Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young Shines a Light on Achievements of Underrepresented Scientists

Suzanne Young working with students.

Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young (right) has created nearly two dozen lessons on contemporary scientists from diverse backgrounds for her chemistry classes.

By Ed Brennen

It’s a slow shift, barely perceptible to the untrained eye. But it’s one that Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young has observed in her Chemistry 1 and 2 courses over the past two years. 

Ever since she started weaving five-minute biographies of Black, brown and Indigenous scientists into her chemistry courses—“DEI in STEM” modules, as she calls them—Young has noticed that students sitting in the back of the classroom have gradually started taking seats closer to the front. 

“Any teacher can tell you: Where students sit on Day 1, 95% of them are sitting there on the last day of class,” says Young, who has taught for more than 30 years and is in her 13th year in the Kennedy College of Sciences. “It’s not an accident when someone goes from the seventh row to the third row.” 

By getting students to lean into lessons on scientists such as Tanya Latty, a Black entomologist at the University of Sydney in Australia who works on the chemistry of slime mold, or the late Fred “Clever Fox” Begay, a nuclear physicist of Navajo and Ute descent who worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratories, Young is trying to connect students to STEM fields by showing them just how diverse those disciplines truly are. 

“In chemistry textbooks, the faces of discoverers and the names of equations and principles are all European-based. That’s the history, and that’s great,” says Young, who has created close to 20 mini-lessons on contemporary scientists from diverse backgrounds and shared them with fellow faculty members from the Chemistry Department. 

Suzanne Young Incorporates DEI in STEM Modules
Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young presenting.
But Young adds, “When students see faces like theirs, it makes a difference. They need to see that they have a place.” 

Young’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative is just one step that Kennedy College faculty are taking to provide a more culturally responsive education at UML, where 40% of undergraduates are students of color. 

This fall, two Biological Sciences faculty members, Asst. Prof. Natalie Steinel and Teaching Prof. Naomie Wernick, organized an Inclusive Teaching book club. The first book on their reading list was “Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom” by Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy. 

“One of the strengths of UML is the diverse backgrounds and experiences of our students, and faculty want to be sure everyone has an opportunity to learn and for their voices to be heard,” says Steinel. “I think everyone who’s participated has found approaches to apply in their own courses.” 

Young was inspired to create the DEI modules in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests. After attending campus listening sessions on social justice and inclusion, “It occurred to me that many of us as faculty had our hearts in the right place, but that it needs to come out more,” says Young, who read more than a dozen books and attended over 30 conferences on Zoom to learn more about the topic. 

Young’s students appreciate her efforts. 

Suzanne Young working with a student.
Asst. Teaching Prof. Suzanne Young working with a student.
“We mostly learn about people in the past who set the foundation. It’s worthwhile to learn about people in the present from different backgrounds,” says Diego Goodrich, a junior chemistry major who found the module on Clever Fox particularly interesting. 

“It’s good to know about people who aren’t in the textbook, who aren’t appreciated as much,” adds Arshjot Kaur, a junior psychology major on the pre-med track. 

The students’ enthusiasm is the reaction Young was hoping for. 

“This university cares as much about the teaching and development of students as it does about maintaining top-level research,” she says. “The country, and the world, needs these students. We’re not going to solve problems like global warming unless we train enough people to go into the sciences.”