Science has been and, sadly continues to be, grossly racist and discriminatory. It might seem a long distant past where black bodies were inappropriately used for science, see the story of Henrietta Lacks for example. Unfortunately, some well-known and influential individuals in the science arena continues to feed the narrative of differences between races, despite the American Society of Human Genetics states that any attempt to use genetics as scientific evidence and set differences between races shows a profound misunderstanding of the discipline.
One of the many well-known figures who grossly misunderstood human genetics is James Watson who, among the many claims he made, was also 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! So how come he made it all the way up to the most prestigious award that every scientists dream of? Probably because Rosalind Franklin produced the crucial piece of evidence that 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 made a small collection of past and modern back scientists who made cracking contributions to science. Diversity and inclusions are important topics and highlighting the people who gave contribution to science is the duty of every scientists. As every football fan knows who won the FIFA World Cup in 1990, every science fan should know who made historical contributions to their field and others if possible. This isn’t only about visibility, representation and creating role models. It’s 2023, we live in the digital world where there’s no longer any barrier to knowledge and flow of information. Honestly, after covid, war in Ukraine, world worst inflation of the century, there’s no more space for ignorance, unconscious bias and discriminatory remarks.
It’s 2023 babes, there’s no more space for ignorance, unconscious bias and discriminatory remarks!
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, the mathematician who calculated the 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 Centre in Hampton, Virginia. I won’t spoil the plot of the book, but it is really a must-a-read for everyone who feel like they don’t belong and struggle to exists in heavily white male dominated space like science.
Last February, I came across the Kevin Hart’s guide to black history month, documentary available on Netflix! 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.
More reading: Sophie Okolo, scientist, advocate and longevity advocate
50 Black women in STEM you should know about
DISCLAIMER: I decided to write this article for Black History month back in 2019. I am revising my old content and see how I can improve it with the knowledge I have 4 years later. I came to the idea that people should be celebrated every day and not only on a few days set by society to remember the value and contribution. I hate the idea of women’s day, this and that other people day, because it only adds up to the pile of discrimination that certain categories of people face every day. Intersectionality is the life and everyday struggle of people, not marketing material to show off that you know what’s going on in the world. As usual unpopular opinions, views and unsolicited comments are my own! Feel free to disagree but this is a space I created to share my opinions always and forever. Peace out!