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New center to explore diversity in science and technology

Imagine the following: you're walking along MIT's Infinite Corridor. A student stops you and asks, "What contributions have African-Americans made to science, technology or medicine in the United States? How has race been a factor in the development of institutions like MIT?" How might you answer?

After nearly three decades of federal and privately funded efforts to increase diversity within the scientific, technological and medical professions, comparatively little research has addressed the historical contributions of minority groups to these fields in the United States. That will change with the establishment this fall of the MIT Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine in the United States--the only program of its kind in the country.

"The center addresses the lack of historical studies on the contributions of minorities to science, medicine and technology. It also addresses the impact of diversity on the practice and theory of science, medicine and technology," said the center's director, Evelynn M. Hammonds, associate professor of the history of science in the Program for Science, Technology and Society. "Ultimately, the work of the center will provide the intellectual grounding to demonstrate why a diverse scientific and technological workforce is important to all students, teachers and practitioners in science, medicine and technology."

Professor Hammonds said the center's research over the next three years will focus on issues of racial, ethnic and gender diversity in science, technology and medicine within the United States. Phase II of the project will examine diversity in the international arena.

Professor Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said, "Evelynn Hammonds is a farsighted intellectual entrepreneur and gifted historian of science and medicine. Her new center will make MIT the most important place for the study of diversity in science, technology and medicine in North America. It will also be a real boost to MIT's leadership in science and technology studies worldwide."

The center will organize and support research, as well as convene two workshops a year and a summer faculty institute to develop curricula for undergraduate courses. It will also maintain a web site including bibliographical information, course syllabi and research questions. The latter was developed by Professor Hammonds some two years ago and is already a widely used resource in the United States and internationally for faculty teaching. At the end of the third year, the center will host a national conference at MIT.

Research through the center will address several content areas, including:

  • Biographical and institutional studies. These will explore the contributions of individuals from underrepresented minorities, as well as topics such as the role played by historically black colleges and universities and land-grant colleges in training minorities.
  • Historical and sociological analyses of minority representation and participation in the professions. One of the center's first projects to that end is "The Shape of the Tech Stream," a longitudinal and comparative study of MIT minority graduates and minority graduates of other top research institutions.
  • Historical studies on the origins and use of the concept of race in biology, anthropology and medicine from the 19th century to the present.
  • Historical analyses of the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in the development of major technological innovations of the 20th century (e.g., telephones and computers).

"MIT is the ideal place for this center, because it is internationally recognized for its excellence in science, technology and biomedicine, its support of interdisciplinary scholarship and research, and its commitment to diversity," Professor Hammonds said. In addition, the Program in Science, Technology and Society "provides an ideal intellectual home for this work with its multidisciplinary faculty in the history of science, medicine, technology and anthropology."

The center is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford Foundations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 2001.

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