu, a brand new graduate student from Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; to Raymond Lansing, a military veteran and Navajo; to Ana Felix, a Hispanic single mom and New Mexico native, everyone in the group is so different from the rest that no one is an outlier.

Kemp's group, which also includes postdocs from China and Algeria and graduate students from Massachusetts, Thailand, and Illinois, is notably more diverse than the average chemistry laboratory in the U.S. According to the latest employment survey of American Chemical Society members, 0.2% identified themselves as American Indian, 2.1% as black, 11.9% as Asian, and 83.7% as white; 2.6% of the respondents self-identified as Hispanic (C&EN, Aug. 16, 2004, page 26). Seventy-four percent of ACS members are male.

Compared with the U.S. population as a whole, most minorities (black, Hispanic, and Native American especially) are underrepresented in chemistry--as are women.

Kemp's group comes closer to national averages, and many hope that Kemp's group represents the future of the U.S. chemical workforce.

"Everything is becoming more global," says Giselle Sandi-Tapia, an electrochemist at Argonne National Laboratory. "We are not isolated anymore. We need help on many issues from many countries." Welcoming the diversity in our own country into the chemistry community helps us learn how to work well with the international scientific community, she adds. "When you talk to someone who is not from your same background, you have to listen to their point of view, and you learn to communicate. You learn to respect."

IT TAKES ALL KINDS Richard Kemp's group at UNM includes chemists from many different backgrounds. Front (from left): Brian Boro, Lattman, Mrutu, Stewart, and Lansing. Back: Jup Polanams, Saria, Kemp, Felix, and Yongjun Tang.

CHEMISTS, like all scientists, Sandi-Tapia thinks, have had a hard time embracing diversity. "The nature of the scientist," she says, is that "we tend to work alone. And if we do work as a team, we all have a project that we concentrate on. The more you get isolated, the more you get used to it."

Argonne National Laboratory was founded 54 years ago, she says. Yet today's world is different than it was then; there is a greater need to know what is going on around the world and to work with people from widely differing backgrounds. "Argonne realized that it couldn't be the way it was 54 years ago." So in 2003, Argonne formed a diversity council to encourage and support the diversity of its employees.

One of the roles of the diversity council has been to facilitate the setup of groups within Argonne that encourage networking and a greater acceptance and understanding of minority members of the Argonne community. The Women in Science & Technology program has supported women at Argonne since it began 11 years ago.

Last year, Sandi-Tapia became the founding president of the Hispanic-Latino Club at Argonne. Other clubs include the Chinese Association at Argonne and the African American Black Club. Sandi-Tapia was born in Costa Rica and came to the U.S. in 1990 to pursue a Ph.D. in electrochemistry.

Sandi-Tapia thinks that the first year of the Hispanic-Latino Club at Argonne was a resounding success. She says there are roughly 100 Latino employees at Argonne--out of about 4,000 employees overall. Sixty people joined the club in the first year. A few of those club members, five or six, are not Latino or Hispanic at all. "They just decided to join because they felt that our mission was worth it. Of course, we welcome them," she says.

In fact, one major goal of the club is to foster greater understanding between the Latino community and the rest of the Argonne community--rather than focusing solely on the cohesion of the Latino community itself.

"The mission of the club is to promote fellowship within the Argonne community," Sandi-Tapia says. "Latinos, overall, are very warm. It is not very difficult, once you establish a connection among us, to keep that connection. What is difficult is to go outside of that club and blend with the other cultures and be accepted--not only be accepted, but be respected for what we are. When people talk about Latinos, immediately they talk about immigrants and illegal immigrants. We want to change that. And I think slowly we are doing that."

For example, during Latino Heritage Month in September, the Hispanic-Latino Club hosted a number of free activities that were open to the entire Argonne community. They brought in two groups of professional musicians: One performed South American and Caribbean music, and the other performed music from Spain. "It was amazing, all the comments I received by e-mail or phone call," Sandi-Tapia says. "The community told me, 'We never thought that the Latino community was so rich.' And we only chose two examples. There are thousands of those," she says.

Another major goal of the club is to reach out to neighboring schools in the community, many of which serve primarily Hispanic-Latino children. "Last year, we were very active in going to those schools." The club sent scientists to give talks, and they brought along laboratory equipment for demonstrations. The club also raised funds to bus the kids on-site for tours and talks at the laboratory. "I got a letter from one of the kids in eighth grade who wrote that he never imagined a place like Argonne could exist," Sandi-Tapia says. "He had never dreamed about being able to be a scientist because his family was very poor. But now with all the examples he saw, he is convinced he can make it."

In addition to national laboratories, many chemical companies have placed an increasing emphasis on finding ways to support and encourage diversity. They say it makes good business sense--it helps them reach the diversity in their customer base and encourages the generation of new and inventive ideas within the company. Some firms have begun diversity networks similar to Argonne's. Some seek out suppliers that are minority- and women-owned. Others try to increase their representation of minority groups in their leadership and management teams.

Peter Pekos, chief executive officer of a contract manufacturing organization called Dalton Chemical Laboratories in Toronto, is a child of immigrants. His partner's parents are immigrants. And his firm is based in Canada, which greatly depends on the high immigrant population for its workforce, especially the scientific workforce. "We have an important role to play in how immigrants assimilate into our society. I think if we do it right, there is a tremendous talent pool that we have access to that we wouldn't have otherwise."

Largely because of Pekos' philosophy, Dalton, a firm of 83 employees, has hired people from more than 20 cultures. Pekos estimates that probably 10 to 15% of the chemists at Dalton are from Russia or other former Soviet Union republics. Twenty-one percent are from China. Others come from Central America, Colombia, Chile, Moldova, Vietnam, Romania, France, and "I think we have added the Philippines," Pekos says.

Such diversity comes with many advantages. It also brings challenges to a workplace--challenges that Dalton has had to find ways of addressing.

MELTING POT The multicultural environment at Dalton Chemical Laboratories, in Toronto, welcomes all people.

FIRST OFF, language barriers, even subtle ones, can cause misunderstandings and frustration at work. "We encourage people to speak English at work and to speak their home language at home so their kids won't forget their home language." In addition, Dalton offers a voluntary English-language course that is run on company time. "We have found that, if someone has a challenge with the English language, they will take the course." The courses have led to improved communication in the work groups, as well as individuals with larger skill sets that allow them to do more within the company.

Second, there are "many different cultural elements in the way people interact," Pekos says. For example, how people from different cultures "handle authority or how they handle working under women" may differ from North American treatment of authority and gender. Dalton has set up training on "understanding differences between cultures or genders and what to say or what not to say."

Management styles, in particular, can vary tremendously from culture to culture. So Dalton offers courses on mentoring, coaching, and leadership for its managers. "North America is not a command-and-control kind of management environment," Pekos says. "Often, when someone from another country has a manager and the manager tells them to do something, they just do it. They don't think about it. In Canada, we have a need to have a relationship type of a management style as opposed to command-and-control."

Pekos offers these courses on softer skills as well as language because he thinks they are extremely important, and new immigrants may not learn them elsewhere.

He also deliberately creates an environment of acceptance. The firm organizes an "international lunch" and other cultural exchange activities. The company's benefit plan is structured to offer flexibility in leave time for ethnic or religious holidays not recognized in Canada.

Pekos believes that diversity can be cultivated. A company that welcomes a few people from other countries or backgrounds will attract even more. "Once someone establishes a beachhead in a country or in a company and they think it is a good place to work and is open to their culture, then they will attract others," he says. "That is effectively what has happened at Dalton."

Kemp can't think of anything he specifically did to foster having such a diverse group. Nearly four years ago, when he first started a joint appointment at Sandia National Labs and the University of New Mexico as an inorganic chemistry professor, he began by taking on, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Kemp and Bahram Moasser of General Electric, a few undergraduates who were in his senior inorganic chemistry class to do research.

UNM, a large college of roughly 26,000 at the main campus, is considered a minority school, where about 48% of the student body self-select as non-Hispanic whites. So it isn't surprising that one of Kemp's students was a Hispanic New Mexico native and another was a Navajo from the Four Corners region--where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. The other two were white females. At first, "at least three out of the four didn't have designs on going to graduate school in chemistry or getting a Ph.D.," Kemp says.

But as the students found that they enjoyed research and entered graduate school, Kemp was able to help both the Hispanic and Navajo students get scholarships through the New Mexico Alliance for Graduate Education & the Professorate, an NSF-funded program to support underrepresented minorities in science and technology.

Kemp's group has grown in diversity from there. He now has seven graduate students, including students from Tanzania, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Thailand, in addition to the native New Mexicans. In fact, the whole inorganic division, which grew from six or seven grad students three years ago to 19 now, has become very diverse. "Nine of them are female," Kemp says. "Eleven of them are members of an underrepresented group: two Native Americans, five blacks, one Hispanic, and three Asian or Pacific Islanders. Plus, in the inorganic division, we have postdoctoral fellows from China, Algeria, Zimbabwe, France, Korea, and the U.S."

"There must be some truth to the idea that students from nontraditional backgrounds gravitate toward groups where diversity naturally occurs," Kemp says. He tells the story of when Josephat Saria, a graduate student from the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, joined his group. "I didn't pursue him at all because I thought he was going to be an organic chemist. He was really a very highly sought graduate student." Kemp was surprised then when Saria said that he would like to join Kemp's group. One of Saria's friends, a graduate student also from Africa, added: "I advised him to do this because your group is so diverse. He'll feel very, very comfortable there."

Kemp may not believe he did much to create a diverse group, but he has done a great deal to help the group succeed and work well together.

GREEK GREETINGS The bioorganic group of Borhan (in front of the rock) at Michigan State University wishes a Greek member of the group happy birthday. From left: Dan Whitehead, Tao Zheng, Zhihua Shang, Olmsted, Stewart Hart, Montserrat Rabago Smith, Jennifer Schomaker, Chrysoula Vasileiou, Katie Box (a high school summer researcher), Jun Yan, and Somnath Bhattacharjee.

"I WANT EVERYONE to think of ourselves as a team. I spent 20 years in industry, and I was always used to being in a team." Kemp organizes informal gatherings, either beer after a group meeting or a barbeque at his house. Late last year, he hosted an international food night for his group and others in the inorganic division.

Kemp also thinks that the presence of two older members of the group contribute to the positive, open environment. Two scientists whom Kemp knows from his own graduate school days have ended up working in his laboratory. Constantine Stewart joined Kemp's group as a Sandia scientist after a 15-year career in industry. And Michael Lattman is a visiting professor on sabbatical from Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Not only do the two senior members offer extra mentoring for the younger graduate students, they also model the type of openness that Kemp likes to cultivate. "These two people, whom I have known and been friends with for 20 years, can say exactly what they also think--and nobody takes anything badly. The students see that, and I think they feel a lot more comfortable about stating their own opinions, which is a major part of what education is all about."

Openness and a supportive, nonjudgmental environment do seem to be important factors in making a diverse group comfortable. Courtney C. Olmsted is about to defend her graduate thesis in organic chemistry at Michigan State University. She says that the group she has been a part of is unusually diverse. "Our research adviser is from Iran; his wife is from Ethiopia; and the students--there are now 12 of us--come from the U.S., Mexico, Greece, China, the Republic of Georgia, and India. During the time I have been there, we have also had students or postdocs from South Korea and Tunisia."

Olmsted also thinks that the group is unusually supportive for an academic research group. "The main component is our adviser," Babak Borhan. "He is supportive of everyone, regardless of where they are coming from. He takes into account somebody's background--that they may have a very different educational background from a U.S. one."

There is a preponderance of women in the group, which may contribute to how easily the group communicates with each other, Olmsted says.

"We ask a lot of questions of each other. We've met each other's parents and families." They throw birthday parties and baby showers for each other. In the past year, they have started organizing cook-offs, including ones for Chinese peanuts, chili, and a soup from the Republic of Georgia called kharcho. "When we travel home or for vacation, we bring back small souvenirs for everyone in the group to help share cultures. Everyone is welcome in our group--I think in part because we have so much diversity."

Olmsted remarks that there are no cliques among people of a certain background in her group. "I have seen groups where that has happened. It really is a downfall--especially if there is a foreign language involved. People start to wonder when they hear conversations going on that they can't understand--'Are they talking about me?' You get a lot of distrust within the group. That's not what you want. You want an open environment."

In some labs, she says, nonnative speakers can feel intimidated about speaking imperfect English. That leads to people defaulting to their native language. "In our lab, we have really fostered an environment of 'Speak English as well as you can, and we will help each other improve.' We ask a lot of questions. We let foreign students know how impressed we are. From my perspective as a U.S. domestic student, they are not only speaking another language, they are studying in it! We try to remember to let them know that they are way ahead of us in terms of language-learning skills."

The diversity that Olmsted has been surrounded with in the past four years has changed her. She now wants to enter the field of international science policy after she finishes a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University, St. Louis.

"Sharing and globalization will become part of the success or downfall of science and technology," she believes. For example, when the International Space Station went down, the U.S. had to collaborate with Russia to fix it. Scenarios like that will become more and more frequent, she believes. Scientists have to learn to work well with people who are not like themselves. "Because of my experience in this lab, I am more equipped to handle what I consider the global future of chemistry."

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2005

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