Why diversity matters: an interview with Dr Alex Ramadan

By Georgia Shave

This article was originally published in The Oxford Scientist Michaelmas Term 2021 edition, Change.

It is relatively easy to see the importance of marginalised people being involved in the development of medicine and medical technology, and artificial intelligence systems. These areas of science have clear practical applications whose effects are subject to much bias, particularly when the people developing such technologies are not representative of the population they will be used within. Biases in these technologies can lead to discrimination against marginalised groups which can often be life-threatening.

Perhaps a little less clear is the way that encouraging diversity in subjects such as physics and chemistry can lead to a more scientifically desirable outcome. It may appear that the experiments taking place in these subjects abide by the rigorous scientific method, allowing no room for differential outcomes dependent on the party performing the experiments. However, the input of marginalised voices into such subjects could enhance innovation by questioning dominant ideologies, leading to discoveries that would not have been found otherwise.

I spoke with Dr Alex Ramadan, a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Oxford Physics department about the impact of including marginalised people in Physics.

What advantages in science do we see as a result of increasing the number of marginalised voices in Physics?

The obvious one is that, in Physics, we’re trying to understand the world around us and ideally make it better for everyone. Without having voices from every part of experience and background, we’re not able to do that. Also, diversity of backgrounds brings diversity of thought. And so, if you don’t have people from lots of different backgrounds, you’re not really being able to study the full breadth of the subject. In Physics, we can’t be studying the world around us and trying to make it better and not include everyone in that discussion. Otherwise, we are just making it better for the people in the room.

Do you see different things being researched by the questioning of dominant ideologies?

In my area of research, I work on solar panels, when we talk about optimising our solar panels for the environment, one of the things we think about is the solar spectrum. Specifically, we optimise solar panels in science for the solar spectrum in countries which are North of the equator. We are not optimising solar panels for countries near the equator, countries where that research isn’t done. That, to me, is a big problem because we need to be optimising for everyone, otherwise the technology isn’t available to everyone.

I also think one of the things we’re trying to do is try and make technologies that can be implemented in people’s lives, but we tend to make lots of assumptions and develop technologies based on what we think we know. Our solar panels are too heavy to go on lots of people’s houses. Even the aesthetics of solar panels will affect whether people will use them. We are all working towards this arbitrary value, like making them as cheap as possible, but maybe we should be focusing on making them in a way that is accessible to everyone, regardless of where you are in the world. I think because the research is predominantly done in Northern, well economically developed countries, we don’t have the voices of everyone in the world. So we’re making assumptions and developing technologies based on what would work well for us, but I don’t necessarily believe that these technologies will work for everyone, because they’re not there to say what they need.

Do you see an improvement in the efficacy of problem solving due to diversity of past experiences and skillsets due to a difference in education or cultural differences?

The problem is working at Oxford we only see people of specific backgrounds. My group is very ethnically and globally diverse. Having people of different backgrounds generally makes the conversations more interesting. A huge part of science is being creative with your solutions. I do think if you’re all from the same background you’re not necessarily going to be as innovative.

What benefits are brought to marginalised groups by making physics communities more inclusive, firstly at an individual level and secondly, at a societal level?

If we make the Physics community more diverse, people from differing backgrounds will feel more welcome, more like they belong. That’s going to have a huge effect on their wellbeing. As a woman who is not white working in Physics, I am often in rooms where I don’t see myself represented. For a long time, it used to bother me quite a lot. It’s really hard to be what you can’t see. We see a huge effect of that in terms of the people who want to study the subject and join the research field. Ultimately, if we have more diverse research environments, people are going to feel more like they belong. Then it’s also going to give everyone permission to be their true authentic selves. It’s really hard to be who you are when you don’t see people like you. I think it’s so important in terms of people’s mental wellbeing. When people are happy and they feel accepted, they do their best work. It’s such a no-brainer to me.

There’s this common misbelief that science is apolitical, and that science is objective, but it’s not. Our personal beliefs and biases will inform what we’re doing. We’re at this point where inequality is rampant, and climate change is this huge problem. We, as scientists, can’t afford to be apolitical. Also, just by the beliefs that we have, that will inform what we work on and how we develop things. For instance, with technologies, some scientists will want to give them away for free and not patent the technologies, and others will want to make tons of money from them. We really need a diverse working body to make sure that all aspects of the political spectrum are covered with respect to science to make sure that we’re benefitting everyone. While science for the sake of doing science and understanding the world around us is important, we also need to make sure that it benefits everyone because who’s paying for us to do our work? I truly believe that science should be a force for good, for that to happen, we have to have people from different backgrounds and when the scientific community is representative, we will be doing the research that benefits the globe.

How would you respond to the claim that physics experiments abide by rigorous scientific method and that no matter who carries out the method the results will be the same?

To me, the belief that science is completely devoid of any influence from humans is just false. I could give you a lab recipe and you’d go away and do it a completely different way. Even if you’re left-handed and I’m right-handed, it could influence things. When you get hungry and go for lunch, that influences things. We’re not these robots, we’re humans. We even all see colours differently, so it’s just not true.

One of the good things about science is that you can have discussions where you do disagree and ultimately that disagreement can strengthen or destroy your argument. That’s one of the beauties of it. That’s why it’s so important that we have everyone’s voices in the room with us, so that there’s nothing that we are forgetting.

Specifically, how does a lack of diversity in the scientific community affect you and your research?

It affects me on a daily basis. I think it has held me back, if I’m being honest. On a daily basis, I often feel like people don’t listen to me as well as they would if I weren’t who I am. I sometimes feel like I’m not given the respect that I think I deserve. I feel like I have to work three times as hard to be taken half as seriously. I’ve had countless incidents of misogyny and racist micro-aggressions in the workplace which obviously do not make me feel great about myself.

Every day something happens that frustrates me. The one thing that really bothers me and it’s so ridiculous is toilets. Toilets have been a constant source of frustration throughout my entire scientific career. From working in departments where the women’s toilets are on the complete opposite side of the building to the labs, by the offices, to there not being as many women’s toilets, to there not being adequate sanitary bins in the toilet, to there being no purchasable or free menstrual products. It’s this never-ending saga of being made to feel like you don’t belong because your basic needs are not being met. That’s a prime example of how a lack of diversity affects things. Women’s toilets have always been an afterthought. As we become older, things like the menopause is not even discussed. There are plenty of people that go through it and are just expected to suffer in silence.

In short, I have to work so much harder, it affects my mental health, and you are made to feel like you are crazy whenever you point things out because you’re told that ‘it’s not that big of a deal’. Or, everything that you’re describing is conflated and someone claims it’s just imposter syndrome. And I’m not saying that imposter syndrome doesn’t exist, it’s just that it becomes much worse.

All of those things go toward creating a working environment where I have to work harder to do my research. Already, I’m working at a disadvantage to some of my colleagues.

If there were more people who looked like me, or who just looked different from the majority, these things would have happened so much sooner. So, we wouldn’t be dealing so much with the situation that we’re in now.

I will say, things are changing slowly. And I’ve seen it in the time I’ve worked at Oxford. Our head of department now is an openly disabled scientist who really cares about trying to change the culture within our department. He’s allowed me to have the conversations that don’t paint us in the prettiest of pictures, but he knows it’s important that it happens. Already I see that changing. MPLS are doing so many good things. Things are happening, it’s just the timeline that it’s happening on is too slow. If we don’t have this diverse community, we’re losing so many talented scientists because they say it’s not worth it. Just think what we’re missing out on.