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Diverse Stem Reading: A Layer Cake of Problems

Discover some of the diverse STEM books, documentaries, podcasts, and other items available from the ISU Library and on the web, and learn how to find more of these materials.

Published onMar 15, 2024
Diverse Stem Reading: A Layer Cake of Problems

Foreword 🎂

This page is based off of LibGuide that was created to accompany the author’s ISCORE 2021 pre-conference presentation:

O'Donnell, M., & Thomas, E. (2021, March 3-4). Diverse STEM Reading: A Layercake of Problems :-/. [Presentation]. Thomas L. Hill Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE). Ames, IA, USA.

A copy of the slides used in the presentation is embedded below or can be downloaded if you’re interested in learning more about the research under pinning the content.

The slide deck used for the ISCORE 2021 preconference session of the same name as this page.

Presenter and Author Identities

Both authors identify as white women and recognize that this group has a disproportionate representation and influence on two of the industries that act as gatekeepers on print media: publishers and libraries.

Why Cake? 🧁

When the authors were gathering the crumbs that became the presentation's proposal Megan called the issue a "layer cake of problems" in an attempt to conceptualize how the various “layers” of exclusion have created participation and representation barriers.

While there are other analogies that may be more apt, cake is what first came to mind and Erin decided it was a great name (and Megan probably watches too much Nailed It!).

Jump to a section:

  1. Diverse STEM Reading: What's the Problem? 🍰

  2. Audio 🎧

  3. Books 📕

  4. Things of the Internet 💻

  5. Video 📺

  6. Tips for finding stuff 🔎

  7. Fiction and science fiction 🚀

Diverse STEM Reading: What's the Problem? 🍰

As science and engineering librarians we are frequently asked “How do I find books by trans scientists?” or “How do I research what it’s like to be a Black engineer?” but while there is increasing interest in these types of works they remain difficult to find, recommend, and purchase. This is frustrating for educators and librarians, but especially for readers who want to see diverse experiences and cultures reflected in media and education.

The truth is that not all experiences are captured in “literature.” Marginalized populations face barriers—in education, in careers, in publishing - limiting the number of formal accounts of their lives in “academic media”. Podcasts, videos, blogs, documentaries, self-published memoirs, etc. are all valid forms of personal expression and experience, so why are they not valued and included in STEM?

We will discuss systemic participation and inclusion barriers marginalized groups face and ways we can fight this pattern in the classroom, the library, and beyond.

This guide and presentation will be of value to educators hoping to diversify and expand “reading” lists and students researching these topics.

How did we get here?

There are multiple layers contributing to the problem: the STEM, publishing, and library worlds all play a role.

  • All three fields have known diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

  • "Traditional" media formats and publishers continue to be valued more highly than alternatives.

  • Publishers and librarians can use their power to amplify diverse voices... and for gatekeeping against them. Historically, the latter has been more common.

In short, libraries can only provide access to materials that exist. Barriers in STEM and publishing prevent many accounts from diverse authors from being shared or published. And when those accounts are published, there are more barriers that make it harder for librarians to identify and purchase those materials (if they choose to do so), and for library visitors to discover them.

Explore: A novel that critiques the publishing industry’s lack of diversity.

Zakiya Delila Harris’ debut novel, The Other Black Girl, critiques the publishing industry through a story of an African American woman who works in the nearly all-white industry.

What you can do

The situation isn't great and there's a lot of work still to be done to make sure the many diverse voices in STEM are recognized, seen, and heard. Here are some steps you can take to help make things better: decorative

  • Seek out and amplify BIPOC, queer, and female voices in STEM when and where you can

  • Learn about ways to decolonize and diversify your curriculum and reading lists without resorting to tokenism (Google it)

  • Form a reading group and engage with diverse materials in meaningful ways

  • Stop viewing books and articles as the only legitimate forms of authentic expression and experience in STEM!

Audio Resources 🎧

Audio materials often feature interviews or presentations which provides STEM professionals the chance to explain their experiences and expertise in their own words. The majority of the resources on this page do not provide transcripts, but those that do are noted with the ✎ (pencil) icon.

Iowa State University Lectures

The Iowa State University Lecture Series offers a line up of renowned speakers from across the world to talk about their work and experiences. What you may not know, is that the University Library's Special Collections and Archives maintains an archive of audio recordings of past lectures, many of which are fully transcribed on Aviary.

Iowa State Oral Histories

Iowa State University Archives and Special Collections has a collection of oral histories which are fully transcribed on Aviary. The following collections are applicable:


Podcasts can be self-produced or produced with help from a radio or professional podcasting network. This section features STEM podcasts that feature diverse stories and storytellers in STEM though sometimes it's hard to tell. Like books, information about how podcast authors and guests identity can be difficult to find and/or judge. Luckily many of them provide author bios and pictures on their websites.

Podcast examples

  • StoryCollider: True, personal stories about science

    The Story Collider helps people of all walks of life -- from scientists to doctors to patients to engineers to teachers to firefighters -- tell their true, personal stories about science. Provides playlists on topics such as immigration, prejudice and bias, neurodiversity, pregnancy, and more.

  • People Behind the Science by M. McNeely

    In each episode, a different scientist will guide you through their journey by sharing their successes, failures, and passions.
    While not transcribed, there are detailed summaries for each episode.

  • STEMpowered Women by Sistas in STEM

    Join host Brittany A. J. Miriki as she interviews boss women for inspiration, career advice, health tips, and more. We’re pushing the voices of Black women and Women of Color in STEM to the forefront to bring our community together.

  • Small Steps, Giant Leaps by NASA APPEL

    Talks with NASA systems engineers, scientists, project managers and thought leaders about challenges, opportunities, and successes and frequently features the women of NASA.

  • Voices from DARPA

    In each episode, a program manager from one of DARPA’s six technical offices—Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, Information Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Strategic Technology, and Tactical Technology—discusses in informal and personal terms why they are at DARPA and what they are up to.

Books 📕

While the number of diverse books in STEM has been increasing slightly over time, there is still a dearth of books written about and authored by STEM professionals who hold marginalized identities. Even when these books do exist, they may be difficult to discover because library and other discovery systems have been designed primarily for a white, straight, cisgendered audience.[1] Below is an incomprehensive selection of books we were able to locate and/or order at our own library.

💬 For help locating diverse STEM books in a library, check out our tips for finding stuff section.

Things of the Internet 💻

Some forms of online expression and communication are hard to classify. This page gathers tips, sites, and examples, on how to access, join, or use some of the more avant garde resources available on the internet.


Twitter is hard to classify as a resource for education because users experience Twitter differently depending on who and what they follow. However, we would be remiss in omitting it because of its usefulness as self-publishing platform and as a way to stay in tune with movements, events, and media that originate on Twitter. One recent example was Black Birders Week (#BlackBirdersWeek) which occurred during the summer of 2020 in response to a racist incident in NYC. This movement led to countless spinoff groups, conferences, communities, videos, and more highlighting black excellence in STEM.

#BlackInSTEM or Black in X' Weeks

Encouraged by the success of #BlackBirdersWeek in June 2020, many BlackInSTEM groups have founded their own initiatives, providing a week of virtual events and twitter hashtags to support and highlight the work of Black people in different scientific disciplines. --

J.Gill, The #BlackInSTEM 2020 Calendar

Hashtag activism

One of Twitter's more useful features for following movements is its hashtag system. This system allows users to link posts using hashtag terms (marked with a #) and find relevant posts (such as those for the Black in X weeks) by searching for hashtags.

You can learn more about how hashtags are used for activism and social justice movements in the book #HashtagActivism (Call number P302.37 J35 2020).


An online forum with channels, aka "subreddits", dedicated to different themes and topics. The rules, tone, culture, and activity of each subreddit are as different as the content. The following subreddits highlight interviews conducted by asynchronous "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) sessions with professionals in STEM fields as well as communities dedicated to women in STEM. The list is incomplete, and we're sure more applicable subreddits exist.

Blogs & Vlogs

Blogs are regularly updated webpages that typically contain personal accounts and reflections on a topic. Many science bloggers have since moved to newer platforms like Twitter and Reddit. The following is a not comprehensive list of current blogs highlighting diversity in STEM.

Video 📺

The film industry is very white which means that independent films and documentaries are often not as easy to access as feature films or documentaries by famous, and majority white, creators. Another unfortunate facet with films and documentaries is the films and series are available through streaming services are constantly changing due to expiring and new deals with content providers. This is true for both personal and the library's subscription services. For these reasons self publishing video platforms such as YouTube are one of the best places to find diversity in STEM on video.

Some, but not all, of the videos and channels on this page have captions or transcripts.

Online Video Channels and Series

YouTube, and similar video hosting sites, are a great way to find first-hand accounts of scientists and engineers of all identities because they are self-publishing platforms.

The embedded video below is a playlist showcasing the variety of content available on YouTube—TED talks, presentations, personal accounts—featuring diverse STEM practitioners and their experiences. The list of YouTube channels following the video is illustrative of the content and creators available and is not exhaustive.

The Hidden Women of STEM | Alexis Scott | TEDxMountainViewCollege


Documentaries are another way to access and incorporate diverse voices in STEM. Like publishing, the film industry is very white which means the most diversity is not found in mainstream features. Independent films and documentaries have better representation but are not always easy to access and often cost more to obtain than feature films or documentaries by famous, and majority white, creators.

  • The Woman Who Loves Giraffes (film homepage)
    In 1956, before Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, 23-year-old biologist Anne Innis Dagg made an unprecedented solo journey to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild. When she returned home a year later, the insurmountable barriers she faced as a female scientist proved hard to overcome.

  • Big Dream: Young Women Entering STEM Fields (Collective Eye Films)
    This film follows the intimate stories of seven young women from around the world who are breaking barriers and overcoming personal challenges to follow their passion STEM fields.

  • Crying Earth Rise Up (Vision Maker Media)
    Tells the story of Debra White Plume and Elisha Yellow Thunder's parallel search for answers to the question: Why are there high levels of radiation in our drinking water and how can we protect our families and community against this threat?

  • The Path to Nuclear Fission: the Story of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn (Films for Thought)
    The story of two close friends who discovered nuclear fission is told in great detail within the context of both World Wars. This video is as much about role of scientists in political events, social responsibility, and discrimination against women and Jews, as it is about the science, though the science is clearly explained.

Feature Films

We had hoped to incorporate more feature films in this guide. However, the majority of "diverse" STEM films tell the story of cis white men (and a few women). 

The films in this section are "based on a true story" but their accuracy levels differ. A quick Google search will turn up criticism, good and bad, on each film.

  • Hidden Figures (2017)
    A noteworthy outlier about the achievements of three African American women mathematicians (computers) who helped NASA put man in space. 

  • The Imitation Game (2014)
    Based on the life of Alan Turning, mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero, and pioneer of modern-day computing who was convicted on the criminal offense of homosexuality in 1952.

  • Temple Grandin (2010)
    An engaging portrait of an autistic young woman who became, through timely mentoring and sheer force of will, one of America's most remarkable success stories.

  • Gorillas in the Mist: The Adventure of Dian Fossey (1999)
    The story of Dian Fossey, an anthropologist studying gorillas and her efforts to stop the decimation of the endangered apes.

  • A Beautiful Mind (1993)
    Dramatic biography of John Nash, a mathematical genius, who made an astonishing discovery early in his career and stood on the brink of international acclaim. After many years of struggle, he eventually triumphed over his schizophrenia, and finally, late in life, received the Nobel Prize.

  • The Theory of Everything (2014)
    Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking received an earth-shattering diagnosis at 21 years of age.

Tips for Finding Stuff 🔎

Finding diverse STEM materials can be a real challenge. Search tools are designed to provide information about the things people made (i.e. books, films, discoveries, etc.) and usually do not include information about the creators other than their name, and sometimes a date of birth and date of death (if applicable). Race, ethnicity, gender, and other author identities and affiliations are often not readily apparent unless a creator photo or bio is provided, and even this can involve making assumptions about an author's identity.

Often the best way to identify creators from marginalized groups is to use a search engine to look up the type of creator you're interested in (e.g., Black podcasters, gay biologists, women engineers, etc.) before looking for a particular kind of media. Do a little background research on the open web, then dive into searches for books, movies, podcasts, etc.

Even if you have pre-identified a creator (i.e. you know their name) you'll likely need to use advanced search features, or do a lot of manual browsing, to find what you're looking for.

Words Mean Things (or Not)

Sometimes words have multiple meanings, and sometimes there are multiple words that all mean the same thing, or a set of words that together or in part form a single concept (BIPOC is a good example of this). The computer performing your search has no way to understand which meaning(s) you want unless you tell it! Here are some tips for doing that:

Using Multiple Keywords

Combine terms with AND to require all terms to appear in your search results. This will ensure that all your concepts are covered in your results. For example: Deaf AND scientists

Combine terms with OR to require one or both terms to appear in your search results. This is a simple way to search for different words with the same or similar meanings. For example: Latino OR Hispanic

Using Quotation Marks

You can force words to appear together, in a specific order using quotation marks. For example: "African American women chemists"

Using Parentheses

Use parentheses if you want to combine AND and OR. Typically this works best if you group your OR terms within the parentheses. For example, to find books on BIPOC scientists you could try: ("African American" OR "Asian American" OR "Hispanic American" OR Indian) AND scientists

Removing Words You Don't Want

Use NOT to remove words you don't want from your results. For example, to find books on indigenous science and avoid getting results about science fiction by indigenous authors, use: "indigenous science" NOT fiction

Subjects Help but Don't Quite Get It

Subject headings label items in a library's catalog based on what those items are about. Using subject headings to search can make it easier to find items on related topics, but the system has limitations.

Subject headings:

  • Do not include author identity unless the book is about the author and/or how they identify.

  • Sometimes use outdated, problematic, and/or non-preferred terms (some librarians are trying to be better about this but there remains a lot of work to be done)

  • Often use specific terms instead of broader ones (such as chemists, zoologists, microscopists, etc. instead of scientists)... and searching using only the broader term will often miss everything using the narrower terms

Because they describe what an item is about, subject headings will not help you identify materials by authors from underrepresented groups, unless their experiences as members of those groups are a key topic of the book. You may need to start by using other tools (like search engines) to identify LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people in relevant academic fields and then look for materials by or about those people.

Lists Can Help... If You Can Find Them

A quick Google search will reveal lots of lists compiled by librarians, educators, authors, and others that cover diverse STEM books, videos, and more. These can be very useful resources! Unfortunately, the vast majority consist of recommended materials for K–12 readers or celebrate the same people over and over again. Compounding this issue, there is currently a dearth of diverse STEM materials lists for adult and academic audiences.

If you have found a list of materials and want to see if the ISU Library has them, you have some options:

  • Copy and paste the title and/or author name into Quick Search

  • Use Advanced Search to specify where the title and author name should appear (do this if you get too many or irrelevant results using the previous method)

  • If your items have DOIs, copy and paste the DOI into the Item Fetcher

Here are some helpful sites for identifying Black scholars in all academic fields:

When All Else Fails...

  • Ask a librarian! We're here to help.

  • Check social media and some of the groups/sites listed on the Things of the Internet tab! There are lots of knowledgeable people out there that share great recommendations.

  • Check University Lectures! There are often book or media tie ins with the guest speakers.

Fiction (and Science Fiction) 🚀

The original focus of this guide was non-fiction accounts about, or authored by, STEM professionals who are not CIS, straight, white men. However, works of fiction that depict a more diverse STEM reality and those based on historical figures and events are valuable sources of inspiration and learning even if they take artistic liberties with history and reality.

Sadly, the majority of fiction films and books that depict more diverse STEM stories and role models are still often centered on white women or white men. Two recent articles about the fiction book industry are provided below as reference for information about the current state of fiction book industry.

The lists below are places to start and are not comprehensive.

Fiction Books

  • Abbott, Megan. Give Me Your Hand. Back Bay Books, 2018.

  • Fink, Joseph. It Devours!. Harper Perennial, 2017.

  • Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel. Tor, 2018.

  • Liu, Cixin . The Three-Body Problem. Tor, 2014.

  • Sloan, Robin. Sourdough. Picador, 2022

  • Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. William Morrow, 2015

Fiction Films and Television

  • Annihilation (2018)

  • Arrival (2016)

  • Black Panther (2018)

  • Contact (1997)

  • Contagion (2011)

  • Ghostbusters (2016)

  • Star Trek, various series (1966-Current)

    • Star Trek has been breaking stereotypes since the original series premiered in 1966 with a Japanese helmsman, Russian navigator, and a Black woman communications officer. While these may seem like quaint advances today, the multiracial and multicultural cast was controversial at the time. Later titles in the series have carried on the creator’s vision of an inclusive future for humanity by ensuring diverse characters, casting, and stories.

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