NCSU professor Justin Schwartz seeks diversity in a field with very little

Justin Schwartz, department head and Kobe Steel Distinguished Professor at N.C. State's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, photographed in his lab Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.
Justin Schwartz, department head and Kobe Steel Distinguished Professor at N.C. State's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, photographed in his lab Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.

Justin Schwartz’s home town had more than 100,000 people and only one high school – a mammoth structure where thousands of students of all races, creeds and backgrounds mingled.

Once he started taking advanced science courses, though, he saw the diversity in his classes wane. When he started studying nuclear engineering as an undergraduate, it all but disappeared.

“It was all white males,” says Schwartz. “That was a culture shock for me.”

Throughout his career as a professor and researcher, the lack of diversity in engineering and other science-heavy fields has nagged at Schwartz, even as his research on superconductors started to earn him international attention.

He worked for years at the college of engineering shared by Florida State University and Florida A&M University, an historically black institution.

Since he came to N.C. State five years ago as head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he has worked diligently to create a diverse group of scholars, doubling the number of female faculty and hiring its first minority professors.

His efforts earned him the university’s diversity award in 2011. Lately, Schwartz headed a national group of his colleagues in a discussion and study of how to diversify the ranks of engineering professors.

The report that came from that federally funded initiative was released earlier this month, and Schwarz is hoping it will move the conversation forward on attracting more minorities and women into his and similar fields.

“Justin has a real passion for being inclusive, a commitment to making a team that brings in all kinds of background and viewpoints,” says colleague Elizabeth Loboa. “He doesn’t just talk about it. He leads by example.”

Seeking a mix

Schwartz, 49, described the Evanston, Ill., of his youth as a true melting pot, where white Jewish families like his own fit in seamlessly with a sea of different races and nationalities.

The schools were large and integrated. Schwartz’s first job was at a pizza place owned by a family from Ecuador where most of the employees were from Colombia.

So when he went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana, he was surprised by the homogeneous culture, where there were hardly even any women in his classes.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he did his graduate work, was more diverse due to the wealth of international students, but lacked students from different economic backgrounds.

He worked briefly in Japan, and returned to the United States to take a job at the college shared by FSU, where his materials research would benefit from the presence of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, home to the world’s highest-powered magnets.

During his time there, the college was doing a good job recruiting high-performing minority students through its partnership with FAMU, though the faculty was less diverse.

When he was hired at N.C. State, he says, he wanted to use his administrative position to bring in graduate students and faculty from diverse backgrounds, a mix that he says is both fair and effective.

“Studies have shown that even if you’re operating from a purely selfish mode, that diverse organizations perform better,” he says. “They have more views, more perspectives and ways of doing things.”

His department had only two female professors and one minority professor out of 20 when he was hired, he says. Over the years, he’s hired nine tenure-track faculty members, including two women and two from minority groups.

He joined the University Materials Council, a trade group, soon after he took a job in administration at NCSU. At one of the first meetings he attended, the group discussed holding a national workshop on diversity in the field of materials science and engineering. Schwartz offered to chair it.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, Schwartz pulled together a team of department heads from across the country to look at the issue.

Needing role models

The diversity problem resonates throughout the field of engineering and the other STEM disciplines of science, technology and math.

In 2011, only 2 percent of the doctoral degrees earned in materials science and engineering went to African-American students, who made up about 14 percent of the population, according the study Schwartz led.

Less than a quarter of those degrees went to women. The same year, only 5 percent of tenure-track faculty positions in the field were held by African-Americans, Hispanics, or Native Americans.

The group focused on the “leaky pipeline” during the college years – when students who might have been Ph.D.-level researchers in the STEM fields choose other options.

“The simple truth is there aren’t that many Ph.Ds. to choose from,” says Schwartz. “Why that is true is a very complicated question.”

Schwartz led a survey of students who recently received graduate degrees that revealed some sharp differences between minority students and their peers, particularly in informal areas such as mentorships.

Minority students reported that their mentors introduced them to colleagues at conferences less often, for instance. Schwartz says this is the kind of unconscious racism that institutions must work to eradicate.

“Even people with the best of intentions aren’t always aware of what they’re doing,” he says. “I don’t think that faculty are thinking, ‘I’m not going to give that person as much support.’ ”

Other differences are more subtle. Many minority students are also the first in their family to attend college, a group that tends to go to work after earning a bachelor’s degree rather than continuing their studies.

Part of the problem is culture. Minority students don’t see many people they identify with in those jobs when they’re choosing a career path.

For Schwarz, the best solution is to work harder to get those role models in place. He says that close to half the members of his research group are women, and people often ask him how he manages that in a field dominated by men.

His answer is that he does it by having women in his group.

“I have a history of having females in my group, and when people are looking at which group to join, they see that,” he says.

He’s passing around copies of his study, which includes recommendations for administrators and policymakers, trying to move the diversity issue to the forefront of more minds.

And he was particularly glad to see a lot of young faces at the workshop, conducted in Virginia in late 2012.

“It contributed to the dialogue,” he says. “If it turns the sailboat in the right direction, I’ll take it.”

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