7 March 2022

How a sense of belonging creates STEM success

A Timeline of Marie’s STEM Storied- Identity Trajectory and the Emotions that Surfaced. Sub-identities are categorized by color (Science/Math Identity - purple; Racial Identity - blue; Being Smart - green). Emotions are categorized by shape (Self-Doubt - triangle; Frustration - circle; Pride - square; Joy-Diamond). Moments of recognition where sub-identities wove and interlocked together are denoted with an oval. A Timeline of Marie’s STEM Storied- Identity Trajectory and the Emotions that Surfaced. Sub-identities are categorized by color (Science/Math Identity - purple; Racial Identity - blue; Being Smart - green). Emotions are categorized by shape (Self-Doubt - triangle; Frustration - circle; Pride - square; Joy-Diamond). Moments of recognition where sub-identities wove and interlocked together are denoted with an oval. Roxanne Hughes

New research explores the power of intersecting identities in a young Black woman’s STEM experience.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A new study underscores the importance of positive science and math stories as a resilience strategy for women of color in STEM.

Roxanne Hughes, an educational researcher and the MagLab’s director of education, published the study with her collaborators in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. This study uses narrative inquiry methodology to give voice to the story of Marie, a young Black woman who first experienced a love for science and engineering through middle school summer camps, including the MagLab's camps. Now a STEM graduate student, Marie described feeling like a "pioneer" and reflected on which experiences most strongly supported her STEM path.

"Research shows that women of color can face tension navigating between their racial, science, math and gender identities," explained Hughes. "Marie's story demonstrates the power having a strong sense of belonging can play, particularly when encountering moments of doubt due to racial or gendered implicit biases or explicit behaviors."

Using an intersectionality lens, the researchers explored how she navigated the social experiences that fostered an interwoven science, math, gender and racial identity across different times, spaces, and settings. They found that her science and math trajectories were positively influenced through individual moments of recognition from community influences (like family, peers, and faculty) and structural disruptions (being a part of programs that challenged the dominant narrative of STEM as White and male). These moments, the researchers discovered, provided her with the resilience needed to progress past any current setbacks and rely on earlier examples of success.

For example, Marie described the sense of belonging that came from her experience attending a camp at a historically black college/university (HBCU). "I definitely felt a sense of belonging because that was the first time I had Black science teachers. That was my first experience [with] real Black scientists." She later attended Spelman College (also an HBCU) for her undergraduate degree and credits a large part of her success to that positive learning environment. "Being at Spelman, it’s its own universe, a bubble within everywhere else. …You're with [other majority Black people], like, in my major, my professors are Black women, my peers are Black women, the administrators, everybody else. Black women are everywhere."

She also reflected on college research experiences as being particularly influential on her science identity. "…this experience has made me more confident of my place as a person in STEM. So, now I can say I've had the full experience. Like I worked in a lab, I made my own poster, I wrote my abstract, I submitted it, got accepted and presented my research and won an award... I think it just cemented my confidence as a student researcher. It definitely made me want to go farther."

The study highlights how some STEM paths are paved with stories of successes that are connected to positive emotions, a critical tool in building students' resilience when challenges arise. It also shows the value of practicing acceptance and self-compassion when navigating tensions between racial, science, math, and gender identities for women of color in STEM. Structural changes that align with these findings within the K-12 school environment and higher education settings could also be crucial for achieving equity goals within STEM education.


The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1644779) and the State of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.