Challenges to forming a science identity for women of color

By Suzanne Perin - August 2011


Malone, K. R., & Barabino, G. (2009). Narrations of race in STEM research settings: Identity formation and its discontents. Science Education, 93(3), 485–510.

This study investigates specific challenges that students of color have in developing a personal identity related to science. The researchers examined how experiences in graduate school programs shaped the emergent identities of African-American women students in science and engineering. The study sheds light on the barriers cultural minority students might face in their pursuit of science in school and in careers, and suggests that educators might help to prepare students for these experiences.

Participation in a research community is important to a future scientist and her sense of self as a scientist – impacting disciplinary and vocational choices as well as motivation and desire to do further research. The authors argue that how a graduate student participates in a research community both influences and is influenced by her identity – which is produced by both the individual and the social environment, is made within a time and place/context, and entails recognition from others.

A series of focus groups and individual interviews make up the data for this study, which included 24 participants, primarily African-American women. Often the graduate students remarked that they were the “only one” of color or African-American heritage in their research groups or in the larger laboratory population. Three main themes which emerged from the focus groups and interviews were:

This study challenges the scientific community to consider how the everyday practices of laboratories encourage or discourage diversity “on the ground” and suggests that educators might consider how they prepare cultural minority students for challenges they will likely find in their graduate studies and beyond.