« But I Don't Wanna Study! | Main | Surviving the Tough Times »

Discrimination in Science and Medicine

Benferguson72x722Ben Ferguson -- As a disclaimer, I debated for a long time about whether to even write this post. To be sure, it’s a controversial issue. I’m presenting one side of the story as someone who’s been more affected by this environment than I’d guess anyone who originally meant well in instituting such opportunities ever intended. The opportunities are enormously useful for their beneficiaries, and in general they have revolutionized the societal makeup of those practicing science and medicine. It’s a good thing, a very good thing, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t exclusively employ exclusivity as the means to its end. I’m not looking for sympathy; I’m not looking to complain; I’m merely describing a slightly disturbing trend I’ve noticed that has emerged as a byproduct of the current system.


Here are two sets of criteria for applying for travel grants and awards from the three most recent conferences I’ve looked into attending:

“The conference will award two (2) travel grants to graduate students/postdoctoral fellows who are underrepresented minorities/women and one (1) travel grant awarded to a junior faculty at the level of instructor or assistant professor within the first three (3) years of their initial appointment, also an underrepresented minority/woman.”

“Every year, approximately ten diversity travel awards are given out to conference attendees. We strongly encourage students to apply for this $500 award that covers registration and travel expenses. Consideration is given consistent with the NIH guidelines for minority recruitment.”

(For the record, the other conference, upon my inquiry as to whether travel grants are available to graduate students, said, “We don’t have any.” Blatant discrimination against graduate students, I tell you.)

In all seriousness, as a white male in both science and medicine, this is one of the most frustrating things I have come across, and I come across it pretty much all of the time, or at least any time I’m looking into such things. (For what it’s worth, my dad’s a doctor, so clearly that’s how I got to where I am today, right? Certainly, then, you wouldn’t want me to be participating in these programs and attending these conferences...I’m much too privileged for these sorts of thing after all. As a matter of fact, I pay cash for all associated travel costs -- that is, if my daddy doesn’t for me.)

In college, in order to gain more research experience, make some money, and boost my then-developing (and crappy) application to medical school, I looked into a lot of summer research programs in my college’s town and also all over the country. What did I find? Dozens of opportunities, great, fantastic opportunities, all for minority and women, and minority women, students. Some of them wouldn’t even accept applications from non-minorities or men. Most of them strongly suggested that white males needn’t even bother applying, some practically coming right out and saying as much. It was, in a word, frustrating.

And it’s been the same story ever since. I’m now reminded of my “struggles” with my recent interest in attending these conferences using their support, which -- I can take a hint -- doesn’t exist for people that happen to have white-skinned penises.

Google “summer research program.” I dare you. Programs that don’t at least make a passing mention to race or gender or some other measure of underrepresentedness in their small print are few and far between.

Come on, society. We’re all graduate and professional students here, and those that are not are aspiring to be in such a position. We’ve all “made it” to a certain extent, and it’s equally up to us as individuals how far we can take our successes and turn them into lifelong careers. Do we really need to continue to exclude people who are “privileged” based on the color of their skin? We’re all making the same paltry stipends; we’re all dead tired and doing -- for lack of a better word -- bitchwork; we’re all throwing ourselves into our projects, much of the time only to experience failure after failure; and -- we’re all the same, pursuing the same things.

All I want to be able to fricking do is fricking apply to get some fricking funds to attend a fricking conference, people.

April 30, 2008 in Ben Ferguson | Permalink


aww, its rough out their bro. on the bright side, at least you are in medical school. i'm having trouble getting a fricking offer despite good stats and extracurriculars.

Posted by: | Apr 30, 2008 6:45:26 PM

why don't you give that little white-skinned penis a rub to relieve some frustration?

Posted by: | Apr 30, 2008 6:50:31 PM

I feel for you. I really do. Try not being allowed to get into a certain university because of your skin not being the right color. You're not complaining you're telling the truth. I'm female,but white. Remember it's not discrimination it's minority preference which is perfectly legal. I guess this how the minorities felt years ago. I'm looking on the bright side atleast we're in medical school and soon we'll be doing a residency somewhere. With an allowence from the hospital to go to a conference. I hope things get better for you.

Posted by: Sarah Quinlan | Apr 30, 2008 10:45:11 PM

Heh, don't let the whiners get you down. Sad part is, we all know life isn't fair. I was just reading a blog yesterday about how women get sexually harassed in med school (as if the men don't--and we get institutionally acceptably discriminated against).

But, you're in med school, at a damned fine one, I might add. Be happy and be a good doc. Success is the best revenge--even when no one cares.

Posted by: Jared | May 1, 2008 4:35:37 AM

Great Blog! I have been freaking out over deciding where to go to medical school and I remember stumbling across your blog months ago. I am pretty much decided on Pritzker (it has sort of been my dream school). However, I have been paranoid about fitting in like its the beginning of junior high all over again. Somehow reading your blog has given me a sense of calm. Thank you!

Posted by: Melissa | May 1, 2008 8:11:10 AM

I found it just as frustrating applying for any scholarships for both undergrad and grad; my parents' salaries were "too high," one of them attended college, they weren't in unions or the Daughters of the American Revolution or polish or one-eyed panda bears. I don't mind whinging about the fact that scholarships are too specific, but it isn't an issue that only white males face. It's just how they try to keep applications down to a level where they can actually read some of them.

Posted by: Kate | May 1, 2008 3:00:10 PM

Boo hoo...poor Ben. Minorities and women have struggled for YEARS to get as far as we have. And you're going to cry about not getting a grant. You just don't get it and I doubt you ever will.

Posted by: Rochelle | May 3, 2008 8:40:08 PM

"At one time in my life, I would not have been able to say that, because I needed to believe that my success in life was due solely to my individual talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American, the rugged individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture's mythology that I couldn't see the fear that was binding me to those myths. Like all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn't heroic or rugged, that I wasn't special."

This quote from an essay about white privilege came into my mind when I read your blogpost. I think it'd be worthwhile if you read some of the more influential writings out there on the topic... might round out your views a bit. Many of them touch on the whole "affirmative action" dilemma as well.

I've enjoyed reading your blog. Good luck with your studies.

Posted by: Liana Hwang | May 5, 2008 2:46:11 PM

Sorry to read about your feelings, I hope you get a grant this summer so I don't fear that you may want to 'rationalize' future discrimination against minorities, probably against many of those with lesser career titles, once you've become a physician.

Posted by: Andrew Gamboa | May 6, 2008 3:16:57 PM

I think the very fact that you had to write a long disclaimer proves how afraid anyone is to point out the blatant racism and sexism of "affirmative" action. People fear being called a bigot; an easy way to cut off debate for those who treasure their special privileges. If this post had pointed out a grant that stated only those of European ancestry and/or males could receive them, it wouldn't be long before someone would lose their position/job over it. Any preference for those based on race or sex is wrong, regardless of if it is called "affirmative" or not.

Posted by: Joe | May 6, 2008 3:19:47 PM

I think there is definitely a place for helping out those who need it. I also think that Ben brings out an excellent point though, in that while it is great to give a hand up to those that are underrepresented, at some point it no longer becomes appropriate. I doubt anyone would suggest waiving medical conference fees for practicing physicians on the basis of race or gender. Why not? Because they have arrived. No more help is needed. I think once one has graduated from high school, graduated from college, and has been accepted into a post-graduate professional school perhaps one could surmise that they have essentially made it and could be considered on equal footing with their peers.

Posted by: JW | May 6, 2008 3:34:10 PM

I think that suffering is relative to your situation. You cannot say that someone here in the States is "whining" if, say, they live in a poor part of town and can only afford to shop at Goodwill. To them, that is suffering; you cannot compare that person's situation to starving people in Africa and tell the Ameican to, "suck it up, other people are worse off than you." Of course there are other people worse off, there always will be, but that isn't your life and that isn't your situation. It is all reltaive.
Ben, I feel for you. I am a white female, and although I have not come across these scholarships/grants just for females that you speak of (I have come across alot for minority women), but I know of the inequalities (including those of the outdated affirmative action) that exist and I can empathize with you.

Keep your chin up!

Posted by: In the middle | May 6, 2008 3:53:31 PM

NIH has a 20 person office with a budget of at least 30 million to support minority and female health researchers. I spent a year tracking minority and female representation at about 100 research institutes. The institutes in turn have to hire recruiters to beg minorities and females to spend a summer or year with them. Where is this all going? Why is Congress paying for this?

Posted by: david | May 6, 2008 4:10:44 PM

The question that lingers in my mind is, will it be (is it) easier for those that benefit from affirmative action policies to succeed? Certainly if affirmative action policy accomplishes its goal of complete equality and affirmative action policies remain active, then it would be. The question is, how will we acknowledge this when we reach it or will it have to swing far the other way before we do something about it?

Posted by: | May 6, 2008 4:11:05 PM

I agree with you Ben, I think that applications and grants should be based on a persons skills and credits instead of their skin color. Whatever happened to "All men are created equal"? Shouldn't everyone be given equal opportunities and chances?

Posted by: | May 6, 2008 4:28:10 PM

I really like the comment by "Jay" (May 6).

Posted by: Ryan | May 6, 2008 4:44:24 PM

This is a really interesting topic. So I am a minority female. I also scored in the 95th percentile on my MCAT and got a 246 on my Step 1. So I would hope that I earned my spot as a 3rd medical student at a top institution not because of my race or gender but because I deserved it (and could afford the whole application process, or at least my parents could). I can appreciate the suffering that women and minorities have gone through from my current experience of it. On a daily basis I struggle with patient's calling me nurse, attendings desregarding me--perhpas because i'm not the 'white male' prototype, when i walk into an OR, and as you can imagine the list goes on. So you have to admit to yourself that we are currently trying to find ways to compensation for the long long long history of discrimination against minorities and women.
Since we are about being honest on this blog, I have to admit to you that I am not so thrilled about all the old white men of medicine. I'm ready for some different faces, softer features, colors.
At the same time, with all this "affirmative action", I don't want people to look at me and think that I got my spot through some random white man's guilty conscious and pity: I earned it. And I want the other minorities who surround me to have earned their spot too, just so that no one ever dares to doubt my credentials or capabilities. And so to a certain extent, I agree with you that once we have all reached a certain point, we are all the same.

Great blog, and more power to Ben for coming out about it. We'll never reach some kind of consensus about the matter if we are not truly honest with one another.

Posted by: MVA | May 6, 2008 5:29:06 PM

Yeah, I agree affirmative action isn't the answer. Especially since the real problem is socioeconomic disadvantage not racial disadvantage. If you look at the top colleges around the nation, the biggest disparity is ALWAYS socioeconomic, not racial. Poor people just don't get into Harvard. When you look around you in your esteemed institutions, surrounded by highly educated and successful peers, when was the last time you met someone who was on welfare growing up? Or came from the inner city from a single parent home? Or had relied on food-stamps for food through their entire childhood? The truth is, if you are middle class, regardless of your race, you have advantages that the poor never had: a stable home life, good nutrition, lead-free housing, adequate medical care, good schooling from day care to high school (public schools are NOT all created equal), etc. THIS is what we need to address, and it is not going to be solved by admissions quotas, or special grants for minorities. Those just go to those middle-class minorities who don't need them.

So go ahead and complain about affirmative action. It IS unfair. Just direct your complaints to where they belong.

Posted by: Dawn | May 6, 2008 5:44:24 PM

It is an unfortunate reality that no culture in the world is immune from judgement. If these issues really didn't matter, they wouldn't be discussed so much. In my opinion, the ones who have the drive to succeed in medicine will succeed, regardless of their race, gender, or age. There are plenty of high quality physicians who go to more reasonably-priced state schools via loans and grants. I personally have never had the slightest desire to attend Harvard. They aren't all wealthy or even middle-class. Most of them are young and, in this country, white. Not because they are privileged but because they are still the majority race. That means there are just flat out higher numbers of white people in most places in America, and most of them are not remotely "privileged". I would guess that the ratio will change over the next century due to the changing demographics of the country and in spite of useless, wasteful affirmative action plans. I try to stay away from situations too firmly controlled by either affirmative action lunatics or good-old-boy fanatics. There's lots of room in the middle for everyone, unless you are looking for problems, and in the end you have to acquire the education through your own efforts.

Posted by: Cory | May 6, 2008 8:14:20 PM

Here is a better example; My neice graduated in the top 1% of her HS class. Her best friend (African-American) graduated in the middle of the class. They both applied to college and for financial aid. My (white) neice, whose father is a truck driver and mother who is a part-time waitress, received $250 a semester in tuition assistance. Her black friend received a full four-year scholarship to a private women's university, worth over 45,000 a year. Room, board, books, tuition, everything covered. In 20 years she could be the next Michelle Obama.

Tell me how that is fair?

Posted by: Gray | May 7, 2008 8:07:48 AM

What is fair???
Fairness is a difficult concept to evaluate, which has rarely been the reality of our existence. Even nature isn't fair: Katrina, the Tsunami, the cyclone that just hit Burma...
I don't think we can ever be fair. But we should always aim to be reasonable.

Posted by: MVA | May 7, 2008 2:37:02 PM

This is not just restricted to the US. In India, 40% of residency seats are reserved for minorities or 'lower castes'. There had been riots of protest from the 'majority' or 'higher castes'.
But you know what: It works out for the country very well at the end. Minorities are more likely to serve within their communities and help gap disparities.
The governtment does not care about your individual success. Its more concerned with the bigger issue of bridging the gaps in healthcare and rightfully so.
Welcome to smart beaurocracy!

Posted by: amionne | May 7, 2008 2:44:59 PM

I applied for medical school in new zealand and the way it works here is that all those who want to do medicine do a common first year course and in the end if you have good enough grades you are interviewed and selected. here is a rough estimate of ethnic groups in that first year lecture room ASIAN: 50% INDIAN: 30% EUROPEAN: 20%
NOW from my observations the proportions in the medical school lecture room looks like this. EUROPEAN: 70% ASIAN 20% INDIAN: 10%
I have been observing this thing for the last 3 years. so i can safely say that these proportions are accurate.
CAN someone explain how the EUROPEANS went from 20% in the first year class to 70% in the medical class? How do the asians and indians who are in OVERWHELMING majority in the first year course (entry to which is also competetive) i.e. 80% end up being in minority in medical school 30%? why are so many of them filtered out at the interview? HAVE A LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS BEN. YOU ARE CRYING ABOUT A FRIKIN SUMMER STUDENTSHIP. IM TALKIN ABOUT MEDICAL SCHOOL ADMISSION! YOU SEEM LIKE A HOMELY WHITE BOY WHO HAS NOT SEEN LIFE FIRSTHAND. NEXT TIME YOU ARE OUT CHECK OUT THE FOLKS DOING ROADWORKS/TOILET CLEANING/CONSTRUCTION. CHECK OUT THE LOCAL PRISON. IT WILL PROBABLY BE A BLACK/HISPANIC YOU WILL BE LOOKING AT. Please do it for your own sake.

Posted by: rollerkoster | May 7, 2008 4:39:34 PM

The coin always has two sides; we always want to be on the correct or best side. Welcome to my life Benny old chap! Women, Blacks, Yellows, and browns live this problem 24/7 - it bites but it has to continue until we are at parity. Savor the feeling and the next time that you see it happening to ANYone else...do something about it. In the meantime, continue studying and good luck!

Posted by: Steve | May 7, 2008 9:28:34 PM

Ben, I'm not even white, and I've also experienced this first-hand trying to get into med school, I think I'm a minority, yet, I don't get into the "minority" program cause I'm not hispanic or black?? What kind of sense does that make??

Posted by: | May 7, 2008 10:17:36 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.