I grew up in a suburb on the east side of Cleveland (which I feel compelled to defend at the outset as a great city to live in, except for the weather!). My parents were immigrants from China by way of Taiwan, and we most definitely stood out in the predominantly Caucasian community. From the time that I started school there in the fourth grade through high school graduation, I was one of just three Asian students and one of four non-white students in my school. Struggling to fit in was a part of everyday life, and it probably didn’t help that I was one of those stereotypical Asian “geeks.”
My main memory of that period of my life was feeling like I was constantly on the outside looking in, having to expend an inordinate amount of energy to get to a comfort level that seemed so effortless for everyone else. I felt that I had to be someone other than myself to gain acceptance, and rarely spoke up and made my true feelings known. Although I forced myself to step out of my comfort zone by trying out for and making the cheerleading squad, and getting involved in the school newspaper and student government, I never felt that I was truly a “part” of things in the same way as my Caucasian friends.
As an adult, as I moved from an education to a workplace environment, this experience inspired me to embrace inclusivity and be empathetic to others. Just as often, or perhaps more often, such experiences teach the excluded to be silent and to withdraw. When this happens, we all lose. Each of us can help our workplace reach its true potential by supporting those around us in reaching their true potential.
This support for diversity is something I’ve experienced firsthand at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST is an outstanding place to work where I can confidently channel my inner geek without fear of ridicule.
I started at NIST in 1995 as a research scientist after receiving a Ph.D. in materials engineering science from Virginia Tech. In my years at the research bench, I was fortunate to have the opportunity and resources to carry out cutting edge research and explore questions that had previously not been addressed in materials science. I loved being in the lab and honestly saw myself doing that for the remainder of my career, but continually remained open to other opportunities to serve at NIST.
I am currently the deputy director of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory, an organization that is dedicated to promoting U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness. We do this by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology for engineered systems in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. In this position, my team and I have the privilege of keeping operations in the Engineering Laboratory running smoothly so that the lab’s director and our staff can focus on carrying out world-class research and serving our stakeholders.
In many ways, my career at NIST so far has been ideal. I am extremely thankful that I’ve worked under outstanding leaders who supported and encouraged me as a woman, a working mom and a minority.
Inclusivity is a core value at NIST, and for a very good reason. When people feel unwelcome, left out, looked down, upon or even afraid of their colleagues they cannot do their best work.
If you sometimes don’t feel welcome or you have witnessed some unwelcoming behavior in your workplace—my younger, Cleveland-suburb self has a few suggestions for you.
Don’t accept the status quo. Respectfully respond to teasing or being left out by letting the person or people who act this way know that this hurts your feelings or by calmly speaking up and providing your point of view. If you witness someone else being disrespected or excluded, support the person by addressing the injustice or unkindness, by celebrating differences, and by complimenting or encouraging them. And if you have been guilty of disrespecting or excluding people, resolve today to stop, and to instead treat everyone with respect.
So this month as we celebrate the many contributions and accomplishments of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, it’s also a good time to fully appreciate and celebrate our differences in not only ethnicity and nationality, but also in political views, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and educational level—all attributes of a diverse community. We need to embrace, rather than fear, all of the ways that we are different from one another.