Diversity Science Podcast: Mica Estrada on How Kindness Matters for Diversifying STEMM Fields

Mica Estrada

In this episode of the Diversity Science Podcast, we hear from Mica Estrada about kindness, how there’s more to it than just being polite or courteous, and how incorporating kindness into institutional practices can help to diversify STEMM fields.

Dr. Estrada is a Professor at the Institute for Health & Aging and Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach in the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing. 

Mica would like to amend her statement regarding the history of exploitation and racism in America to include the genocide against Native people. She sincerely apologizes for the omission in her statements.



Mica Estrada: It’s different for different universities, but overall at the national level, we are not celebrating and rewarding kind behavior.

Dave Chancellor: Thanks for joining us for the Diversity Science podcast from the Institute for Diversity Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor and I’m on staff at the institute. You just heard from our guest for this episode, Dr. Mica Estrada. Dr. Estrada is on faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, and you’ll hear more about her many roles there in just a moment. And in this episode, Dr. Estrada talks with our podcast host and institute chair, Angela Byars-Winston, about her research around kindness and how it goes beyond simply being courteous and polite and how that can matter for diversifying STEMM fields.

Angela Byars-Winston: This is Angela Byars-Winston and today I am delighted to welcome Dr. Mica Estrada from the University of California, San Francisco. Hi, Mica, welcome.

Mica Estrada: Hi, so glad to be here today. 

Angela Byars-Winston: We are just thrilled to have you. So just to give our audience a little bit of information about you, you are trained as a social psychologist, you’re now an associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and equity for the School of Nursing, as well as a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, many affiliations, including the Institute for Health and Aging all at University of California, San Francisco. And you and I have had the pleasure of knowing each other for almost 15 years as we both have been funded by a similar mechanism from the National Institutes of Health to really diversify the sciences. So I’d love to just give you a moment to tell a little bit about any of your research in particular and especially what drew you to broadening participation in STEM careers. 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, well, it’s really great to be here and to just kind of be able to think about like what was my journey and what brought me to here. I am Latina, all four of my grandparents were born in Mexico and I went to Berkeley undergrad and I went to Harvard Graduate School and I think during my education process by the time I finished Harvard, I really felt like I did not want to stay doing research, I didn’t really want to be in academia, I felt really worn out by it. And so when I had a baby while I was in grad school, I was pregnant with a second one when I graduated and walked and at that point I didn’t look for any more jobs and I just kind of felt like I maybe I’ll do some adjunct teaching here and there and I’ll do some nonprofit work and that will kind of be my career. And so about 10 years after that, after having a third child and I was doing adjunct teaching somebody invited me, Wes Schultz, who was a professor at Cal State San Marcos, invited me to work on a project with him that he had gotten funded on diversifying STEM fields and I thought I’ll try it and we started doing the research and I really enjoyed it and I started writing grants and suddenly I was back into academia and I was studying a concept that I had studied as a graduate student which was about identity and how identity and our social identities can shape the things that we choose to do in our lives. And that’s really how I got into doing research on STEM education, particularly focused on minoritized people, Latina, Native American, African American people. 

Angela Byars-Winston: So I can see so many places and spaces where we overlap in interests and especially as you’re thinking about, you know, how do we make environments better for people to flourish? And in the last few years you’ve really focused your research on the importance of kindness in learning environments. So in particular, I’m curious about why the focus on some of the STEM challenges in particular that were up against. There are many places where people from underrepresented groups experience challenges in the workforce and the academy. Why STEM and what are the unique challenges in STEM? 

Mica Estrada: That’s a complicated question. I think STEM may be in… STEM in some ways is serendipity. I don’t think I chose it,  it chose me. It’s where I started doing the research. I actually I think the thing that’s common to all of my research is been looking at how people integrate into community. So I think when I do my research in STEM, I think of the community being a disciplined community, whether it’s science or engineering or mathematics or medicine, that’s the community and I’m interested in how do people integrate or not integrate into that. And the theory that I had was that if people didn’t feel like they were integrating, that means they didn’t feel they could do what the what that community does, they didn’t feel like they could identify with it, they didn’t feel the value systems were shared, but they would not become a part of that community. 

Angela Byars-Winston: That makes sense. 

Mica Estrada: I have done research on this in the in the realm of climate change and communities that are concerned about climate change. I’ve used that same model to look at lots of different contexts, but the STEM field, I think I landed there because I was able to along with I would say your research as well and and that of Sylvia Hurtado and a few others that we were able to say, listen, it’s not just about whether somebody can do this or not. It’s really about what is their full experience as a human being within that environment? And STEM in particular is a place where there’s not high retention, there’s lower retention than compared to other other fields. And so the issues are the things that are the barriers are even more so there. So it’s a natural place to start to work and it’s a natural place to see opportunity to really make a difference because there’s a lot of students who come in to universities with interest in doing this work, particularly for minoritized groups. And by the end of their first year they’re gone. So is that about the student or is that about the environment they’re coming into? And I think my research, your research and others show that it’s really about the environment. 

Angela Byars-Winston: You know, you hit on a couple of points that really remind us about the environment as it’s impacted by various socio-cultural factors that happen. And I’m thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that got reignited in 2020. And with those two events, there’s been more of a focus on well-being in particular and culturally responsive practices. So how does your work on kindness contribute to addressing these matters, and especially in making the case for what you call an excellent STEMM education?

Mica Estrada: Yeah, I think once you understand that a social climate matters, a social environment matters, that the context matters, the next natural question is, well, then how do we make it better? And I like to think about our kind of academic environment or STEM environment as kind of a garden, right? You have places where weeds are growing up, which I would say could be prejudiced, discrimination, racism, and I would say those weeds grow in the places where there’s nothing healthy growing. You think of a garden, like that stuff grows, the weeds grow in between the healthy plants. And there’s a lot of emphasis in that space of what we need to get rid of bias. We’ve done that, when you look at what kind of diversity, equity, and inclusion work, a lot of it is focused on what to get rid of. And so I think in my, I don’t know where it came from, but I had this sense of, when you want to get rid of a bad habit, you also have to cultivate, you know, one of the most powerful things is to cultivate a healthy habit. And so I thought about that in terms of the academic space, what is it that we want more of? Not only not what we want to get rid of, but what also do we want more of? So I was, I don’t know, I was thinking about my own self and the thing that has always mattered to me, which is that people are kind to each other. Like people, it always bothers me when people are unkind to each other. And so I started doing research and kind of reading about it and thinking about it and really trying to, in realizing, there just wasn’t very much research on the concept at all. And, and so I wrote the article in 2018 on the influence of kindness in, in broadening participation in STEM. And that was really kind of a culmination of just trying to pull in all the literature that might be relevant to really think about why kindness would matter. So I’m defining kindness as acts that affirm a person’s dignity. And I have, there’s like 10 attributes of that, which I could go into, but, but that’s, at the core, it should be an action that… that affirms a person’s dignity. And I don’t think that that’s defined by the person who’s acting, it’s defined by the person who’s receiving it. So, somebody’s intention might be to be kind, but the person doesn’t receive it as an affirmation of their dignity, then it, it, I wouldn’t say it’s kind. And I think that that’s something key is that it’s, you have to, that the, the sense of kindness is not what you do, it’s how it’s received.

Angela Byars-Winston: Just like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder, right? It’s the one who’s receiving and also thinking about how to articulate and ask for the environment to give with what needs. And as you’re talking, I’m thinking of, I want to go a little bit deeper into your 2018 paper, which was published in the Journal of Social Issues Policy Review. And you asked the reader to consider the evolution of policies and education, starting in the 20th century, and how we have moved from clearly prejudiced institutional environments to now, what you’re calling ambiguous institutional environments. I just find this so intriguing, especially again since the summer of 2020. And so, from the perspective of a student who comes from a historically excluded community, what is meant, what does it mean to navigate environments like this? So first, what do you mean by ambiguous institutional environments? And then what does it mean to navigate those environments as a person from a historically excluded community? 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, great question. So I think that when I talked about it in the article, I really simplified it. So I talked about micro and macro aggressions. So macro being really obvious and micro being the more subtle, which could also be nonverbal. And then I talked about micro and macro affirmations, things that affirm our dignity. And in a prejudiced environment, you have macro micro aggression, very high, and very low micro macro affirmation. And in an inclusive environment, you’d have the opposite of that, right? Lots of affirmation, very little or no aggression. But that mixed world is where you would have low macro aggression, but maybe a lot of micro aggressions,which is what we hear reported back. There’s a lot of subtlety and kind of aggression, although now in this next, we’ll ask in a couple of months, maybe it’s changed. And then the other place where we get the ambiguities, there’s macro affirmations. So you’re on the campus, you see banners, we love diversity, the cover of the catalog has all these different colored people on it, having fun and laughing. And so the macro messages, yeah, we’re very diverse and we’re inclusive and all this, but there’s not a lot of experience of micro affirmation. The subtlety is not there. Maybe the sense of getting a benefit of the doubt is not there for someone who has, who’s from a person of color. So you’re getting mixed messages is really the case where you’re, it’s not all matching. And what happens to us as social beings is that we are in environments trying to figure out if we’re safe or not. And so when you’re in an ambiguous situation, you’re actually hyper vigilant looking for cues that affirm that you’re safe, that you belong, that it’s okay. And so as you get them, so you’re looking, you’re scanning for that. And it takes a lot of cognitive space to be monitoring from that in all of your environment, which can impact memory, it can impact your sense of social connection. It can, it can impact lots of different things. And so that ambiguous environment, some ways is more exhausting than being in a fully prejudiced or are highly inclusive environment because at least in a prejudiced environment, you know what it is. So not that we want that, but in terms of the cognitive load, I think it’s going to be very different. So, so I think that we, a lot of institutions are in that space of ambiguity and and it is a taxing and tiring place to be for someone who isn’t sure what the real sense of safety and trust they can have in their environment. 

Angela Byars-Winston: And you know when we bring it down to about brass tacks and think about the fact that many of our college students, undergraduate graduate students as well, hard to define from historically marginalized communities, even though we have minority serving institutions like Hispanic serving institutions, historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, most of those students still matriculated to predominantly white spaces in higher education.

Mica Estrada: Absolutely. 

Angela Byars-Winston: And so when you talk about the exhaustion, we’re not just talking cognitively as you said, the compromise of focus on time on tasks, but also in one spirit of constantly looking for that those affirmations. So I really am fascinated when just go a little deeper around this role of kindness of what your research is telling us about why it matters. So as you already gave a definition of kindness about it being affirmations of dignity of one sense of dignity defined by the person receiving it. So this is more than what most people think about, which is like being friendly or courteous. 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, no, it’s, it has to do with, yeah, doing something to that person. 

Angela Byars-Winston: So can you give us some examples, especially in terms of what your research tells us why that, what that looks like in a STEMM field in a particular research training environment, maybe some, how you even measured that, like how does that show up? 

Mica Estrada: That’s always the first question. So I have a dear friend, Donna Hicks, who we were at Harvard together many, many years ago, and she wrote a book called Dignity. You can find on Amazon, it’s 10-year anniversary. It’s been very successful book. And she and I were having conversations about what’s the relationship between dignity and kindness. And one of the things that we really, I think, I don’t know if it was her or me or both of us just from the, I think it was just from the conversation, came to this idea that kindness is when you affirm a person’s dignity. It’s the action of affirming a person’s dignity. And the elements that she came up with and I borrowed and then now have used for measurement are aspects such as, and I’ll describe them to you. And for those people who are listening, you can think about like, what would it be like to work or to study an environment that has these things for you? Because I think you’ll find that it would be a pretty nice place. So you felt free to express your authentic self without being negatively judged. Your efforts, thoughtfulness, and our talents were positively recognized. Your feelings, concerns, and experiences, where acknowledged is valid. Others conveyed you were included. Others actions made you feel safe with them. You were treated fairly. The choices were respected. Others made an effort to understand you. You were given the benefit of the doubt. That is one of the like microaggressions that happens to a lot of people of color. They’re not given the benefit of the doubt. It’s a really big one. And then you receive an apology when your dignity felt violated. I think when I talk about this, especially among people who are people of color, many of these are not things that they are commonly experienced. They’re violated on a rarely regular basis. And it happens in a way that majority people, people who are part of the majority group don’t always know or see happening. So we have measured it using this. We have all the psychometrics. It’s a very good predictor. And in the most recent research that we’ve been doing, we’ve shown that it predicts when you, so a person who’s receiving kindness, and this is among the data was collected among academics who are working, so they’re professors, mostly professors. So of those, of the people who were surveyed, they felt that those people who reported receiving kindness also had higher institutional identity. They identified with their academic institution more. They reported less stress, and they reported higher well-being. So we can see that it has impact. It’s having impact for people who are working in STEMM fields in academia. 

Angela Byars-Winston: So this is so powerful, because as I said at the top of our conversation, you and I have known each other for a while. And I don’t think I’ve ever dug deeply into this part of your research. 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, we’re writing it up right now. It’s brand new. It’s going to be submitted for review hopefully in the next couple of weeks.

Angela Byars-Winston: Oh, great. So this podcast gets to hear some of those. That’s fantastic. Thank you. We feel honored. Because I know you just made the case in the existing paper that is published in 2018 that we referred to a few minutes ago, that when students from historically marginalized communities do experience kindness in these STEMM environments, their persistence is higher. Like it actually connects to the things that we care about. And now you’ve just made the case that for the people who are actually employees in academic STEMM, it actually benefits their connectedness in the institution, their sense of satisfaction, and well-being, right? Like we talk about this so often now. So what strikes me is your work is really highlighting that it’s not students who are broken. It’s not historically, people from historically excluded groups that are broken. It’s the environments that were in that are compromised and not doing what they need to do. So if you’re talking to a group of administrators or instructors because we’re reminded that institutions aren’t people, what do you encourage them to do instead, especially in STEMM environments? 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, so I think about it at a kind of different levels. So one is can you help people to treat each other better? If that means doing role plays, skill building, like all of that. We, especially since I’m at UCSF, which, you know, has a lot of medical and patient care, there’s a lot of training on how to treat patients, but there’s really not very much on how they treat each other in the academic setting or even in the clinical setting. So that’s kind of like a baseline. I think the second level is to start to really look at the norms of teams, especially as we’re forming teams, what are the norms? And do they reinforce kindness, belonging, respect within the formation of teams, whatever that might be? Maybe it’s a research team, maybe it’s a work team, maybe it’s a clinical team working. So we can really think about what are our norms and how do we move them towards that? But then at the policy level, there’s a couple things that we can do, I think, to advance this right now in our academic world. If you have a lot of money, so you have, you’ve got lots of grants, you treat everybody, well, you treat everybody badly, you use people, you exploit people, you make everybody miserable, you will probably continue to get promoted because you have a lot of money. And what that says is that the university level, our reward systems are rewarding financial success and publications. And that is more important than how you treat anybody. So at the policy level, that’s one place, that’s one leverage point is what, what are we using for promotion and tenure? And is it really, really giving people credit for treating people well? Often our faculty who are the best with learners, best with their colleagues, kindest, they’re going to give energy to those things, and they may have actually a little less energy for the writing of the grants and the writing of the papers and stuff. But they’re not compensated for being a good person who is actually helping the climate and the teaching environment and all of that. It’s different for different universities, but overall at the national level, we are not celebrating and rewarding kind behavior. So I think that’s one place at the policy level that we can really think about it. And of course, it can be a guidance for budgets, which is a big one. Like, what do we pay for? 

Angela Byars-Winston: So I think you hit the nail on so many points relating to whatever we value, we reward. And the humanity that needs to come back into institutions of higher education, maybe that wasn’t even there at a great level to begin with, is an opportunity for — radical to be honest. I think transformation of these spaces where we can hold a wider range of people who can flourish, especially in the STEMM fields. 

Mica Estrada: So I would even go one step further and say that our academic environments were set up to get the heart and the head separated from each other. So that people who were in privileged environments, who controlled assets, could exploit people and resources in the planet without feeling too bad. So I think that we actually educated our education system is built to try to help people to have the disconnect between their heart and their head so that they can exploit people. And so, and that was, you know, because of slavery, because of taking land from people, native people, it was, I mean, there was a lot of exploitation, exploitation of the land, you know, just resources and such. So the education system was designed for that a long, long time ago. And what we’re trying to do now is say, listen, having the heart and the head separate from each other is actually really dysfunctional for our society. It’s actually not very good for keeping a planet that works. It’s not very good for keeping a society together. And there’s some really great conversations done with the Surgeon General of the United States that’s talking about how the lack of kindness is really a public health crisis. In fact, we can’t care for each other and that we’re not willing to sacrifice for the greater good. That is a public health crisis. And so, and the lack of community is very, very hard on people. So it can seem like a really simple soft topic, but when you start to really see why it’s not there, you start to see the structural and value system of a society that really needs transformation to survive. 

Angela Byars-Winston: And I appreciate you bringing the social historical context into the backdrop with higher education is happening. And we certainly see ongoing current moments that are challenging for people to feel likely belong and valued and dignity and the environment, including some of the national challenges that are happening at the Supreme Court level with recent decisions around race-based admissions and certainly several states that are starting to roll back efforts like diversity, equity, inclusion related efforts to support and facilitate belonging and inclusion. So as we begin to close, I can go on and on, Mika talking about this with you, you and I can get caught up in a number of conversations. 

Mica Estrada: And we have, and it’s been good. And we have, and they have all been great. 

Angela Byars-Winston: I agree. So one question as we begin to bring our time with you to a close is, how has studying kindness yourself as a researcher changed your own relationship to kindness as an individual? That’s a great question. I haven’t thought about that. I think the thing that surprised me the most when I first wrote the paper in 2018 on kindness is, I thought for sure people were going to come after me like, how can you possibly talk about STEM education and kindness? I just thought people were going to say, as too soft or whatever. And I have been absolutely amazed at how many people, and I think I have talked to, I’m not overstating to say, I’ve talked to thousands of people over the last couple of years about this. There are a lot of people in STEM who are faculty who really are creating a kinder environment in which to teach and to work and who are working towards it. So I think for myself, I think it’s given me a lot of hope that there’s actually a large, large number of people who would like to transform the culture of STEM education and STEM professions. And so if you’re out there, you’re not alone. There’s really, really lots of people out there who, and so find your people. And during this time when there’s a lot of backlash and kind of challenge, I think more than ever, it’s a time to find your people who understand your values and who you can identify with, who can support you at the times when you feel a little sad about what’s going on right now. Because that’s what I do. And I would say, Angela, you’re one of those people that I will always contact when I’m like, I can’t do it anymore. 

Angela Byars-Winston: Thank you my friend, you know, that’s a two-way street. 

Mica Estrada: Yeah, so I mean, that’s, we’re kind of later on in our careers right now, but we still need each other. And we, and there’s, having that community is the only way that I have kept going. And so wherever you are in your, in your academic world and just, you know, find your people because that’s what we need, you know, is to, is to find our people and to work together. And no, we’re not alone. 

Angela Byars-Winston: I can’t think of better words to conclude our time together on, especially as this podcast launches just as the new academic year starts for many people in higher education especially the learners, whether you own a quarter system or the semester system. And so we appreciate your speaking into our listening around the importance of finding our people, finding those spaces. Because we are worth it to have dignity, to have our sense of belonging, reflected and reaffirmed. And self-care, I’m just can’t get over that amazing data that we got to hear first about the, the actual empirical connection of what kindness can do to one sense of wellness. And so on that note, Mica, my friend, thank you so much for this time together. This has been an absolute joy. I hope people can hear the smiles through the podcast, but we are so grateful for your time. Thank you. 

Mica Estrada: Thank you for having me. I feel honored to be here and to, I just, you guys can’t watch this, but we’re just smiling the whole time because it is really nice to see each other and to be able to talk about these really important issues and to, and what a privilege it is really to be able to talk to you. 

Dave Chancellor: It truly is. Thanks again to Dr. Mica Estrada for sharing this work with us. You can find her on Twitter or X at mica.phd_bkind. If this podcast was useful for you, consider checking out our donate page on the Institute for Diversity Science website. We have it linked in our show notes. We’re a fledgling institute so your donations can make a big difference helping us get started. This podcast is a production of the Institute for Diversity Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. However, any positions expressed in this episode are not necessarily those of the Institute for Diversity Science, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, or its Board of Regents. Thanks for listening.