COSAM Researchers Study Disparity between Scientists Featured in Biology Textbooks and Students
Two Auburn University students studying in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) are helping to explore a potential demographic mismatch in scientists featured in biology textbooks and the students that use them.
The students, Sara Wood and Taylor McKibben, worked alongside Cissy Ballen, assistant professor in the Auburn University Department of Biological Sciences, and recent Auburn graduate Kelsey (Luoying) Chen. The team collaborated with professors and scholars from Michigan State University, the University of South Alabama, and the University of Konstanz, Germany, to perform a demographic analysis by extracting hundreds of human names from common biology textbooks and assessing the binary gender and race of featured scientists. The resulting research paper, “A scientist like me: demographic analysis of biology textbooks reveals both progress and long-term lags,” was recently published in the biology journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.”
Wood will soon begin her senior year studying biomedical sciences with a pre-med concentration in COSAM. She said she was looking to find an inspirational lab project that would help others.
“When I met Dr. Ballen we discussed an interesting dynamic we had both observed between men and women in college laboratory settings,” she shared. “This led us to consider research questions regarding the representation of men, women and people of color within academia, especially science academia. After that, the project formed itself.”
McKibben, a junior studying microbial, cellular and molecular biology, also collaborated on the project.
“Undergraduate research experience is incredibly useful for developing your skills as an independent scientist,” he said. “It allows you to refine your research interests and find the niche that you want to pursue further into your career. As for me, I am learning how to contribute effectively to a large-scale group project as well as developing hands-on research skills that have been discussed in classes. I am actively working as a scientist and it has only reinforced my love for my field.”
Throughout their research, the team discovered that the most common scientists featured in textbooks are white men. However, women and scientists of color are increasingly represented in contemporary scientific discoveries. In fact, the proportion of women highlighted in textbooks has increased with the proportion of women in the field, indicating that textbooks are matching a changing demographic landscape.
Their research also shows that the scientists portrayed in textbooks are not representative of their target audience, which is the student population. They discovered that overall, very few scientists of color were highlighted, and projections suggest it could take multiple centuries at current rates before inclusive representation in reached. Given the importance of role models in science, they conclude with a call for publishers to expand upon the scientists they highlight to reflect the diverse population of learners in biology.
The publication has also had world-wide coverage in Newsweek (https://www.newsweek.com/it-will-centuries-before-black-scientists-are-represented-textbooks-1513039), BBC News, (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53158292), Science magazine, and NPR/Scientific American.
Ballen said that Wood and McKibben were invaluable members of the research team, contributing to every step of the research process.
“I learned a lot from working with them,” she said.
McKibben said he felt the most interesting aspect of the research was seeing how the most diversely represented scientists are modern scientists still conducting work today.
“It seems like textbook writers are making an effort to modernize the science that is being shown to students,” he said. “Hopefully those choices will pay dividends with students matriculating into their fields of study and getting to interact with the role models they have learned about and become successful scientists themselves.”
Wood added that the project showed her what a large-scale truly collaborative effort can look like.
“I gained some insight in that regard,” she shared. “Also, because our project largely focused on gender and racial representation, I gained a new perspective on the disparities between different demographic groups in academia.”
Ballen said she believes independent research is important for students.
“Independent research is important to develop critical thinking skills and build confidence,” she said. “This research in particular - that which empirically highlights the underrepresentation of certain scientists based on gender and race - is so important to instill in our future leaders and scientists.”