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Embracing authenticity in STEM: A journey towards inclusion and belonging 

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By CRYSTAL HARDEN, EdD

CHAPEL HILL, NC (June 19, 2024)—As a practitioner and educator navigating the intricate landscape of STEM, I have often found myself at the crossroads of professional expectations and personal authenticity. The rigid structures and traditional norms within the scientific community sometimes create an environment that seems resistant to embracing diversity and inclusion in all its forms. However, my journey has been a testament to the power of being true to oneself, fostering a culture of inclusion, and ultimately contributing to a more vibrant and innovative community of scientific and educational knowledge building. 

In the world of STEM, where objectivity and logic often take center stage, the importance of embracing individuality and diversity can sometimes be overlooked. The stereotype of the stoic, unemotional scientist can create an atmosphere that feels exclusionary, discouraging those who don’t fit the mold from fully expressing themselves. But it is precisely in our unique perspectives, experiences, and identities that we find the richness that propels scientific discovery forward. 

My own experience in this field has been marked by a commitment to authenticity. From the beginning of my career, I decided to bring my whole self to the field of science education – humor, passion, and all. This decision wasn’t always easy, especially when faced with the pressure to conform to established norms. However, I soon realized that authenticity is not a hindrance to success. It is a catalyst for innovation and learning. 

Two professionals talk at a booth. In the background is a science banner.

Being true to oneself in STEM is about more than just personal fulfillment. It’s about creating an environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging. Inclusion is not merely a buzzword. It’s the key to unlocking the full potential of diverse minds working together. When we allow individuals to express their authentic selves, we open the door to a multitude of perspectives and ideas that can revolutionize the way we approach scientific and educational challenges. 

One of the ways I’ve sought to foster inclusion in my science education community is by actively advocating for equity, access, and representation. From organizing training and workshops on inclusivity to mentoring historically excluded individuals in STEM, I’ve witnessed the transformative power of acknowledging and celebrating our differences. The more we embrace authenticity, the more we break down the barriers that hinder representation in STEM. 

Creating a culture of inclusion requires a collective effort. It’s about challenging outdated norms, encouraging open dialogue, and actively seeking diverse voices. As an educator and practitioner, I’ve come to appreciate that the strength of our field lies not only in our ability to conduct groundbreaking research but also in our capacity to create a space where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. 

In conclusion, my journey in STEM has taught me that authenticity is not a luxury but a necessity. As we embrace our authentic selves, we not only contribute to our own fulfillment but also inspire the next generation of scientists to do the same. Together, let us celebrate the beautiful mosaic of identities within STEM and work towards a future where everyone belongs.  

Science is for all.  

Crystal Harden, EdD, is the director of program and access initiatives at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and an adjunct professor at the UNC School of Education.