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Bullet diversity · Jun 10, 2022

Meet Dr. Steward Pickett, Diversity Hero


This piece is one in our Diversity Heroes series, where we spotlight individuals who are working to increase Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the biological sciences.


When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist? How was your interest in the field developed that would eventually become a lifelong ambition and career?

I’m a southerner. We tell stories, so watch out. My interest in considering a career in ecology came as a result of several events that my parents facilitated, with some examples in the background from other relatives. My Father (Steward Sr.) was a Boy Scout executive, and one of his many jobs was to help run the camps each summer. One summer, he took me to camp, but I wasn’t part of a troop. So, I was free to do whatever I wanted. I sampled the group activities, but was especially fond of wandering around the woods on my own. The Kentucky forest in the summer was a magical place for me: Quiet, still, gentle air beneath the high canopy (later I would learn the oak, hickory, beech, and maple species – but then I just saw intriguing differences without names); the little rocky stream, with odd bugs under the wet rocks; or the rotting logs sheltering beetles and colorful salamanders. That fall, likely stimulated by the joyous recollections of camp I shared at home, my Mother, Barbara Pickett Frey, a librarian who was always bringing books home for my brother and me to sample – I especially remember the science books (geology, astronomy…), brought me a book on ecology. A light bulb lit up: “I could spend my life in the woods? I want to be an ecologist!”

Steward T.A. Pickett, a Distinguished Senior Scientist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and National Academy of Science member. Credit: Cary Photo Archive

Steward T.A. Pickett, a Distinguished Senior Scientist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and National Academy of Science member. Credit: Cary Photo Archive

Who was your earliest role model?

Cousin Carl Forbes, a high school biology teacher with a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Michigan, took me and my brother to a regional park, and began to put names on things. My late physician Grandfather’s microscope was an enticement too. Importantly, all these experiences said to me, a Black person can be a scientist.

Has mentorship played a role in your career (either as a mentor or mentee)? Who has played a role in your career?

I have to give props to “the ancestors.” William Price, my science teacher in the de facto segregated junior high school I attended let me help with equipment and lab set ups. In high school, my Biology I teacher Wendell G. Freer, supported a racially diverse group of students to get together and do “sciency” things, and Biology II teacher William Turner encouraged me to enter a project in a NASA science fair, which was the first time I traveled on my own. Another teacher, Susan C. Nielsen gave advice about college and various majors. In college Drs. Jerry and Carol Baskin welcomed me into their lab where I did my first publishable research. One theme in all this mentorship was a diverse group of people letting me know that I could be a scientist. Every now and then, I needed that reinforcement, since an occasional bigot tried to tell me otherwise. Of course, the lessons from my family about respect stood me in good stead then as well.

What was the single most intimidating time in your career?

Moving from the warm and supportive community of Prof Fakhri Bazzaz’s lab at the University of Illinois (which was part of a still larger amazing community of faculty and graduate students in Urbana) to my first job as a faculty member at Rutgers University. How was I going to get by without my amazing friends close by? How could I as a person who was raised in the four-generation cradle of my family in Louisville, KY, and trained in a small city in the Midwest going to survive in the densest state in the U.S., with its unfamiliar accents and ways? It worked out marvelously because of the welcoming faculty of the Botany Department, and the warm embrace of the faculty who were active in diversity and inclusion in Rutgers College, one of the four colleges of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Turns out it was always about community.

What is the biggest difference between the way that science is conducted now and the way it was when you first entered the field? What do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years?

It has been said that hindsight is the only exact science, so prediction of this sort is likely to be foolhardy. But the trends I have seen in the past are the only means by which I can hazard a projection. Inter- and transdisciplinarity will continue to grow; managing the flow of information and its conversion to wisdom will continue to be problematic; and keeping up with new cross-boundary fields will remain a challenge. These trends contrast to the situations from “when I was a kid:” 1) lists of authors longer than two seemed rare; now author lists can be as long as abstracts; 2) you could keep up by checking the new issues (paper things in the library!) of maybe a couple dozen journals, all with “ecology” or “evolution” or “naturalist” in the title; 3) the social sciences might as well have been in a different country. A trend that perhaps few saw coming is the growth of interest within ecology itself about environmental justice, and the role of systems of oppression, whether racialized, colonial, or associated with extractive economies. This connects the science with crucial social issues of long standing that will only become more significant to society in the future.

What do you believe are the gaps in training in your field today?

I see a loss of understanding of the intellectual development of the field over the long term. The “Google-ization” of scholarship seems to obscure history and intellectual trajectories. How have the big ideas changed or developed – not just been relabeled? Training can better account for history of ideas and approaches. I see a lack of understanding of the place of community and social-cultural context in the functioning of science as a process. Philosophy of science (including not just of physics), history of science, and sociology of science can help correct this weak spot in ecology. The role of diversity in the community of those who conduct science, and who connect it with the larger society isn’t deeply understood in the discipline. This is a serious lapse. Diversity of scientists – reflected in racialized categories, sex, gender, social class, and many other kinds of human difference and associated experiences – informs the problems science addresses, the questions it poses, the approaches to solutions it values, and how it connects with the concerns of the world beyond. Diversity isn’t optional decoration. It’s part of the mechanism of science. More of us need to know more about that.

What positive impact do you feel DEI has on educational experiences and in developing careers? How has your career been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places, or experiences? Have you had experience in serving or teaching underrepresented communities and if so, what did you learn from this experience?

Ecology is a science of relationships and a science of difference – the study of biological diversity in its many manifestations, from genes to landscapes. A diversity of students and of more senior practitioners is likely to bring more approaches to bear on the study of relationship and of biological difference. Oddly, there is a risk that students of ecology, while being fascinated by diversity in their subject matters, may tacitly bring the socially-constructed racialized rankings of humans to their interactions in the scientific community. DEI can nurture communities that can counter these pervasive but often invisible assumptions about rankings associated with human difference.

The overview of my career trajectories – kind of a braided stream rather than a single big river – has illustrated my fascination with diversity. But it has also exposed me to colleagues who have different perspectives, various life experiences, and distinctive social contexts. I have learned so much from this breadth of experience as a scientist, and so much about humility as a person. Every new person or place might bring me to a new ecology.

It has been a joy for me to teach informally in under-represented communities. My two decades of work in Baltimore, a city that is about 60% Black, have allowed me to show elementary school kids, middle school kids in after school programs, and teenagers in an informal community center, that their environments hold biological wonders, or that a field trip to a county park holds some little pleasures they didn’t expect. I have had the pleasure of learning from adults who encountered a group of ecologists on a field trip through town, the history and excitement they have to share about their neighborhood. I have learned that the eyes of little kids and seemingly jaded teenagers can all sparkle when you show them something they hadn’t known about their familiar world. And I have seen that same sparkle in the eyes of youngsters regardless of the race they are assigned or claim.

What are some barriers that you have seen that limit opportunities for diverse groups? What do you believe are the long-term consequences if diversity, equity and inclusion are not promoted within an institution, department or organization? What are the most critical changes that must be made in DEI to face the future effectively?

Most people in science don’t seem to realize that DEI is an important part of the process of science. That is an important limit to success of DEI efforts. A troubling consequence of not improving the diversity people in our discipline, is that we may lose relevance and impair our societal impact. Critical changes will come if DEI can be understood and valued in all parts of our institutions as crucial to their core scientific and educational missions, not just in the office of the Vice President for DEI, or the public relations offices, or formal CEO statements when egregious examples of exclusion and injustice fill the headlines. In hiring, we need to be cautious about slogans about “fit,” or “best” to be sure that they do not hide exclusionary habits that thwart DEI. Ecologists understand systems, whether they focus on evolutionary, community, biogeochemistry, or landscapes (plus a bunch more labels), but they also need to see what kind of social-cultural-political-historical system stands in need of the work of DEI and how that system affects their institutions and activities.

What would you say is the most difficult part of implementing a DEI program and diversifying an organization? What are some ways that institutions can foster an inclusive environment and promote greater diversity? Are there any examples of programs that have been implemented by institutions or organizations which you are aware of and could serve as precedence and be relatively easy to replicate?

If organizations don’t realize they have a DEI problem, it won’t get solved. If they rely on familiar excuses about pipelines of women or people of color, DEI status of institutions won’t change. If they keep running search processes the same way from applicant pool to final offer, change won’t come. If we don’t ask at every step in the process, “How does this decision impact diversity and inclusion?” diversity and inclusion won’t be promoted ultimately. If our definition of “best” relies on the history of science that has emerged from a lack of diversity and inclusion, we may be guilty of circular reasoning. If we don’t find ways to snag some of those youth whose eyes sparkle when we show them the ecology that’s hiding in the everyday places they know, and invite them in to ecology, it won’t change. People need to feel they are valued for who they are and for what their inclusion can bring to both the creative and the critical processes in science. They need to feel themselves to be part of a community of science, and feel that the community of science respects the communities they came from. Some of that means dealing with DEI programs via cohorts rather than focusing only on individuals, and providing support to people whose communities of origin may be structured differently than a community in science. Indigenous people, people of color, people who come from modest backgrounds, and so on, need to just be listened to as people, but also as participants in cultures and histories that themselves are not monolithic. Acknowledge difference among people, but don’t emphasize the trivial or socially loaded aspects of those differences.

What steps have you taken at your current or last job to promote diversity and equity and to create an inclusive work or learning environment?

1) I wrote a book on the philosophy of ecology that embeds the understanding of the diversity of people and their perspectives and experiences in the process of science (Pickett, Kolasa and Jones 2007). 2) While at Rutgers I was involved in the Equal Opportunity Program of the college. 3) I involved undergrads of color in independent research projects at Rutgers. 4) I was a Co-PI of the Cary Institute Research Experiences for Undergraduates for 12 years, and periodically during that period and over the decades after participated to help sponsor minority students in the program and specific projects. 5) I served on the Cary Institute Workplace Diversity Committee, now recast as the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee of Cary Institute, chairing it for a number of years. This committee has been a voice for personnel diversity in all components of Cary Institute and has pushed for and now realized a process for assessing the diversity culture of the Institute, which we hope supports appropriate JEDI training throughout the Cary Institute. 6) When I was on the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), I was an eager participant in the SEEEDS and other minority and underrepresented student programs and activities. 7) When I was president of ESA, I convened the first formal diversity conversation among board members and staff of the society, which led to specific actions to attend to the needs and inclusion of diverse populations. 8) I have worked with colleagues to introduce an understanding of the role of segregation and exclusion of BIPOC as ecological factors in many systems that ecologists study, including urban ecosystems and the theory and practice of conservation. 9) I have written editorials and essays (e.g. in The Nature of Cities blog) on segregation, racialization, justice, and environment.

How do you see the future of DEI emerging in your field?

Although the awareness of the role of DEI as a component of our science and our institutions has grown markedly over the last few years, I worry about the push back that the political and social “culture wars” now enveloping the United States will sap energy and take intellectual energy that should go to compensating for the formerly weak action in ecological science on DEI. I am heartened by the rigorous, thoughtful, and well supported work by AIBS and ESA to promote DEI amongst their constituencies and to educate the larger community of science about these issues. I also see some standout training and education programs among a number of universities. The leadership in our field “gets it,” and the enthusiasm and wisdom of many new members of our communities are ready and engaged in positive action.

What role could AIBS play in promoting and enhancing DEI across the scientific community?

I believe that AIBS is already playing a substantive role in promoting and enhancing DEI in science (e.g., Croslan et al. 2021). Its CEO and professional staff understand very well the significance of DEI, and are taking concrete and well thought out steps to advance the field. AIBS is helping many people and institutions do better and sustained work toward DEI: For example, AIBS integrates DEI in all its activities. Furthermore, it supports, informs, and provides leadership for its member organizations, for the readers of BioScience, for authors who do and might contribute to the journal and to podcasts, for participants in its professional development programs (e.g., on communication, team science), and for those who are engaged in the impactful peer review services that AIBS provides. Although other organizations are also concerned and acting in the DEI space, AIBS has a unique role in this “all hands-on deck” work.

Coda

I started out warning that, as a southerner, I was prone to tell stories. A second influence has become obvious in the course of these answers. The first form of public discourse I was exposed to was the preacherly tradition of the Black church. I guess that sometimes still comes through when there are I am not constrained to stay in the academic lane.

Some Relevant Writings

A Bit More About Dr. Steward Pickett

What has been the best part of your career? What was the best day of your job?

One thing that has amazed me is that I have continued to grow and to learn, and to have new ideas and contribute in new ways. When I was young, I didn’t imagine that kind of dynamism and excitement could be so continuous. So, there have been great parts all along, experiments with successional plant communities, experiments on canopy gaps and edge function in forests, working with riparian structure and function in the savanna of South Africa, struggling to better understand social sciences so that I could pursue cutting edge social-ecological research in Baltimore and in China. Fortunately, the wonders haven’t stopped yet. And as far as the “best day,” I can maybe describe kinds of best days: one where ideas about something come together in a new way, or experimental data shake something up in a weird way, or I see a familiar process at work in a system that I haven’t known before, or when a colleague introduces me to a new place and shares the problems and insights they see there. Fortunately, those days still come now and then.

What are some things that you would change in your career trajectory? Are there any areas that you would have liked to delve into or that are of interest to you now?

I have been doing ecology for nearly 50 years, counting my undergraduate research at the University of Kentucky with Jerry and Carol Baskin. I have been privileged to work in deserts, savannas, old-growth forests, oldfield succession, landscape ecology, and urban ecology. In many ways, I am a generalist who most enjoys putting ideas and approaches together and seeing how they did or didn’t mesh. So, my career illustrates probing from wherever I was in ecology at a particular time to new interdisciplinary connections or new types of system. You could say that although I am steeped in ecology, I am kind of “undisciplined,” and am unafraid of scanning the horizon to other areas.

Considering the lessons you have learned in your career, what single piece of advice would you give to your younger, fresh out-of-college self?

Don’t worry about running out of ideas. The lessons you learned at the feet of your family and mentors about the power of community will continue to support you as you explore new horizons for knowledge and fields of application.