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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Yap, Villarreal Undertake New NSF-Funded Study on Women of Color in STEM

Drs. Melo-Jean Yap and Felisha Herrera Villarreal
Drs. Melo-Jean Yap and Felisha Herrera Villarreal.

Dr. Melo-Jean Yap acutely remembers the feelings of isolation she felt as young a woman of color studying biology — a discipline that is often very white and very male. The presumptions of incompetence she faced from faculty and peers, and the imposter syndrome that fed, still feel fresh.

One incident sticks out. As a graduate student, Yap took a coding course so she could learn to think like a programmer while working on bio-mathematical models. In the class of 30, she was one of five women and two women of color. And she didn’t just feel like she stood out, she felt singled out.

"When I would get the code right, the professor would say, ‘How did you do that? You must have been cheating,'" Yap recalls. "That happened in front of the whole class. I didn't see him doing that to anyone else. I couldn't imagine (being) a student who was actually a computer science major with professors like that."

These experiences are part of what led Yap into the education field and to San Diego State University as a postdoctoral researcher. And they’re part of what make her so excited about her new undertaking — serving as principal investigator on a $350,000 National Science Foundation two-year funded project titled Influential Networks: Women of Color in STEM Community College Pathways. She is partnering in this research with Dr. Felisha Herrera Villarreal, associate professor of postsecondary education and director of the Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education (RES-ISTE).

The study will examine the trajectories of women of color in the STEM field who start their academic path at community colleges. By studying the experiences, support networks and persistence of these students through national survey data, social network analysis and interviews, Yap and Villarreal hope to be able to effectively inform education policy and practice for this underserved and underrepresented population.

"We want to know more about this group and the factors that cultivate their intellect and basically help them persist in their career pathways," Yap said. "We feel like by learning more about this group, this research can help inform initiatives that want underrepresented groups to thrive in the community college and effectively support their pathway to transferring to places like SDSU and beyond."

I really want to ask them directly, 'What would actually help you?'                                                          —Dr. Melo-Jean Yap

Untapped potential 

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, women make up 41% of STEM workers in the U.S. and they are even less represented in fields like computer science (25%) and engineering (14%). Meanwhile only 16% of the STEM workforce overall is black or Hispanic, meaning women of color in STEM make up only a fraction of a fraction. To Villarreal, this represents not only inequity, but untapped potential and missed opportunities for innovation.

"When we think about the economic impact, yes there's the focus on needing more individuals in these fields overall to be globally competitive," she said. "But with so many complex scientific issues out there, it's even more critical that we have the diversity of perspectives, backgrounds and strengths that women color contribute to allow us to move forward scientific innovation in new ways."

Yap and Herrera plan to leverage the resources of RES-ISTE, which has existing research partnerships with Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) nationally, including nine regional HSI community colleges. The idea is to work collaboratively on research with these institutions to inform and move forward campus and region-wide initiatives in STEM. The NSF grant, meanwhile, will provide a platform to disseminate the results and to continue to engage in and contribute to STEM education policy discussions at the national level.

Helping students thrive 

For Yap — herself a first-generation college student and a proud alumna of HSIs San Francisco State and Cal State Los Angeles — the opportunity to interview women of color about what would make a positive impact in their educational trajectories is what’s most exciting.

"I really want to ask them directly, 'What would actually help you?'" Yap said. "I feel like a lot of times, administration will come in and say, 'This is what (we should do)' without getting to know that population and finding out what their needs are. Hopefully our findings can alleviate the lack of literature out there on this very understudied group so we can really help the students thrive."

"It's pretty personal," she adds. "I've been in their shoes and my passion is to help them keep going — to get to where they want to go."