Creating safer communities. Ensuring access to clean water. Tackling such problems requires science. Yet for much of its history, science has been shaped by European values. White European and American men have largely controlled who asks the questions, how they are studied and what is significant. Many important discoveries and innovations have been made, but many questions have been overlooked or unacknowledged because the experiences of investigators were limited.
Pursuing personally relevant research broadens science and makes it more meaningful for us all. Robin Nelson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Skidmore College, acknowledges that opinions on research design in biological anthropology are shifting because more people recognize the role of personal experience in shaping science. She recalls the moment in her work on caretaking strategies in Caribbean families when she decided to heed advice from her female subjects and expand a study to include male family members who also contribute to familial well-being.
“To fully comprehend female caregiving dynamics, I had to understand how these women construct their universe,” Nelson says. “They live in a patriarchal social system. That meant interviewing male family members such as brothers and fathers, too.” She discovered that female caretaking strategies were often, in part, a response to financial and emotional provisions of male family members.
When individuals from underrepresented groups become scientists, they often come with a mission. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, grew up in inner-city Miami during the 1980s war on drugs. After witnessing friends and neighbors suffer from drug-related crime and a short stint selling and trying drugs, he remapped his trajectory. He graduated from college and went on to study physiological effects of drugs on the human brain because he wanted to understand how drugs affected people. “You just have these different perspectives that are not from our typical pool of scientists, and so you look at problems differently,” he told the Huffington Post in 2013. “You are certainly more courageous in some areas because you see the impact on people you care about.”
Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, studies climate change impacts on the Navajo Nation's land and water. While raising her family on the reservation, she grew frustrated about water supplies that were intermittent and sometimes contaminated. When she began her college studies at 28, she was interested in geology and hydrology because she wanted to better understand the relations among the land, how it was used and the water her community needed. “One of the most important things I learned over the course of my education is that who you are helps define how you look at the world and how you approach a problem,” says her profile for the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. “Using traditional Native American knowledge is not just important from a scientific point of view but also from a cultural point of view…. We need people who approach problems from this perspective in the sciences so that we can learn—and hopefully teach others—how to be better stewards of the land.”
Ecologists have recently begun to pay attention to urban environmental issues. But these issues were not new to people of color and those living in low-income communities, who saw through the lens of environmental justice. As a native Chicagoan, Kellen A. Marshall-Gillespie, a doctoral student in urban ecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noticed how pollution from cars and businesses affected the respiratory health of her neighbors. She hypothesized that these pollutants would negatively affect the growth and physiological development of plants, including vegetables in nearby gardens. “Environmental inequities and racism [have] tremendous implications for the sustainability of natural systems and ecosystem services,” she wrote for the Ecological Society of America. “I felt a deep charge to connect the social benefits of studying ecosystem services, [environmental justice], and segregation.”
When science is inclusive, everyone wins. Long underserved communities are finally heard, and scientists who listen are rewarded with fresh insights.