Many of you who have seen my videos or heard me deliver a speech know that I feel like I was born a scientist. I always wanted to know how things worked.
Aside from that inherent, gut feeling that I was destined for this career path, I was fortunate to grow up watching Al Roker deliver the weather on The Today Show. I saw a wonderful example of a Black professional excelling in the field of science. Though I didn’t have aspirations to be a meteorologist like Al, I did see that a STEM career was possible for someone like me, because of his visibility and popularity on television. I became interested in climate change and environmental science after watching him, which is really how my STEM education began.
It’s vital to the future of STEM that each and every aspiring scientist, technologist, engineer and mathematician also “see” themselves in their heroes.
Inclusivity in Entertainment
The entertainment industry has long been criticized for its lack of diversity and is now enacting inclusivity clauses and other protocols to ensure that representation reflects more of our actual society.
Honestly, before the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton arrived in 2016, can you remember any big productions, films or television shows that had Black, Asian, Hispanic or Indigenous actors playing traditionally white roles? Or how about what type of roles the minority actors were playing when they were cast? Sadly, many of the characters played into stereotypes about an ethnic group or gender or sexual identity that weren’t always the kindest representations.
I recently had the pleasure of appearing on a leadership panel with actor/rapper extraordinaire, Method Man. In his acting career, he’s trail-blazed with several of his characters, portraying everything from an undercover cop to a business mogul. In his remarks at our event, he emphasized how he hoped that young people could be inspired by roles that he portrays, reiterating that if they can see themselves in those careers or positions, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to go for it.
How does this apply to the STEM community?
Every child and young adult watches TV or reads books, views YouTube videos or plays video games, no matter what they’re studying in school. Through all of these mediums there are opportunities for STEM professionals to be represented.
As STEM professionals, we can also represent ourselves in our daily jobs. We can participate in career days for young people; we can speak at events where students may not be aware of the types of STEM jobs that are part of nearly every organization on the planet!
The more we make the scientific community a fun, welcoming place and express ourselves in creative ways, the more likely younger generations will develop a connection to the work and consider a future career in STEM.
Why is representation so important?
One of my toughest experiences happened right after I’d started a position at a community college. On my first day, in fact.
As I tried to enter the mailroom, one of my colleagues who hadn’t seen me before (because it was my first day) decided that she was going to call the police and have me arrested. She actually physically tried to block me from entering.
Once I got into the room, I began looking for my mailbox. Since I didn’t know immediately where it was, this same woman asked me for my photo identification, which I provided. It was my faculty identification, which had the school, my name, my photo, the year, my position and my department. Everything she could have possibly needed to validate my presence in that room.
But that still wasn’t enough for her.
She accused me of having a fake ID because she told me that I didn’t look like a scientist and that I didn’t belong there.
So here I am in a new position that I’m perfectly qualified for, excited to be a part of—in the field of my expertise—and I’m being made to feel like I don’t belong, though I have just as much of a right to be there as my colleagues who are a different color or different gender than me.
Thankfully, another staff member was able to identify me in that situation and no police were called, but the incident caused me to enter a period of reflection to learn why this pattern kept happening. And what I learned from other scientists’ research is that for decades when people have been asked to draw or describe what they think a scientist looks like, most people conjure up an image of a white man.
Obviously, I am not a white man. I am a Black woman. I am a Black Female Scientist. And I’m not the only one.
Let’s work together in the arts and media to help society change those perceptions.
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Photo Credit: Me with Method Man (Personal Collection)