For Minorities In STEM Fields, Fighting Stereotyping Begins In The Brain : Shots - Health News One California university is trying a new strategy to help minority students perform better in STEM classes and develop the mental resilience to face future challenges.
NPR logo Tackle Negative Thinking Head-On To Boost Diversity In Biomedicine

Tackle Negative Thinking Head-On To Boost Diversity In Biomedicine

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Shannon Wright for NPR

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Shannon Wright for NPR

When he came to the United States 12 years ago, Edgar Velazquez hardly spoke a word of English. Most days of his first year, the 14-year-old Mexican immigrant went to the library after school to read the dictionary, determined to learn 250 words — the minimum for basic conversation.

At home, Velazquez often did his homework in the bathroom. It was the quietest spot in his family's 500 square-foot studio in the Tenderloin, a San Francisco neighborhood with "needles on the ground and a lot of homeless on the streets," he recalls.

His hard work paid off. Velazquez graduated from San Francisco State University last year with a bachelor's degree in biology. He's now applying to medical school. Over coffee at the student center on a recent Monday morning, he spoke about his journey with calm fluency.

Still, Velazquez recalls that when meeting with school instructors or lab mentors, he worried about his accent and stressed over what they might think of him, the rare Latino pursuing a biomedical career. At times "I was so nervous," he says, "I could barely put a sentence together."

Psychologists call this type of worry "stereotype threat"the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about one's social group. "It's unconscious most of the time, but it takes up energy," says SFSU biology professor Leticia Márquez-Magaña.

At the time, Velasquez didn't realize his feelings were common among minorities, particularly those who are underrepresented in science and technology fields.

Stereotype threat can drive up a person's heart rate, raise stress hormones, and sap working memory, leaving less brainpower for the task at hand. Studies have shown that such worry can make women and minorities choke on math exams. These experiences breed feelings of inadequacy and isolation that lead some to drop a course or even leave science.

SFSU researchers developed a short online tutorial to educate students about stereotype threat. They focused on ethnic groups less likely to pursue science and showed, in a recent study, that the program helped these students perform better at school and build mental resilience against future threats.

The work is part of the university's larger effort to create a safe, affirming culture where minorities — which make up more than half the student body — can thrive. Márquez-Magaña leads this program, called SF BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity).

The university launched the initiative in fall 2014 with a $17 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. SF BUILD is one of 10 NIH-funded sites testing strategies to expand the pool of students who choose biomedical careers.

Of course, diversity initiatives aren't new. For decades the NIH has used them in hopes of recruiting more minority researchers. But until recently, the agency hadn't rolled out the programs in a coordinated way to see if they were making a difference, says cardiologist Hannah Valantine, the chief officer of scientific workforce diversity at NIH.

After the Institutes reviewed a 2011 analysis that found African Americans significantly less likely than white applicants to win NIH research grants, it pushed for a deeper look. It formed a committee to address "this big question of how we enhance diversity in the scientific workforce," Valantine says, "... to understand what kinds of programs work, how they work and for whom they work."

When the NIH asked universities to propose new strategies to boost diversity in biomedicine, Márquez-Magaña went to her colleague, Avi Ben-Zeev, a cognitive psychologist. Ben-Zeev studies stereotype threat. The two worked together to build and test the web-based tutorial for students. Those findings appear in the June issue of Education Sciences.

The results indicate that directly discussing the phenomena of stereotype threat appears to help students of ethnic groups underrepresented in science as well, if not better, than traditional approaches that bolster students without specifically talking about stereotypes.

Past research shows minority students can be helped by being prompted to think about things they care about like sports, friends, or religion. It's called affirmation training. Asking students to recall these values nurtures a broader sense of self and makes individual threats, such as a math test, seem less daunting, says Stanford psychologist Greg Walton. Indeed, a study by Walton and colleagues showed that so-called affirmation training can improve women's attitudes about school and raise their science GPAs.

But sometimes relying on affirmation falls short. "There's no acknowledgment or overt discussion of stereotypes that can affect you," says Ben-Zeev.

He and colleagues came up with a more direct approach, teaching students what stereotype threat is, then having them develop coping strategies based on how they've successfully dealt with past threats. The online tutorial they developed is called Speaking Truth to EmPower (STEP).

To test it, the researchers recruited 670 undergraduates in science, technology, engineering and math majors of all races and gave them a set of abstract reasoning puzzles. They told the students these were hard puzzles designed to measure intelligence. It's a subtle comment, but powerful enough to prime stereotype threat in vulnerable groups.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive no intervention, affirmation training, or the new STEP tutorial. For each, researchers noted their score on the puzzles and checked their grades at the end of the semester.

On puzzle solving, both affirmation and STEP essentially erased the performance deficit of Black, Latino, Latina, and Native American students. To some extent STEP also raised math and science grades in these underrepresented minorities. The results were encouraging "because some people thought speaking truth might actually make people do worse," says Ben-Zeev.

The analysis had a third component — a survey that gauges how much a person cares about being judged through stereotypes. "To open yourself to caring about something you never thought you would do, or that your group is not supposed to be doing ... that's a vulnerability," says Ben-Zeev, who feels a personal connection to his research. He grew up in Israel with working-class parents who didn't expect him to go to college.

Measuring stereotype concern is important because it predicts how easily someone succumbs to these threats, he says. In the study, STEP reduced stereotype concern in vulnerable groups — but the affirmation intervention did not.

So, while both interventions improved test performance, STEP seemed better at creating resilience. "If people are experiencing threats on a regular basis," says Walton, "it may be that the more direct approach of talking about stereotype threat and starting people thinking about how to respond is necessary."

In addition to creating the student intervention, Márquez-Magaña and colleagues lead workshops on stereotype threat at faculty retreats and orientation programs. They also discuss these topics when training older students to lead study sessions for STEM classes.

It was at one of those trainings that Velazquez first heard the term stereotype threat several years ago. "It finally made sense," he recalls. Thinking about his own path in science, "this was exactly how I'd felt in so many occasions."

Esther Landhuis is a freelance science journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her at @elandhuis.