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“A Paleontologist, an Astronomer and a Chemist Walk up to a Bar...”


As Associate Professor of Chemistry Adam VanWynsberghe noted in his introduction, Rigoberto Hernandez embodies the Phi Beta Kappa motto that “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Hernandez, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Tech, is the 2015-16 Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar and his Feb. 25 lecture “Advancing Science Through Diversity” focused on promoting what he called diversity excellence in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and ability.

Among many other professional and scientific achievements, Hernandez is the co-director of the Center for Computational Molecular Science and the director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE). As Hernandez explained, the acronym OXIDE comes from the fact that to a person with dyslexia, the two C’s of “Chemistry” and “Collaborative” form an ‘X.’

“Chemists understand oxidation and we think it’s a good thing,” Hernandez said. OXIDE is a “Collaborative” and not a “Center” in part because, “We collectively collaborate to find barriers and solutions. If we were a center it would be like claiming we are the originators of all thst is known.”

At the beginning of his lecture, Hernandez joked that he usually permits screens (i.e. laptops) in the last row of his classes so that they do not distract others. “I’ll make an exception but the price of having a screen is that you must livetweet something,” he said, sharing OXIDE’s Twitter handle and the hashtag #DiversitySolutions.

Throughout the lecture, Hernandez engaged with the audience by asking them to respond to questions and discuss their answers with each other. The first question, “A paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist walk up to a bar. What does she order?” addressed gender equality.

“When I said ‘a scientist walks into the room,’ did you picture a woman? Did you picture three women?” he asked. Showing a photo of a LEGO set of female scientists, he went on to point out, “In LEGO color, these are all white women, so this isn’t diversity along all vectors. If we want diversity excellence, we want diversity along gender, race and ethnicity, disabilities and sexuality.”

Hernandez outlined the obstacles faced by members of different underrepresented communities. Then he explained why the most important driver for advancing diversity equity is not social justice or personal enlightenment but ‘optimal workforce utilization.’

“Social justice, whether you believe in it or not -- and if you believe in it, I love you -- won’t get everybody. At most, it will get you about 50 percent [of people]. As will enlightened self-interest. When you say it’s about optimal workforce utilization, you’re saying ‘it’s not just me, it’s for everyone,’” Hernandez said. “When it’s about competitiveness with inclusive excellence as the driver, I get $1.6 million. With social justice, I would have gotten zero dollars.”

OXIDE works primarily with graduate institutions and Hernandez explained the Collective’s work to deconstruct implicit bias and barriers to accessibility for underrepresented minorities.

“It’s about looking deeply at the individual and asking what they can contribute,” he said, emphasizing that it is the responsibility of institutions and administrations to “flatten diversity inequities,” not the responsibility of students and faculty of underrepresented minorities. “Instead of saying ‘let’s place all the burden on one of the students who happens to be of color,’ it’s the institution who has all the resources and access.”

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