Why We Need to Learn More About Black People in STEM

by Faith Uwadiae

We all need to learn more about black people in STEM. Every day throughout Black History Month 2018 I have been highlighting a Black Scientist, Clinician or Inventor on my Twitter account.

The great Katherine Johnson and Denis Mukwege

If you type the word “scientist” into Google your screen is awash with the successes of White men. If you refine your search to “Black scientist”, you discover stories of African American scientists that you probably were not taught about in school. If you further narrow this search to “Black British scientists” Google spits out maybe 10 names at most, and then if you dare to Google “Black British female scientist” like I did a couple of months ago, you will be disheartened by the limited results. As a Black British female scientist completing a PhD, it was not exactly uplifting, but do not be fooled into believing this is because we do not exist.

All these searches resulted from a conversation with one of my PhD supervisors about the state of the academic system, where we also discussed the lack of Black scientists. Again, I asked myself the question I have asked myself over 100 times; why are there so few Black scientists? In my scientific career to date, I had met a few Black PhD students and research technicians/assistants, maybe one Black postdoctoral scientist, but until recently no fully fledged Black academics or Fellows. Sadly, I still have never been lectured by a Black scientist, which is probably not surprising when you discover that in 2016/17 out of 19,000 UK Professors, only 100 were Black.

What happened?
I decided in September this year that I needed to educate myself about Black people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Consequently, I began discovering all these amazing stories of scientists, clinicians and inventors that I had never been taught about in school. To encourage me to keep learning and with Black History Month around the corner I decided I would highlight a story a day on my Twitter account during October, thereby keeping me accountable while disseminating my findings to my few Twitter followers.

I sent the first tweet at around 9:30 on October 1st, the same day I was submitting my PhD thesis, so maybe not the best timing. From that moment onwards my phone kept buzzing, with people retweeting and liking the post and overnight I gained 1000’s of followers. This was obviously exciting but it emphasised to me how much people cared and needed to hear about these stories. I received so many tweets of encouragement, tweets from school teachers mentioning how invaluable a resource this would be and many, many suggestions of people to feature.

I realised there are so many amazing Black people in STEM that we never hear about, both from the past and the present day. It was important to me to highlight scientists, from a range of disciplines, and not just the US but also the UK and African countries.  I chose people who impressed me, from Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, a Professor of Nursing, whom helped set up a sickle cell and thalassaemia screening program in Brent, London, to Professor Faith Osier, an immunologist working on a malaria vaccine. I mentioned not just academic scientists but also NHS diagnostic scientists like Michelle Martin, a range of mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson and Nira Chamberlain, and inventors such as Lonnie Johnson. By the end of the month I would have tweeted 31 names, but I honestly have another 40 plus names that could not be included in the list such as Miranda Lowe, a curator at the National History Museum, technology giants Herman Chinery-Hesse, Philip Emeagwali and Kimberly Bryant, and the amazing engineer Ozak Esu.

For me, one of the best parts of this month has been suddenly uncovering this community of Black scientists on Twitter and discovering accounts like @whynotdoc, @MinoritySTEM and Black British in STEM which focus on promoting people of colour in STEM all year around. Altogether, encouraging me to believe that becoming a successful Black scientist is an achievable goal. 

What next?
Yes, Black scientists are heavily underrepresented in all areas of STEM but we do exist. If I as a PhD student in STEM can suffer so badly from a complete lack of role models, how does a young kid not exposed to STEM on a daily basis feel confident that this is an environment for them? We need to make more effort to make sure Black STEM stories are mentioned in school. The same way I was sad that I had to continuously learn about the World Wars and the Tudors but never about the impact of the British Empire or UK race relations, we need to do better for the next generation.

Although universities are starting to discuss the importance of racial diversity in STEM, we need to make sure that this is more than a simple tick box exercise. Hopefully, the introduction of the Race Equality Charter will make a difference because it is not just about getting people through the door, but creating an environment that allows retention. We need to focus on funding scientists trying to push outreach programs for school children, such as Dr Sunday Popo-Ola’s Creative Future’s Initiative and back people like Jess Wade (@Jesswade) writing Wikipedia pages for underrepresented scientists, including people of colour. More than anything although my posts are useful, teaching about Black scientists, clinicians and inventors needs to be more than a Black History Month issue, as it is too important to simply restrict to one month a year.

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Faith Uwadiae is a final year PhD student at Imperial College London as part of the National Heart and Lung Unit. She obtained a Masters in biomedical research and her interest lie in B and T cell interactions during disease. You can follow her on Twitter at at @faith_uwadiae.

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