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Women in STEM: An interview with Dr. ReAnna S. Roby

Anya Mondragon | April 12, 2023

As a researcher, scientist, and teacher, Dr. ReAnna S. Roby has centered uplifting women in STEM throughout her career. Currently, Dr. Roby is an Assistant Director at the Vanderbilt Women’s Center. She sat down to answer some questions about the support systems that Vanderbilt University offers for women in STEM. 

What resources does the Women’s Center at Vanderbilt have to support women in STEM?

The [Women’s Center] is available to whoever needs it. If folks want to have tutoring sessions here they could. Our Ambassadors will also host sessions that do a good job of trying to center and celebrate women in STEM, even if it’s just having a discussion group so that folks don’t feel like they are experiencing these things alone. Within my purview as assistant director, we have the STEM Sistah Network, which actually started when I was working with Dr. Nicole Joseph over on Peabody campus, as a part of a TIPs (Trans-Institutional Programs) grant. The STEM Sistah Network was created primarily to influence graduate students and postdocs; however, my work is more intergenerational so I think about what that could look like for undergraduate students, particularly Black and Brown undergraduate women who may be in STEM or considering STEM, not only to have access to one another, but to be in conversation with faculty. I’m always thinking about other girls. What are some of the things that I wish I had [as a student] that weren’t there?

What are some challenges that women and girls face in science education, especially women of backgrounds historically underrepresented in science?

I’ll start with a representation because it’s an easy one. It’s more than just a representation of bodies, but also representation of different ways of thinking. Oftentimes in our professional development trainings, folks will use this thing called a ‘draw a scientist’ tool. With the draw scientist tool, you are prompted to draw a picture of a scientist. Whether you’re asking folks to draw a picture or just name a scientist, who do you think a lot of folks draw? Someone who resembles Albert Einstein, right? Part of this is if I can’t imagine myself as a scientist when I’m asked on the spot, how can I actually be one? The other thing is thinking about how content is created and authored and credited in STEM spaces. When we talk about textbooks, who are the authors of the primary stem textbooks? … Then there is this piece around how we imagine the culture of STEM. Oftentimes, STEM can be a competitive space … the collaborations don’t get celebrated in the same ways that the individual things do. And when you are somebody who likes being in a community, then that doesn’t necessarily feel reflective of you.

What were your biggest takeaways from working in the Office of Equity and Diversity at Washington State University? 

Some of the big takeaways from working in Equity and Diversity at Washington State, which is a public institution, was seeing how the work of equity and diversity is everybody’s job in so many kinds of ways. As much as we have offices and we have folks tasked with it, we are in a community at a university with everybody from the top down. That’s from the Chancellor all the way to the first year student whose last name starts with Z. It is important because I think oftentimes, we might think that equity and diversity work is just for the benefit of people who have been historically minoritized whether it is by race, gender, sexuality, or things of that nature. And yet, folks who have privilege in society, they have work to do in that area whether it’s getting to know different folks or even really getting to know themselves and being reflective in very critical kinds of ways. Knowing ourselves is a lifelong journey.

Do you have any advice for Vanderbilt students thinking about a career in science or research? What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?

One of the things I wish I had known is that I didn’t need to have it all figured out. So much of research is the beauty of discovery and the beauty of the unknown. However, not knowing can be extremely unsettling. It can be extremely anxiety-inducing, especially since during undergrad, you’re just really gaining a lot of foundational knowledge that once you get to graduate school, you may or may not use, especially as you get into your niche area. And I think about my own journey, right? I went to undergrad as a Biology major then switched to Chemistry, but one of the reasons why I was able to make this switch is I had mentors who were like, you’re really good at Chemistry, so why not push yourself? I think identifying mentors and acknowledging that you need more than one mentor is important. At Vanderbilt, as much as you can have conversations you should, not only with the faculty members who might be teaching a class but with the TAs. I can acknowledge it from this space, because I’m a few years removed from my doctorate, but I get it, in undergrad, [it is scary] to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing. But you’re better off saying, ‘I don’t know,’ because then you can get the help that you need.