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Battling the ‘science type’ stereotype: Q+A with 3M’s chief science advocate

By Brooks Johnson, Star Tribune
Published: February 19, 2023, 7:48am

Jayshree Seth was raised on the campus of a prominent engineering university in India, and the professor’s daughter was surrounded by all things science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from an early age.

She still didn’t think of herself as the “science type” growing up.

“I wanted to solve problems, make the world a better place, help people — but the way STEM was portrayed, those aspects weren’t really talked about,” she said.

Now Seth is the chief science advocate for Maplewood-based 3M, where she has worked for nearly 30 years, and it is her mission to break down barriers and stereotypes to encourage a more diverse generation of scientists in pursuing STEM careers.

While women are well-represented in many medical fields, just 27% of employees in computer-related businesses are women, and 16% of those in engineering and architectural fields are female, according to federal data.

Seth chatted with the Star Tribune this week ahead of the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Saturday, which aims to promote “full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages.” The conversation was edited for length.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone, at any age, trying to find their career path in science?

Jayshree Seth: I say be curious. It doesn’t matter if you’re curious about people or things, you have to have curiosity. Try to understand what all is out there — a lot is happening at the confluence of different fields. If you like context (applying science) then make it about the context.

As the first [3M] chief science advocate, I’m trying to inspire people. Science needs the skills that women are very strong in: communication, collaboration, forming teams — as opposed to this lone maverick, evil genius in the basement image. Those ideas matter.

Q: What barriers do policymakers, educators and others need to address to help make that possible?

Seth: First is role models and representation. Nine times out of 10 people are not going to pursue a field where they don’t see anybody they think they can relate with. And it doesn’t have to be the gender or race, they need to see this is a diverse space in order to see they can play a role in there. Do you have enough teachers represented? Do we have enough stuff in textbooks that are representative?

There’s research out there that men focus more on content [ideas] and women focus on context [applicability]. The way topics are described are often very content-heavy. Policymakers should pay more attention to context — a lot of underrepresented communities are more interested in solving community-based issues, so that context becomes critical.

Then, of course, there are the structural and systemic issues, the way policies are implemented and promotions are awarded and determining what is and isn’t a good contribution. The role of helping others and the image of what is held up as a good scientist needs to be contextualized as well.

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Q: Science is often seen as a strictly academic pursuit, but as 3M knows, it’s also big business. How do companies balance financial pressure and the speed of scientific advancement?

Seth: We are in the business of innovation, and how do you do that without good science to back it up? What is the latest material, technique or process to solve problems? Innovation is based on advancements in science and technology. A lot of science happens in corporate labs and [research and development] departments. We have the aim of commercializing it, but it all relies on good science.

When we are trying to solve problems, we are agnostic about the approach. Then the next step that comes in is how do you scale this in a very large format? You can take the basic fundamentals, do the applied research and then maybe it is targeted toward adhesives, non-woven fabrics or abrasives.

Q: How have 3M’s efforts toward diversifying its workforce gone?

Seth: We have made good progress in some areas and we’ve stalled on others. There’s a pipeline issue. Most recently we committed to developing 5 million more skilled trades experiences (scholarships, internships, etc.) by the end of 2025.

But there is a problem across the ecosystem. People need to know about science careers, we need to provide empowerment, then focus on the economics — many people want to do STEM but can’t.

When we released the docuseries “Not the Science Type,” we wanted to show it doesn’t matter what race, gender, ethnicity you are — everyone can be the science type. We need more people interested and excited about this.

Q: What are you excited about in science right now?

Seth: What was really inspiring and reassuring is when the mRNA vaccine was developed [(or COVID-19). Scientists were in the forefront, communicating with the public to show a consistent effort by a few people in this groundbreaking way could deliver such promising results. So what else can it do? You put that together with other things like CRISPR, and you think about what is possible. And if you can’t think about what is possible, you can use artificial intelligence and machine learning. That can really catapult us into the next stage. Things that now take many months can be faster.

And then there are advancements in renewable energy and materials, solutions to climate change-induced challenges and the James Webb Telescope and how it’s deepening our understanding of space.

There’s no denying how much innovation we need, there are so many challenges we face. The world requires innovation, innovation needs science, science demands diversity, diversity warrants equity.

Q: Parting words?

Seth: If you want to solve problems, then come to science. If you want to be the one making the world a better place, science is for you. Yes, you have to work hard, like in any field where you want to make an impact. Don’t let the stereotypes deter you about who belongs in science.