Leadership and Culture
February 9, 2021

Black Women in Science

Written By:
Renée Christie

Throughout history, Black women have made ground-breaking advancements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, defying the odds to build lasting legacies and inspire future generations. But we need significantly more Black #WomenInScience to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In addition to Black History Month, which celebrates the achievements of Black people, February 11th marks the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science where we are celebrating Terramera women who are pushing boundaries to transform our world for the better, and inspiring other women to do the same.

Meet Renée, Research Associate at our laboratory in Vancouver

Renée Christie, Terramera Research Associate working at our research lab in Vancouver

I am Black woman in science. I grew up in Jamaica where I saw different races and genders represented in our leaders and witnessed Portia Simpson-Miller serve as our country’s first female Prime Minister. I did not have to look far to see myself in the pioneers and role models before me.

When I moved to Canada to study my post-undergraduate, I was shocked to be one of few Black persons in my classes or at conferences. I stood out like a bacterial contaminant on a fungal plate.

It is often challenging navigating the field of science being a woman. For me, the challenge is doubled: not only am I a woman—I am Black. I have often felt isolated by unfamiliarity.

History of Black women in science

Many important women, particularly Black women , have been left out of our history books and our textbooks, regardless of their ground-breaking discoveries in science. From Dr. Gladys West who was responsible for the mathematics that brought about the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to Katherine Johnson who completed the NASA calculations necessary for the infamous 1969 moon landing—we are only just starting to celebrate courageous, inventive, and aspirational Black women.

Underrepresentation of Black women in science

Black women’s participation in science is key for innovation and solving global economic and societal issues, however, we are dramatically underrepresented in the field and in the media.

In the US, only 2.9% of Black women completed a degree in the STEM. In the workplace, we experience the dual biases of our work environments, which is often enough to push us away from our chosen career path. Scientific American discovered that 45% of women in STEM leave their jobs because they feel underpaid and underrepresented. The result is fewer Black women in the booming high-paying industry, fewer role models to inspire the next generation and fewer brilliant minds working to solve world-scale challenges.

Our opportunities are limited, and our voices and contributions are not sufficiently amplified in the media and the field.

We do not see representations of Black woman scientists in the media. But thanks to the challenges of 2020, the world was introduced to Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a Black female viral immunologist, at the forefront of the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. I am inspired by her work and visibility; I can only imagine how many young girls she has inspired to be scientists by seeing and hearing her on television. Representation matters.

Renée Christie, Terramera Research Associate conducting research in our biosafety cabinet

We need more Black leaders in science

Black or White, it is true for all of us — we rely on stories, examples, leaders, images or media to inform our identity and our potential. Without these, we are left unaware and unable to be that which we cannot see.

I recall my first conference in Canada where I was one of two black people. I thought to myself:

“Where are the Black scientists? Is it that Black scientists are not studying plants and their interaction with the environment? Are they concentrated in other fields?”

A few months later, I attended a soil health conference where a Black scientist was on a panel. That moment was, and still is, the highlight of the conference.

I had the same ecstatic feeling when I joined the team at Terramera. It was the first time since I have been in Canada, both academically and professionally, where my leader was Black. Finally! Someone who understands the nuances of being a Black person in a white space. It created a sense of belonging and served as a reminder: we are here doing important work for the advancement of the scientific field.

The importance of having a Black manager became even more clear last year as the world watched the US confront its long history of systemic racism, police brutality and the murder of Black people. My manager took the time to query how the pandemic, racial events and my work as a scientist was affecting me—I underestimated the toll it was taking on my mental health until I allowed myself to recognize the magnitude of what was happening.

Ways to support Black women in science

I empathize with the young girls who like science but are either not encouraged to pursue their passion, or do not see themselves represented in the field. Many students from as early as primary school are deterred from taking science courses due to biases and limiting barriers—from discouragement from teachers and advisors to the types of words used to describe scientists—these subtle and obvious biases contribute to a lack of representation.

Many solutions are needed to ensure more inclusive representation, however, there are steps we can take to celebrate Black women, educate ourselves and become a true ally.

1.    Celebrate Black scientists in the media and on social media

A highlight of 2020 is the birth of #BlackInStem week on Twitter, this campaign by Black scientists confirmed what I knew: Black scientists are represented in diverse fields of science—we just need to celebrate them. This campaign was born out of the stereotyping of a Black birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park and highlighted the challenges of being a Black scientist in the field. Let’s start amplifying the amazing work of Black scientists.

2.    Know the value of direct and indirect mentorship

Mentorship is a two-way learning street and is a tangible and meaningful way of decolonising science and becoming aware of harmful biases, while encouraging the next generation of scientists. You do not have to be Black to mentor aspiring or young scientists. My MSc advisor is White and she has supported me as a young Black, woman scientist by listening to my thoughts and by providing me with resources. For example, she advises me of seminars, workshops, interviews, articles, and lectures that feature Black scientists. I would encourage scientists to mentor other scientists, even if the way you navigate scientific spaces is different.

3.    Invest time into self-directed learning

As a minority, there is an unspoken expectation to do the emotional and physical labour of teaching the majority on how to navigate Black issues. I not only have to focus on my role as a woman scientist, but on the conscious and unconscious biases of others. By investing time into learning about what White privilege really means, recognizing unconscious biases, learning the history of systemic racism and becoming a true ally—we can start taking action that will enable systemic change.

Inspirational Black women

Black women have, and continue to, make incredible contributions to science that will help transform our world for the better. Here are some Black women I am inspired by:

- Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a Black female scientist at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development.

- Maydianne Andrade is a Jamaican-born Canadian ecologist known for her work on the mating habits of spiders, in particular spiders belonging to the Latrodectus species.

Join the conversation #WomenInScience

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