Renetta Garrison Tull, Ph.D. Global STEM Diversity Champion #BlackSTEMLikeMe #NSBE
Renetta Garrison Tull, Ph.D. centers her academic career on forging pathways for students of color to prepare for STEM fields worldwide. She highlights professional development around family constructs, respect for STEM women in the workplace, incorporating work-life balance into STEM career planning, and providing diverse audiences with innovative opportunities to utilize technical and critical thinking skills. She is also a NSBE alumna, three times over.
Dr. Tull serves in several capacities: Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Student Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Co-PI/Founding Director for PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) for 12 institutions in the University System of Maryland (USM), and Co-PI/Co-Director for the USM Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and LSAMP-BD programs. She also serves as the USM-wide Director of Graduate and Professional Pipeline Development, and Special Assistant to the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. She is co-founder of the ADVANCE Hispanic Women in STEM project in Puerto Rico, with colleagues from Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan. She also serves on advisory boards for the Sloan Foundation, AGEPs around the country, and other organizations, specializing in recruitment, retention, and global diversity in STEM.
She has been an invited speaker for diversity and inclusion in STEM issues in the U.S., Latin America, Taiwan, Italy, Dubai, Australia, and India. In July 2016, she developed and led the Mi Vida, Mi Trabajo
We spoke on the eve of her presentation to the Council of Graduate Schools for the National Forum of the National Science Foundation’s AGEP. The topic: how institutions can cultivate and empower STEM leaders.
Q: What is your path to your current role as educator/administrator and PoCinSTEM warrior?
A: My path was paved by NSBE! At Howard University, where I earned my B.S. in Electrical Engineering, I was the Region II VP, Vice Chair, National Charter Membership Chair, and National Member of the Year. I was also the cover girl for NSBE’s first magazine. My NSBE experience was my springboard. We, the leadership, were engineering ambassadors and we worked to cultivate inclusion and equity in engineering. I attended graduate school at Northwestern and there were not many of us there. Northwestern asked me to help recruit more persons of color. My passion lies in helping students to achieve success, and is born out of the fact that I struggled throughout my time as an engineering student. In the region, The AE Club: Motivations for Academics Excellence fostered camaraderie and scholarship among its members. At Northwestern, I stayed with my STEM graduate programs because I had to—our numbers were so low!
Q: Would you share your thoughts on the preparedness of students of color for STEM careers, especially in their early math and science courses, particularly Common Core math?
A: Methods being used in K-12 now are very different from the ones I learned. I have no issue with any method, as long as students are able to advance. One of the grants we recently won to support underrepresented undergraduate students in STEM will feature a new Math Institute where students can review basic concepts, feel good about calculus, and learn very advanced math. In my opinion, students of color from under-served communities aren’t exposed to “mind blowing math”, like googleplexian numbers and the broad universe of mathematical possibility. Often, they can only focus on getting to the next level. The Math Institute will be focused toward helping undergraduate students with increasing content knowledge, and it will hopefully foster an increased wonder, and even love for mathematics.
Q: Looking back on your own schooling, do you wish that you had prepared differently for your career?
A: I was exposed to serious math and science in the 7th and 8th grades. I took calculus in high school. I thought I was ready! Then I got to Howard and realized that I didn’t have real world, in-depth learning until that point. So my transition was rocky. I think that high school engineering application programs would be good. My high school was focused on a government and public policy curriculum, rather than math and science. At Northwestern, I had a professor who made me work a problem during office hours. He observed that my approach was different from that of my peers. Another professor said that I would use an ice pick rather than a wrecking ball to solve a problem. I’m right-brain-dominant, but left-brain-trained. It’s important to know how students learn.
Q: There is a well-documented and pronounced gender gap in the STEM professions. Recent allegations of blatant sexism, workplace harassment, and reprisals from HR and upper management in a global tech company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley have shone an even brighter light on this gap. What, in your opinion, can be done to mitigate this culture so that women and PoC can have safer working environments?
A: I have also been witness to this in the workplace-disrespectful jokes or conversations. I try to raise my male students right by discussing bias with them, individually and in groups, where they are taught to recognize these micro- and macroagressions, and speak up about them without fear of reprisal. They need to be involved in these conversations, as they are part of the privileged majority. They are taught to “be a champion” and utilize their privilege to elevate and advocate for their female colleagues. I teach my female students to negotiate strongly for their starting salaries, which historically are not on par with those of their male counterparts. I also believe that the professional organizations within these disciplines should take up the mantle and call out these negative practices. As an example, engineering and science societies, the accreditation organizations, and national forums should call this out.
Q: What can you say about the importance of mentors and role models for Blacks in STEM?
A: We cannot underestimate the power of direct and indirect mentoring. Direct mentoring is hands-on, while indirect mentoring involves no contact from day to day: knowledge is shared through content. STEM folks need multi-level mentoring, more than one mentor, and mentoring over their lifetimes. Just this week Dr. Gary May of Georgia Tech announced his move to become the Chancellor at UC-Davis. He was also in NSBE leadership when I was still a student. He was a role model to us then. We were encouraged to “look at that brother at Berkeley getting his Ph.D.” I also remember him teaching me in a session. Mentorship is comprised of small acts of kindness. There is great power in STEM identity, a term described by Carlone and Johnson as being recognized in the field by significant others, and by self as a contributor to the field.
Simply put, Dr. Tull is a champion for STEM career aspirants and professionals of color. “My platform is global diversity in STEM,” she explains. “I got started very late and received my first passport in 2012. I encourage folks to think about how to be an influence in the world. Why are we here? How do we cultivate the talents we have? We need to think globally and that’s the meaning behind our recently coined motto #ThinkBigDiversity.”