Bridging the Gap: Sociology, Statistics, and Advocacy with Dr. Maria Ong

Guest Blog—Katherine Lam, Tucson, Arizona

Katherine Lam is a junior at University High School in Tucson, Arizona. She is passionate about exploring the interface between social justice and education policy in order to elevate diverse perspectives in STEM. In her spare time, Katherine enjoys translating classical languages, practicing the flute, and exploring the beautiful Sonoran Desert.

In October 2023, Katherine Lam interviewed Mia Ong for an essay contest in the Association for Women in Mathematics. The following is her essay.

MiaOngDr. Maria Ong wears many hats: cellist, author, mother, mentor. And today, as a senior research scientist at TERC (formerly known as Technical Education Research Centers, Inc.), she is also an advocate: a woman who has found her passion through academia, and who hopes to help others do the same. “Women, gender minorities, people of color—they’re not fully included in fields like mathematics and physics,” Dr. Ong explains. Her voice is quiet but fierce. “These students are brilliant, they’re passionate, and they’re being told ‘no.’ As a sociologist, I want to make people question why that is.”

Growing up, Dr. Ong was steeped in STEM. She would help her mother—an accountant—with invoices while watching the television, and she would peer over her father’s shoulder as he “tinkered” with polymer projects in his chemistry lab. Every weekend, Ong’s father would drive her to attend cutting-edge STEM seminars at a local honors science institute. “I was very fortunate to have such great support from my family,” Ong recalls. “Mathematics and natural sciences were never presented as something scary. They were just . . . things to be discussed at the dinner table.”

Indeed, by the time Ong entered college, she had fallen in love with STEM. Chemistry and mathematics enchanted her; whereas some saw STEM as the “sacrifice of a personal life,” Ong found joy in detailed calculations and data analysis. Yet it wasn’t until the latter part of college, when she began conducting research on mathematics education, that Ong felt her interests unexpectedly shifting. She noticed a “startling” lack of diversity among physics and engineering students—one that would only become more glaring when Ong entered graduate school. “Many of my students, especially women and students of color, didn’t have the same support that I did when I started out in STEM,” Ong recalled. “I began to wonder what [their experiences] were like . . . [and] I wanted to know what I could do.”

Ong_DoubleBind_FINALThat realization would define the trajectory of Ong’s career. After years of studying in the physical sciences, Ong pivoted to the social sciences, dedicating her PhD and two postdoctoral fellowships (in education and sociology) towards the expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. Ong launched a twenty-five-year study on addressing supports and barriers for women and people of color within physics, culminating in a recent book, The Double Bind in Physics Education (Harvard Education Press, 2023). She collaborated with The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA to found Project SEED (Science and Engineering Equity and Diversity)—a support network for underrepresented students, scholars, and advocates in STEM education—and advocated for culturally responsive STEM education at a White House Roundtable. In 2017, she would even go on to serve on a National Task Force at the American Institute of Physics, identifying and addressing exclusionary norms for Black undergraduates in physics and astronomy. Today, she collaborates closely with young women, gender minorities, and students of color as they break into historically masculinized, white-dominated fields—from computer science to aerospace and electrical engineering.

As a social scientist, Dr. Ong employs “a methodical analysis that is . . . fundamentally mathematical at its basis.” For instance, after coding interview data and entering it into a software called NVivo, Ong and her team use the software to evaluate emergent themes in STEM education—from the systemic barriers that minorities encounter in STEM, to the navigation strategies that they use to overcome these obstacles. “Many people say sociology is too subjective, or [that] there’s nothing to back it up,” Ong laughs. By bringing rigorous data analysis into her research, Ong hopes to change that. “I want people to look at the frequency of certain microaggressions, or the correlations between systemic barriers to STEM education, and to wonder, ‘How can we change that?’”

Outside the office, Ong is also an avid public speaker, and she has found that numbers can communicate just as powerfully as words. “Data visualization, charts, tables—my job is to present data in a way that makes people receptive to diversity and equity efforts,” she explains. Indeed, after presenting at over 140 conferences, Ong has found that numbers and graphs help her most moving narratives to hit home. “It’s unfortunate that we have to convince people that [discrimination] is a problem,” she comments, “but what’s more convincing—a ‘big’ disparity or a ‘fifty-one percent’ disparity?” By displaying concrete data alongside ethnographic evidence, Ong hopes to “see some of that disbelief begin to dissolve.”

From organizing equity workshops at the University of Massachusetts to hosting the National Mini-Symposium on Women of Color in STEM, Ong’s work is undoubtedly exhausting. But when asked whether she would change anything about her career, Ong breaks into a smile. “Honestly, I love my job. It’s a calling . . . I’m very lucky to have a job that straddles both sociology and STEM. And I feel fortunate to be able to support the new pipeline of diversity in STEM.”

For many young scholars, part of the appeal of STEM is its consistency: its orderly laws and seemingly unbreakable rules. As a social scientist, however, Ong hopes to create a world that upends traditional norms. Why should anyone have the authority to decide that mathematicians do not belong in sociology, or that Latinas cannot be software engineers? To all aspiring women in STEM, Dr. Ong says, “Seek out places where your differences are valued.” For in our differences lie our strengths.

Read more about Dr Ong and her research.

Bridging the Gap: Sociology, Statistics, and Advocacy with Dr. Maria Ong

Katherine Lam

Listen to the post
Bridging the Gap: Sociology, Statistics, and Advocacy with Dr. Maria Ong

Sign up for updates!

Subscribe to our blog