GSN Profile: Professor Ashaki Rouff
Rutgers Graduate School-Newark
Office of the Dean
Visit: 175 University Avenue, Conklin Hall Suite 241, Newark, New Jersey 07102
Phone: (973) 353-5834
Associate Professor Ashaki Rouff doesn’t believe in tackling just one or two of the world’s problems at a time. In her geoscience lab, she’s developing methods for the sustainable use of phosphorus, for removing fertilizer from our waterways, and for cleansing our soils of heavy metals. As if that were not enough, she’s also addressing one of the biggest problems facing the science world today – lack of diversity.
The majority of scientists in academia and industry are Caucasian men, many of whom are moving closer to retirement age. Less than one percent of all STEM degrees go to black women, according to 2013 data from the National Science Foundation. In Rouff’s field of Earth and Environmental Science, the number of black women is statistically negligible.
For years, this gap has been cause for concern. Yet there remains a large supply of young minds from underrepresented groups — Black, Latino, Native Americans, for example—who struggle to enter the sciences. They often face financial obstacles, but also a fear of not belonging, which can act as a deterrent.
“For any student of color, as you move up the science ladder this issue of being able to fit in and being able to assimilate gets more and more difficult,” says Rouff. “You are going to be the odd one out in a lot of cases, and you need to be able to deal with that.”
Rouff understands these challenges well. During her undergraduate work in geology at Middlebury College, she was the only person of color in the program. Throughout the rest of her career trajectory — Ph.D. from Stony Brook University, postdoc from the University of Chicago, a second postdoc from Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute, and a professorship at CUNY —she often faced a sense of isolation, and sometimes even overt discrimination.
Those experiences have led her to care deeply about nurturing diversity in the sciences. “The problems that scientists are trying to solve affect people from all backgrounds from all over the world, so why shouldn’t everyone be participating?” Rouff is honest with students about the difficulties they may face as scientists of color. She advises persistence, patience, and preparation.
Along with giving talks about her groundbreaking science, Rouff is often asked to lecture on the issue of diversity. In 2016, she was invited to join the HERS Luce Program for Women in STEM Leadership. She also mentors ten students from RU-N’s Honors Living and Learning Community.
In her lab, she works with six science students, whose roots go back to India, Trinidad, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Israel. Amidst the test tubes and petri dishes, the room hums with the energy of diverse collaboration. Rouff even invites undergraduates into her lab to work alongside the Ph.D. and Master’s students. The undergraduates get opportunities to develop their own research projects and to publish. This is not common practice in academia — but it is part of Rouff’s mission to inspire students to continue into graduate school.
By all measures, her lab is a success. She and the students have developed a way to remove phosphorus from animal waste before it gets into waterways and ruins the aquatic ecosystem. The team plans to make this technology open source, available to everyone free of cost. And that is just one of the many game-changing ideas in development.
Much of their work revolves around the needs of communities here in New Jersey and around the world. Rouff says making these direct connections with people outside of the lab pushes her students to solve more problems. She credits the diversity of her team for this socially minded science practice
“We’re bringing different experiences to the table, we connect to our research in different ways, and that enriches the science. It becomes an experience. Thinking about how the science impacts the local community and the international community broadens the scope.”
The students, on their part, are devoted to their professor. They say Rouff demands their best, while allowing them ownership of their work and creative freedom. They rave about her approachability and the support she offers. Two students actually followed her from CUNY to RU-N.
One of those students is second-year master’s candidate Karen Juarez. She says Rouff is a role model. “I know that if she did it then I can definitely do it too. She’s pretty inspirational, actually.”