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Professor Stephen B. Thomas

January 25, 2019

When Science wrote about diversity in academic culture, editor Katie Langan turned to Stephen Thomas, director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity and professor of health services administration, for his thoughts about how building supportive environments for female and minority graduate students enables them to perform their best.

The magazine interviewed Thomas about a recent study that found that minority and female graduate students’ publication records matched their white male colleagues’ when they felt welcomed by their mentors and colleagues, had clear expectations for their work and were prepared for their classes.

While Thomas Thomas wasn’t involved in that study, he champions diversity in STEM on the University of Maryland campus and serves as the associate director of the mentor training core at the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) which is working to address the lack of diversity in the biomedical research workforce nationally. He reflected on the reasons supportive environments are so essential to minority and female students.

“I found it quite fascinating that one of the areas that they highlight is psychological distress and how structure and a sense of belonging can be a pathway to success,” Thomas told Science. “It might be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re already perceived as less than and if you believe that—if you internalize that—then you will be less than.”

Thomas spoke about the ways the culture of academia, in which many mentors treat students harshly to “toughen young scholars up,” can be particularly oppressive to students who already feel ostracized.

Through his position at NRMN, Thomas helps mentors to better communicate with and support the diverse students they work with. Among his pieces of advice: “It’s important to not be afraid to share your own vulnerabilities,” which can be key to helping minority and female students feel comfortable with their mentors.

Thomas’ commitment to diversity in academia stems from his own experience, another topic he discussed with Science.

“I came up at a time when I was the first or only black student in my doctorate program, first or only [black] assistant professor in the tenure track, first or only tenured black faculty member,” Thomas told the magazine. “I came through that. But the scholars I’m training now, they don't want to be first. They don't want to go to institutions that don’t get it.”

Read Thomas’ full interview here.

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Stephen B. Thomas