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The Importance of Science Identity for Inclusion

December 04, 2020

While categorizations of race, class, and gender may influence individuals’ self-perceptions, recent work has focused on a more nuanced view of identity, suggesting the activities individuals engage in may also be influential. When someone participates in certain activities, they may start to identify themselves as a certain “kind of person.” This internalized identity can become durable, lasting through many activities, or it can be short-lived and change from moment to moment.

What is Science Identity?

Science Identity can be described in terms of how an individual seeks to be a scientist, which is constructed through iterative interactions with scientific social and material contexts [1, 2]. A person with a strong science identity would exhibit a sense of community and affiliation [3] built by consistent extrinsic and intrinsic attitudinal factors [4]. This sense of identity can be built by participating in relevant activities followed by categorizing oneself as a member in the scientific community [5].

However, an additional component of science identity can involve comparing one’s performance and characteristics with the perceived characteristics of others in the field. Many factors can influence how a perceived identity is formed, but this can include stereotypes rooted in historical inequities that include gender and race [6].

Why Science Identity Matters

The concept of science identity and how individuals strive to become valued members of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is an emerging area of research [7]. A person who has a strong science identity is more likely to pursue a career in science [8-10]. Conversely, as you might guess, the lack of a science identity may have the opposite effect.

The paucity of individuals from underrepresented groups (URGs) in science can have a deleterious effect on the science identity of URGs. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who observe and interact with career role models who have a similar background have greater persistence in their STEM career [11]. This lack of representation can serve as a de facto barrier to retention and persistence in STEM careers [12-14] by not providing early-career URGs crucial opportunities for role models or mentorships that may enhance their science identities.

Parting Thoughts

Mentoring can play a crucial role. Ensuring that individuals from URGs receive mentoring from diverse identities, including ones they may relate to, can help them feel that they are the “kind of person” who belongs in science [15]. To this end, the NIH-funded National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) is a nationwide resource comprised of a network of mentors and mentees from biomedical disciplines relevant to the NIH mission. This initiative provides evidence-based mentorship and opportunities for professional development and networking to researchers from undergraduate to early career faculty levels. I discussed this initiative and some of its findings in more detail in November’s This Month In Diversity newsletter.

Strategies exposing URGs to similar individuals further along the STEM career pipeline helps to strengthen science identities. Seeing others from similar backgrounds can help people realize they are not alone. This can be accomplished by encouraging institutional programing that allows established, diverse talent in STEM to share their experiences.


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