NORDP 2023 Keynote: Diversity in the Data with Dr. Christine Yifeng Chen

NORDP 2023 Keynote Speaker, Dr. Christine Yifeng Chen

From a young age, Christine Yifeng Chen had an affinity for the outdoors. Growing up in upstate New York, she spent many afternoons amusing herself in the local woods observing plants, rocks, and passing wildlife. When the sun was down or the weather was poor, she watched nature documentaries on public television and read books about historical expeditions and voyages, captivated by stories of field scientists working in far-flung places. Despite her enthusiasm, she never considered that outdoor field research was something she could ever do herself. After all, she had no camping or hiking experience, and hardly traveled outside of her hometown, as the costs of such activities were prohibitive.

That all changed when she “won the lottery,” as Chen puts it, by gaining admittance to Princeton University for her undergraduate studies with a full tuition financial aid package. Scanning the catalog of course offerings, she noticed that the earth science department offered classes with field trips, all expenses paid. Soon enough, in her first semester, she found herself in California, gazing at snow-capped mountains, climbing up sand dunes, and walking amongst ancient pine trees for the very first time. This formative experience set the stage for Chen’s future in field geology. “It was a complete culture shock,” Chen says. “Suddenly, I had access to all these resources at this school, to do all the things I’d always read about or seen on TV. It was nothing short of life changing.”

Chen understands first-hand the impact that access to social and material resources can have on one’s career. She will deliver the 2023 NORDP Conference opening keynote address, entitled “Racial disparities in research funding.” In her remarks, she will highlight results from a recent study she led showing systematic racial disparities in funding rates at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Using publicly available data, Chen and her colleagues showed that from 1999 to 2019, proposals by white researchers at NSF were funded at rates higher than most other non-white groups, and that these trends held regardless of scientific discipline and proposal type. Since similar patterns have been observed at the National institutes of Health, NASA, and other philanthropic funding organizations, they are likely widespread throughout the research funding ecosystem.

Despite countless of initiatives at colleges and universities to diversify the professoriate, data on faculty demographics indicate that higher education institutions appear to have little to show for it. Chen believes that the long-standing funding disparities have played a significant role in stymieing diversity goals: “Eliminating inequalities in STEM and academia will require a reorganization of what causes inequality in the first place: unequal access to social prestige and material resources.”

As a geologist and geochemist by training, Chen is very familiar with the lack of diversity amongst faculty. The geosciences are the least diverse field of all STEM disciplines in terms of race and ethnicity; less than 10% of geoscience PhD recipients are people of color, and little has changed in the last 40 years. And unlike other STEM disciplines, Asians are underrepresented amongst geoscience PhD recipients.

That statistic, along with the rise in anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic, spurred Chen and two of her colleagues to start an affinity group, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Geosciences (AAPIiG), to build community for AAPIs in the discipline. It was through one of the early virtual AAPIiG community gatherings that Chen first learned from a senior academic about the “open secret” that Asian researchers have the lowest proposal success rates at the NSF. The rest is history.

Chen is eager to engage with the NORDP community about these widespread funding disparities and what we can do about them, both as individuals as well as a collective organization. She hopes that we might consider the funding data at our own institutions from both public and private funders with a critical eye. Chen also hopes that NORDP can mobilize a coordination action in response to these trends, given our unique vantage point as being embedded in the research community at multiple levels and sectors. “NORDP is ideally positioned to guide and catalyze action around this issue. If not you, who else?”

Chen is now at a national lab where she continues her geological and geochemistry research.

Help us welcome her to the NORDP stage in May.

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NORDP fosters a culture of inclusive excellence by actively promoting and supporting diversity, inclusion, and equity in all its forms to expand our worldview, enrich our work, and elevate our profession.