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McDaniel chemistry Professor researching diversity instead of diabetes
Diversity over diabetes?
McDaniel College chemistry professor Melanie Nilsson recently partnered with Westminster’s Mayor Mona Becker, who had previously been the college’s environmental studies department chair, to release an academic research study into gender representation in chemistry textbooks, titled: College Chemistry Textbooks Fail on Gender Representation.
The pair found that women were under-represented in textbooks for the hard science discipline, accounting for 30% of the people pictured, and just 3% of those scholarly referenced.
“Gender imbalance” and “male overrepresentation” was “ubiquitous”, they said, which “perpetuates unconscious gender bias in STEMM”.
Nilsson, whose pronouns are she + her or they + them according to her Linkedin profile, further said the results show that “we all have been breathing in this culture, and we have to undo it some way”.
She recommends “putting numbers on it”, because scientists are used to “thinking quantitatively”, in what reads like a recommendation for the enforcement of gender quotas in chemistry textbook imagery and citationing.
Bathroom admittance criteria is “complex”
Nilsson previously published an essay called Bathroom Lessons in the Peace Studies Journal, where she argues that “admittance criteria for gendered bathrooms” is a “complex issue”, as she recounts how a Johns Hopkins security guard once told her she had to use the men’s bathroom when she insisted on using the women’s.
Nilsson partnered again with Becker, who in addition to being Westminster’s Mayor is a physics teacher at Westminster High School, this time to analyze racial disparities in chemistry textbooks, finding that people of color makeup 12% of the individuals pictured, but often in stereotypical ways, like to illustrate poverty or substandard living conditions.
McDaniel calls the pair’s STEMM inclusivity research “groundbreaking”, while simultaneously noting that the mission of the chemistry department is in part to meet the needs of a “diverse population of students”.
From researching diabetes to researching diversity
Nilsson’s research focus had previously been on diabetes and insulin, penning papers like, “Role of Post‐translational Chemical Modifications in Amyloid Fibril Formation”.
But she has since pivoted, and now plans to continue researching STEMM inclusivity as part of an effort to foster human rights and drive meaningful change.
"The best thing I can do with this phase of my career is to really focus on equity and inclusion in STEMM, because that’s what will help my students the most in the long run."
Students of Nilsson’s, however, have rated her the lowest of any chemistry professor at McDaniel, according to reviews posted to RateMyProfessor, where her quality rating is shown in red as a 2.7 out of 5 according to 11 student ratings.
One student said she “does not help at all”. Another said she “barely gives any instruction”, while another lamented how she “just never helps or cares”.
How McDaniel went McWoke
Student experience aside, Nilsson and Becker’s research comports with McDaniel’s institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a tradition of social justice.
In June of 2020, just after the death of George Floyd, former school president Roger Casey announced that McDaniel would be “expanding its efforts” in “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”, by creating a “comprehensive campus-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan”.
Then in May of 2021, McDaniel’s Board of Trustees stated simply that “Black lives matter”, and that “our College fully supports equity for the inclusion of Black lives”. They continued, “our College must support and promote Black Lives Matter as a phrase as part of our anti-racist mission and our First Principles.”
Thereafter, in September, sociology professor and alumnus Richard Smith, himself black, was named the college’s first associate provost for equity and belonging. He now leads campus DEI and guides the Bias Education Response Support Team.
It is separately noted that campus safety personnel have undergone training in “microaggression awareness”, “transgender awareness”, and “making campus safe for LGBTQ+ students”.
The school boasts that the class of 2023 is “the most racially diverse in the college’s history”, before showing that only 49% of the students are white, while 33% are black.
Carroll County, where McDaniel resides, is 90% white, according to 2020 census data.