An Interview with Dr. Tana Joseph

February 13, 2023
by Lori Lennon


photo of Dr. Tana Joseph of AstroComms

Dr. Tana Joseph is a leading astronomy researcher passionate about using science communication to create a unified sense of belonging in STEM. She is the founder and CEO of AstroComms and splits her time between her work for the company, her research, and her role as the Equity and Inclusion Officer for all of Dutch Astronomy, through which she advances policy and social justice for the global astronomy community.

Dr. Joseph recently sat down with Thinkubator Media’s CEO and Founder, Lori Lennon, to talk about her role with Dutch Astronomy, the challenges of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM, science communications, and some strategies to make the sciences more inclusive.

Lori: Tana, for your job with the EDI lead of all Dutch astronomy, what are some of the challenges you've seen and successes you’ve experienced in this role?

Tana: There are a few fundamental things that we need to bring to the EDI sphere, especially as a scientist. In academia—and some insight for those who aren't academics—many places don't teach you how to lecture. So you get your PhD, do your research, move through your career, and then you perhaps get a permanent position, and your title is “Lecturer.”

Many institutions around the world don't teach you how to lecture. They don't teach you how to be a mentor or teach you how to supervise graduate students. Masters and PhD students aren’t taught how to be a project manager, even though it’s part of your job, especially since the more senior you go, the more admin your role becomes.

One of the things I want to bring to Dutch Astronomy is ensuring that we have adequate training for the roles we want. Many people have good intentions and want to do things to effect change, but very few of us are actually EDI experts.

I always tell people I was trying to count photons. Photons are particles of light that come from stars or anything. My PhD is to count high energy photons coming from around black holes and around neutron stars. I formally turned to EDI, but I've done a lot of teaching myself, a lot of work, and being humble. So what I want to bring to this role, and what I've started to implement, is that people in certain positions need certain training.

One of the things we are doing, for instance, is trying to implement crisis communication training for a core committee so that we can have clear, transparent, and timely communication when things come in. We’re also talking about bystander intervention training. For example, suppose you see a certain behavior. We’ll teach you how to recognize the behavior, support the victimized person, and how to report it, depending on whether the person wants to report it, etc.

The second thing that is very important is evaluation. A lot of EDI work, and even a lot of science communication, is just people doing what feels right. So they go to a school, perhaps in an impoverished area or an underserved community, give a talk, and see the kids feeling inspired. The teachers may feel inspired. You feel great because you've done a nice thing, and then you never go back to that school again. You have no idea if there's any lasting impact or if you turned some people off.

We also think about if the interventions that are put in place actually work. Does it benefit anyone to have a “Bring Your Child to Work Day” in STEM? Has anyone bothered to ask you who, if anyone, participates in these things? What didn't go the way you thought? None of that is present right now. I'm bringing some rigor into that.

Scientists are used to collecting data, so why aren't we collecting data about EDI and science communication? Why are we not evaluating whether we have a beneficial impact? We're not operating like that. We're just going in with…hope, not even hope. We think we're doing something right, but we could actually be doing a lot of harm. So we need to take a step back and ask what people want. Can we give them what they want? Or, if people don't know what they want, can we figure out a way to best meet their needs?

You need data for that so we can make evidence-based decisions. Again, as scientists, our whole job is about collecting evidence and using that information to make informed decisions, and we're not doing that in other affiliated parts of our work.

Lori: Do you think we’re doing enough as a society to build interest in STEM among women and girls?

Tana: One small aspect of diversity in STEM is getting women and girls interested in STEM. The thing is, women and girls are already interested in STEM. It's the rest of the world that's the problem—from teachers at school to parents themselves. Studies in the US and the UK have shown that parental support is the determining factor in whether girls go on to choose science subjects at school.

I was lucky. In my career, I never really experienced pushback. If I did, I wasn't aware of it because of my parents’ unwavering support and determination. Toddlers in Tiaras levels of support. Like, my child will do this, and you will not get in the way.

That determination built up my confidence, sheltered me, and gave me the support and resources I needed to succeed.

And so when we talk about diversifying STEM, we can’t just say, “it takes a village to raise a child,” or “it takes a village to get someone through a broken system.” The pipeline isn't leaky. The system works exactly as it should; it’s just not built for certain people.

On the EDI side, I’m working to change the system. On the science communication side, I’m working on letting people know there are options, and these options are not just for young women and girls; they are for non-binary young people, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, people from various ethnic, cultural, and religious groups, and people with disabilities. I want to not only get folks aware and inspired but also activate communities, teachers, and local leaders because science is for everyone, and no person on this earth should feel that they can't contribute to the growing body of knowledge about the universe and how it works. The more minds, the better, right?

Somewhere out there is someone who is going to solve cold fusion or free us from fossil fuel dependency. They're out there somewhere in the world and don't even know how great they are yet.