My Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

by Samuel A. Acuña, Ph.D.
Updated: Spring 2023

Embracing diversity is about embracing the differences between people. Some of these differences can be labeled, such as gender, race, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status, but people are also defined by a vast and complex set of characteristics, functions, experiences, and preferences that make them truly unique. I believe this diversity should be acknowledged and celebrated.

One simple way I embrace the diversity of my students is with music. I like to have music playing in the 10 minutes before class, and I curate a semester’s playlist based on recommendations from my students (they send me 3 songs each). By the end of the semester, we have all learned more about each other’s personalities, cultural backgrounds, and interests. Students report that this exercise makes them feel more included in the class and that they are more comfortable to participate.

It is well established that diverse teams consider alternative solutions and encourage innovation, leading to better science [1]. A few weeks ago, I was guest lecturing a class on startups and product design here at GMU, a topic that I taught for a few years at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (a good school, but not considered to have a highly diverse student population). I always ask students what kind of products they would consider developing in a start-up company, and I often find their proposed ideas to be decent but rarely revolutionary. However, during this lecture I was amazed to hear proposals for many new and compelling ideas that would never have crossed my mind. I recognized that these ideas were coming from students that are typically underrepresented in engineering, and their proposed ideas often stemmed from their unique experiences and backgrounds (e.g., skin-colored glucose monitoring systems for pregnant women in middle eastern countries). I told the class that this abundance of good ideas was evidence for why it is important to have diverse perspectives in science and engineering, and I doubt these ideas would have emerged as quickly back in Wisconsin.

I know that societal systems can produce patterns of exclusion and discrimination based on our individual differences. This is usually not deliberate or malicious but emerges because of implicit systemic biases that underly our daily decisions and interactions. However, these biases can create environments that prevent the exact scientists and engineers we need from solving our toughest problems. This phenomenon emerges as low representation of diverse backgrounds in STEM fields, lower pay, less access to opportunities, and even reduced confidence [2]–[4]. For example, racial and cultural homogeneity primes students to believe that being white is associated with leadership and career success [6], which is a very disempowering cultural framework to navigate for a student of an underrepresented racial minority. Thus, to help shift our society away from these biases, I support institutional initiatives to increase diversity in STEM. I consider my own professional success to be a result of the diversity initiatives I participated in when I was younger. For example, in high school I was invited to visit the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Washington, where I felt valued and that I had the potential to succeed in college.

I am particularly motivated to increase the representation of women in engineering. For three years I organized an award-winning exhibition of biomechanics-based activities to teach engineering principles to K-12 students as part of a college-wide outreach event at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Research shows that as early as middle school, girls start losing interest in STEM fields [5], [7]. To combat this, I designed our exhibit to influence middle school girls by framing our activities using best practices found in science education literature, including showcasing women scientists as role models [3], appealing to values often associated with women (e.g., helping) [8], and highlighting the non-professional interests of our women scientists [9]. I also ran a study examining how we might have changed the situational interest of female participants, which was presented at the 2018 conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. I have continued to engage in outreach activities during my time at GMU, such as teaching bioengineering principles to high school students through the College Readiness Early Identification Program. I am also organizing a bioengineering senior design project this year that aims to excite high schoolers that are underrepresented in STEM by teaching them about prosthetics and motor control. My goal is for all students to feel included in STEM, and especially within my own field of bioengineering.

I also feel a particularly strong motivation to increase positive Latinx representation in engineering because I have never had a Hispanic or Latinx teacher or professor, ever (including in elementary school). Hispanic Americans are underrepresented in US institutions of higher learning as both engineering graduate students (<5% nationwide) and faculty (<4% nationwide) [5]. Although I identify as Latinx, I do not fit into a simple racial category. This sometimes puts me into an awkward position during our society’s ongoing conversations on racial diversity. My dark-skinned father immigrated from Peru to the USA to marry my white mother, and both sides of my family come from a strong cultural and racial heritage. When I was young, this confusion angered me because I was either not white enough to be welcomed by the white kids, or not Latinx enough to be welcomed by the Latinx kids. However, I have come to see that I have a unique opportunity to help bridge racial divides because I can identify with many categories (i.e., intersectionality). I am a multiracial, heterosexual, cisgender male from a lower middle-class background, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I also have broad experiences related to living in the culturally diverse Seattle area, living in conservative religious communities in Utah, and living with the polite people of the Midwest. I have experienced privilege but also adversity. I hope that my own diversity will help me understand and support students who confront systemic challenge in their education and help to make them feel included. To this end, my responsibility as a mentor and role model within the university is not separate from my work, it is the work.

Despite initiatives to increase representation, it is not enough to only make broad policies that promote diversity: everyone has a personal responsibility to confront their own biases and introspect how they engage with people different than themselves. For example, I became more aware of how I contribute to patriarchal norms through participation in a 2015 university course on women and leadership in STEM. Before this class, I did not know the language of diversity and inclusion but considered myself a well-intentioned person who treated all people fairly. However, the course helped me realize that I often made small assumptions and conclusions based on stereotypes, and that my small unacknowledged biases contributed to the societal problems I hated. I came to realize that learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion is for everyone, and not just for the “bad racist/sexist people”. Societal implicit biases run deep and combatting them is not trivial. We must continually examine our behavior to ensure we are treating all people equitably and promoting a culture of inclusion. I am not perfect, but I have developed habits of acknowledging and confronting these biases as they emerge. Once I catch myself acting in a biased way (e.g., assuming the director of a program was male), I become more conscious of my biases and I can learn from the experience (e.g., to check my assumptions about leadership genders). I just try to get better each day. Last month I forgot to introduce a female colleague as Dr. X but did for the male colleagues, and after noticing that and apologizing, I am now less likely to make that mistake again.

I find working in a diverse and inclusive environment to be exciting, interesting, and rewarding. My goal is for everyone to feel safe and welcome and that they have potential to succeed, and I am taking deliberate action to create this environment. Role models from George Mason University have a large impact on the DMV area, and I hope my commitment to diversity and inclusion contributes makes this positive impact even stronger.