Q&A: Corlis Murray discusses diversity in STEM

Nov. 13, 2018, 12:14 a.m.

Corlis Murray is senior vice president of quality assurance, regulatory and engineering services at the American healthcare company Abbott. Murray has been a vocal advocate for exposing young people to STEM early in life, as well as a proponent of more diversity in the field. Before she joined Abbott, she worked for Recognition Equipment and Xerox.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): After you left Recognition Equipment and Xerox, why did you choose to work for Abbott?

Corlis Murray (CM): I wanted to be a part of something bigger than I felt I had been. I cherished the experiences that I got at Xerox and Recognition, because they laid the foundation for everything that would happen after that for me and my career. I joined the diagnostics business initially at Abbott, and there were so many things going on at that time. I was at a point in my career where I was approaching nine years having worked as an engineer. I wanted to understand, ‘What more could I do?’ Abbott, honestly, provided that opportunity before me, and the rest is history. I’ve always embraced the complexity of the company, the values, the foundation and the fundamental principles that the organization has always stood for. When I started looking at my own life philosophies, there are such alignments there that I think I’ve been able to go well above and beyond [my goals].

TSD: Why do you think diversity — such as in race, gender or sexuality — is important to STEM, for both moral and practical reasons?

CM: Diversity is critically important to STEM because the reality is the markets that we operate in are diverse. The people making buying decisions are diverse. So one of the best ways to continue to foster creativity and innovation is diverse minds. And so I think it is central to be able to drive the critical thinking. The creativity and innovation is needed for this breakthrough technology by bringing the power of these various minds together.

There is a thought going on in various committees about what will be the most [relevant] in the future — STEM or liberal arts. The reality is, you need both. You need critical thinkers in the liberal arts, and you absolutely need critical thinkers in STEM professionals.

TSD: People of color, women and other marginalized communities often face speculation about their success in STEM. The general stigma is something along the lines of attributing their newfound position in the company to fulfilling a diversity quota. The same sentiment goes for college acceptance culture. What’s your opinion on this?

CM: Over the course of my my career, especially early on in my career, I [received] those types of comments, but my personality, and what I encourage my protégés to do, is [that] when people cast doubt and a grey cloud over you, it’s up to you to determine if you allow that grey cloud to consume you. Your option is to to push it away. Your option is to remind yourself that you have as much right to success as anyone else, and I fundamentally believe that if you keep that in your heart and you allow that to be your inner driver, then you will keep pressing to do those things that you know you’re capable of doing. It does not mean that you’re not going to run into blocks from time to time, or as I like to refer to them, pebbles. Some are real, some are perceived, some are self-induced. You’ve got to be able to decipher which is which.

When you start looking at diversity in STEM, for those of us that happen to be female, that happen to be minority, why would you get out, as opposed to finding ways to fight harder, to be able to earn the right to do those things that you are capable of doing?

TSD: You work frequently with young people. How do you hope to impact them?

CM: I hope that I’m already impacting them over a number of years. And I hope that they would look back. I guess the biggest compliment for me is when I look and see the trail of young people that they’ve impacted. We have a responsibility to help pave the way for those that will come behind them, just as … people are paving the way for you, even when you don’t know that they are. So we have an obligation and responsibility to help make a difference. So [the way I] can impact them would be looking at them, seeing them achieve what they aspire to in life, and … saying: ‘Who have they reached back to help?’ They’ve impacted me because they motivate me to want to do more and do better and be better.

TSD: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced –– either a math problem or problems in the workplace?

CM: I’ve had some hard math problems. I struggled with Calculus 2 because my instructor was extremely difficult. I had an ability to look at certain problems and mentally calculate it. Especially during those days, you had to show all your work, because how would they know otherwise that you really understood.

I wasn’t doing as well in that class [as I] should have been capable of doing. I went to the tutoring classes. The professor [there] said, ‘You understand this. Why are you in here?’ I’m not doing as well on tests. So I must need help. And so he started talking to me, and as we were going through it, I [realized I] had a mental block when I would start taking my exam. But [it] wasn’t the math; the mental block was my professor; I was afraid of [him]. Once I learned to see him as a soft cloud of cookies, I could sort of look at him differently. And I was able to do my math.

TSD: What advice would you give to young girls who may be doubting their own abilities?

CM: Be reminded that most everything is manageable. I know that’s how I get [to my goals]. It’s going to ebb and flow sometimes, and I’ve got to have a level of agility, but also have to be willing to suffer. Sometimes, some of the things that we experience, it’s not all done unto us. There are times when we need to make adjustments and be able to self-reflect and self-evaluate, to see what might we do differently.

The other thing that I learned along the way is that I don’t have the ability to change anyone, but I do have the ability to help influence the interaction between us. I can’t control you, but I can improve how we are able to communicate so that we can get this project done. Then I just think: ‘Okay, how can I modify myself to be able to help with this relationship, be [it] temporary or long-term, so that we can achieve the things that we want to do?’

TSD: How do you manage the coexistence of your personal life and your work life?

CM: I have a wonderful husband who has been a part of my entire professional life. There was a period where he stated [he would be able] to help take care of [my] boys so that they were getting everything that they needed. I try, even in high project load times, to protect weekends. We have to keep in mind that I started my career before smartphones and laptops, so I was able to take [the] drawings [of the products] home sometimes, and I would be able to work at home, or if I had to go back in the office late, I would do that … once they had been put to bed. I’ve never really missed a major event that my kids were engaged in.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Sarah Feng at sarahfeng55 ‘at’ gmail.com

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