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A conversation with Dr. Mark Rodgers on representation in STEM education

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are the backbone for progressing civilization. Innovations from STEM fields were brought about through diligence, patience, intelligence, and creativity from some of the world’s greatest minds.

From Archimedes to Galileo to Newton to Tesla to Einstein to Hawking to Jobs and Musk, these are a few of many that have transformed civilization as we know it. They are celebrated for their contributions, and rightfully so.

When looking at the giants of STEM, we can see that they are well-to-do white males; the antithesis of diversity.

But what about those who have also achieved feats of similar stature? Those who haven’t been highlighted or celebrated? Those that weren’t as talented but put in countless years of training to achieve innovation? Those that saw the universe a bit differently.

I’m talking about the George Washinton Carver’s, the S.N. Bose’s, the Katherine Johnson’s, and the Rosalind Franklin’s of the world.

I submit to you that diversification in STEM fields is an everpresent concern. I am not only talking about diversity as a singular person but as a group. The definition of diversity in itself is:

the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : VARIETY
especially : the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization

STEM innovation is not singular. It is usually a team working together to draw conclusions. Yes, the team is usually centered around a talented individual, but it is not just talent that creates innovation. It is looking at a problem through multiple perspectives or multiple lenses if you will. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers

I recently interviewed Dr. Mark Rodgers, the Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management at Rutgers Business School. We discussed a range of topics covering Energy Systems, Demand Planning, Statistical Modeling, and Continuous Improvement of today’s energy infrastructure.

Dr. Rodgers giving a presentation on grid expansion

Given the climate forecast for this year of wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, I was curious to know more about how grid infrastructure and planning can help mitigate the damage done by such natural disasters. We also discussed the balance of additional loads put on the grid via people working from home and how it is offset from decreased office building loads and reduced transportation.

When it comes to grid infrastructure and planning involving the scenarios above. Dr. Rodgers cleverly and simply labeled a three-phase method: reliability, resiliency, and recovery

Reliability for designing a system that can withstand the strength of natural disasters and still provide on-demand power. Resiliency in terms of how fast a rapid response plan can be implemented to mitigate the damage. And recovery for implementing resources to remediate the damage and for service to return to normal.

It was quite an informative discussion.

As we went further into the interview, we discussed his background. How did he choose a career in STEM and what his process was like?

Dr. Mark Rodgers is an African-American professor at Rutgers University. He has a B.S. in Ceramics and Materials Science Engineering, an M.Eng in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing, an M.S. in Statistics and Industrial Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering.

He is highly qualified in his field.

However, his experiences as an African-American navigating his way up in a STEM field have been quite precarious.

I asked him about his experience of being a person of color (POC) in his field was like. He went in-depth saying,

“Right now, I’m one of the few African-American faculty members at the Rutgers Business School there aren’t many of us, unfortunately, and I’m the only one that does kind of analytical research kind of more quantitative the more stem oriented type of work.”

He further explains,

“It’s disheartening. You have this isolated feeling.”

Dr. Rodgers reflected back on his graduate student experience where this isolated feeling fully manifested itself. He describes it as,

“I was the only American student pursuing a Ph.D. in the School of Engineering, And that was very very weird. It’s weird. It’s already isolating being the only black person in an American engineering class but being the only American is like, ‘Whoa, this is a big challenge.’, and that was something I had to adjust to.”

He dove in deeper with greater detail,

“Not only do I have to kind of find ways to not be non-threatening in front of my professors and got to think through those kinds of microaggressions, but I have to talk to my peers and my classmates about okay ‘how do I spell scissors?’ for things like that.  I’m also American, too, but I stick out like a sore thumb in the rest of society, and there are some certain microaggressions that I have to balance and deal with day to day.”

Dr. Rodgers is one of the few POCs teaching at Rutgers Business School

Being the first or only person from a specific background in any major industry is difficult. There is no point of reference to draw advice or inspiration from. For Dr. Rodgers, this holds true. Fortunately, his uncle was a chemical engineer at Kodak who inspired him to go up the path of an engineering career.

He summarized his perspective on POCs in STEM as such,

“It’s critical to look in the profession and see someone that looks like you. See that person as an example and say, ‘Okay, someone looks like me has done this before.’ And I think this is also a relatability aspect of it I wish I had more mentors that were people of color because I could actually see and talk to them about the things that I was doing with those other professionals.”

While representation might help one envision a career in STEM, persistence is also needed. Dr. Rodgers left me with one last wisdom.

“Fail early and fail fast.”

Every failure is a teaching moment. So take a deep breath, reflect on the experience, and ideate a new strategy for the next attempt.

If there’s anything our generation is good at, it’s being able to fall flat on our faces and rise back up. And that is something talent alone can never do.