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Lydia Villa-Komaroff: Working Towards Diversity in STEM

By: Mehak Dureja, SDSU Chapter Member

In the last two years, there has been a huge progression in the fight for gender equality, from the women’s march to the #MeToo movement. As feminism rises in mainstream culture, women in STEM are also on the rise, and across the world women are striving towards a more diverse STEM community.

One of these influential women in STEM is Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a biologist and businesswoman who was the first Mexican American woman to receive a doctorate in the natural sciences. In addition to this amazing accomplishment, she was the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Research at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Now, she is a board member, former CEO, and former Chief Science Officer of the biotech company Cytonome/ST, LLC, and a member of the Biology Department Visiting Committee.

From such an impressive resume, you would expect Villa-Komaroff to have worked with a very diverse population within the STEM field. While she did encounter diversity, it was limited in many ways. When Villa-Komaroff was asked about experiences in various workplaces, she asserted that she encountered diversity, but that women and minority populations made up most of the instructor roles or assistant professorships, and therefore were held back from obtaining positions with more prestige such as professors, deans, and presidents. To challenge this issue Villa-Komaroff researched and found that there are different cognitive systems that lead to bias when selecting people for a position. System 1 is automatic; it is constantly on and takes little-to-no energy and is designed to protect us in case of imminent danger. This system includes our subconscious biases and beliefs about an individual. System 2 takes more energy to run because it takes conscious thought rather than just relying on bias. Because of this, System 1 typically overtakes System 2, and the result is that we tend to trust our biases and instincts over credibility or logic. Villa-Komaroff’s findings have inspired researchers across the country to understand the extent that biases affect our professional and personal relationships.

Studies like this one have led universities and companies to establish programs to create a more equal workspace. For example, as part of the Strategies and Tactics to Increase Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) program at the University of Michigan, full professors must now attend workshops on implicit bias during peak faculty recruitment season. Obviously, diversity is still a prevalent issue in the workforce and academia, however, women such as Villa-Komaroff are helping to make strides in the right direction.


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