The American Society of Human Genetics states that any attempt to use genetics as scientific evidence to set differences between races shows a profound misunderstanding of this discipline. So, how come James Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Genetics? This person affirmed that he was inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – where all the testing says not really! Probably because Rosalind Franklin produced the crucial piece of evidence which allowed to sort out the structure of DNA and he took the merit for it? For this statement, he lost his job in 2007 and very recently he was stripped of several honorary titles by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York, which he once headed.
I want this article to be a tribute to the history of black women and men in science so, I will spare the sad stories and only talk about the cracking contributions than our black/brown brothers and sisters gave to science. Why it is important to give visibility and talk about diversity in STEM? Because we need role models and someone to look up to when we think we don’t belong to science. Personally, I don’t know many black folks in STEM, and this isn’t because they didn’t give any contribution to science. The system has consistently segregated them and prevent them from succeeding in STEM and society really.
I recently started reading the book Hidden Figures – The Untold Story of African American Women who Helped Win the Space Race. The book tells the story of the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race (Cold War time). It features Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions; Octavia Spencer, NASA supervisor, mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and NASA engineer Mary Jackson. They all worked in the gender and racially segregated division of the West Area Computers at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. I won’t spoil the plot of the book, but it is really a must-a-read one for everyone who needs to identify themselves in science and needs empowerment. This is a snap from the homonymous film based on the book.
People might think that I am running late to the party of Black History Month. Personally, I don’t think so because minorities in STEM should be celebrated every day and not only on a few days set by society to remember the value and contribution. Additionally, in my opinion, it’s everyone’s job to build a more equal and diverse society accessible to everyone!
Last February, I came across the Kevin Hart’s guide to black history month, if you haven’t done it yet go watch it on Netflix right now! The documentary is a tribute to the heroism of some of the more under-appreciated figures in history that challenged racial intolerance in hopes of advancing equality. Some of the figures highlighted in the movie are:
1. Dr Vivien Thomas, an American medical doctor who helped develop a procedure used to treat blue baby syndrome (now known as cyanotic heart disease) in the 1940s. Without any education past high school, Thomas rose above poverty and racism to become a cardiac surgery pioneer and a teacher of operative techniques to many of the USA most prominent surgeons. In 1976 he was awarded an honorary doctorate and named an instructor of surgery for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
2. Dr Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space. She graduated from medical school and became an astronaut at NASA. She then left NASA and founded a company researching the application of technology to daily life. She has appeared on television several times, including as an actress in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is a dancer and holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities. She is the current principal of the 100 Year Starship organization.
Visibility is key in addressing this underrepresentation in STEAM, given that it’s one of the main reason’s minorities tend to shy away from science.
“In previous talks, I have given, I have described myself as a minority squared. I am a minority in a minority, that is: a woman in a male-dominated field, but a woman that is of colour” says Meriame Berboucha, a laser physicist at SLAC, California and freelance science writer for Forbes. She wrote a great article on occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in science telling her story in the hope to inspire the younger generation. “Growing up I didn’t have many female role models and as a result, I wanted to be that female role model for others. So I set myself goal of being that female role model of colour for other people like myself growing up and wanting to have a career in a male-dominated field.”
Rukia Henry is a 1st year PhD doing research on breast cancer. Rukia was also awarded the nomination of Heroines of STEM this year for being a role model for women of colour in STEM. Rukia says: “There weren’t a lot of women of colour that I know obtaining their PhD, but I do believe that attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and being surrounded by women with the same aspirations like me encouraged me to pursue my PhD. I initially wanted to become a medical doctor because growing up, I observed that there were some medical disparities in Guyana that I wanted to address. When I was introduced to the world of research, it became apparent that the things I wanted to fix, that curing such disease would mean understanding them first!
Like many passionate scientists, I want to have an impactful career. As a graduate student, I have had many opportunities that have challenged me and helped me grow and discover the potential I have as a leader. I’m slowly gaining confidence in using my voice to promote diversity inclusion and retention in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), serving in my best capacity as an agent of change. These opportunities provide a platform for increased visibility as a 1st-generation LatinX LGBTQ+ scientist and activist. Visibility is key in addressing this underrepresentation in STEAM, given that it’s one of the main reason’s minorities tend to shy away from science. The lack of role models and the perception that scientific careers aren’t suitable for minorities are prevalent misconceptions. What better way to break down these stereotypes than to see minorities like me talk about our experiences as scientists? I have always been passionate about diversity and inclusion and I am hopeful that these efforts impact the future scientific leaders, helping to bridge this gap in STEAM. Jean Rivera, 4th year PhD candidate in Neuroscience in New York.