Scott Auerbach to Deliver 2020 Commonwealth Honors College Plenary Lecture

Scott Auerbach
Scott Auerbach

AMHERST, Mass. – Scott Auerbach of UMass Amherst’s chemistry and chemical engineering departments will deliver the 2020 Commonwealth Honors College Plenary Lecture on Monday, Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. The lecture – “Is Racism a Science Problem?” will be presented on the Honors College website. Auerbach is also the Mahoney Family-sponsored executive director of the UMass Integrated Concentration in Science (UMass iCons) program.

Auerbach’s lecture will share evidence supporting the notion that racism is indeed a science problem in at least four different ways beginning with a discussion on early scientific interpretations of data on race and genetics that have contributed to and supported racist ideas. He will then speak about the impact of racism on the diversity (or lack thereof) of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, which limits the ability of STEM fields to solve complex problems. Another way to explore this question is to see science as a possible source of solutions to racism, highlighting the work of W.E.B. Du Bois as a groundbreaking social scientist who pioneered the gathering of empirical data to studying racism in Philadelphia in 1897. Finally, Auerbach will address the question, “Can the hard sciences contribute to solving the problems of racism?”

Auerbach’s interest in the link between science and human diversity stems from his role as the founding director of the UMass iCons program, which teaches STEM-field undergraduates to use human diversity as a problem-solving tool by honing advanced communication and collaboration skills. Auerbach’s interest in the connection between science and racism is relatively new, and is intensified by the death of George Floyd and the militarized responses to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“These events made it clear to me just how deeply white supremacy is soaked into the systems and structures of society – helping some people while hurting others,” says Auerbach. “This plenary lecture is a special opportunity to launch a personal journey of reflection and activism to fight racism anywhere we can.”

Auerbach admits the rarity of having a white person in the hard sciences lecturing on racism. “I hope that putting myself out there in this way sends the message to our students that racism is an important topic for each and every person, regardless of what you look like and what you study,” he says.

Auerbach’s chemistry research focuses on modeling nanostructured materials, such as zeolites, which is important to renewable energy technologies including biofuels and fuel cells. He has published two books and 120 peer-reviewed articles on zeolites and their applications.

The Commonwealth Honors College Plenary Lecture is an annual event that features thought leaders from across the spectrum of UMass Amherst faculty. The lecture is also connected to the Honors course “Ideas That Changed the World,” an interdisciplinary seminar course for first-year Honors students that investigates change makers in history and their big ideas.