Episode 72: Diversity (or lack thereof) in STEM

In this episode, listen to Dr Bahijja follow up with Dr Faith Uwadiae from episode 71, as they discuss the ongoing issue of lack of diversity in STEM fields and research. If you are interested in hearing more about Dr Faith Uwadiae’s life and research, check out episode 71 of the Monday Science Podcast.

Photo of vaccine handling by National Cancer Institute.

Dr Bahijja: Previously you have worked on campaigns surrounding diversity and the inclusion/visibility of Black scientists in STEM and you gained quite a bit of traction — how was that experience for you?

Dr Faith: It was a very interesting time in my life — when I published that first post, I was just in the process of finishing my PhD and handing in my thesis. I was at a period in my life where I wanted to do a post-doc, but I was wondering “why is there nobody who looks like me [in this line of work]?” and “who can I talk to about this?”. It kind of led me to feeling like “can [I] go into this field of work?”, as [I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me in that field and it kind of makes you wonder if there is a reason you don’t see many Black professionals in STEM].

At this time, I really wanted to do my own research, as I couldn’t see any of this information that was easily available. I wanted to keep myself accountable, and so I decided to tweet on my progress on this project every single day to keep myself on task. Not only did a lot of people really enjoy this project, but I also met a huge number of Black scientists that I didn’t know about before. I was able to create a network, even within my own University, who I had never heard of before. […] From this project, I have been able to meet so many scientists who are Black, and gotten involved in some amazing projects as well — it has been a great experience.

Dr Bahijja: With visibility, that word has so many facets. There is the individual level, but also the institutional level, where all aspects of the faculty are being showcased all around. There is a lot of talk around promotional photographs for organisations and diversity, but when it comes to the ins and outs, there isn’t much diversity in the staffing, in academia in general.

Dr Faith: It really is like that — theres this tokenism [like you mentioned in promotional images], where its like “I need you now, come to the front”. While I really would like to attract more people like me to my organisation and STEM fields through those photos, I also feel like I shouldn’t have to pose for those pictures. I remember a colleague from New Zealand had told me based on these [promotional images, they were expecting my work to be a lot more diverse] — the reality behind the door is not the same.

Dr Bahijja: It’s a conversation is always ongoing. We need to make sure that organisations are reflecting the actual diversity of their workplace, as it can affect employment choices. On that point, what do you think are the most important actions we can take moving forwards in STEM to promote diversity?

Dr Faith: Its such an interesting question, especially in the time we are in right now. A lot of people have suddenly become hyperaware of race — we can see it in the statements put out my companies and universities recently. Beyond the statements though, people need to look behind the scenes and go “what are the specific problems we are facing here?”, instead of just doing promotional campaigns. Organisations need to focus on impactful, long term solutions. Like at the Crick, they did a focus group on race and created a report, and based on that they’ve made some recommendations.

Additionally, there is the issue in the STEM “pipline”. We know that undergraduate students are very well represented and usually there is a ton of diversity in STEM undergraduate programs. Like as a Nigerian, we go hard into STEM and respect those career paths — but how many of these undergrads go on to complete a masters or a PhD in those subjects? Additionally, when we see employment or post-doc selection, people are often recruiting from more well-known established universities, that are less diverse. If you are always looking from that same small pool of students, you will always be recruiting a less diverse group of researchers. People need to think, are you providing mentorship? Are you supporting these students with funding or employment? Are systems put in place to support these students? We really need to tailor these solutions to the unique situations students are in.

People need to start thinking about what they have to power to change based on their position, and ask what is “what is my sphere of influence?”. For example, when doing interviews, try to look at all the candidates, instead of the friend of the friend you already know. If all of your employees look the same or have the same cultural/ethnic background, ask yourself why.

Dr Bahijja: Last year was a lot for me and many other Black people, with a lot of triggering content. I found it hard to talk about race and the impact of just living and working as myself — but everyone wanted me to talk about my experiences. There were so many accurate points in what you said that resonated with me. Fairness is important, but people need to make sure its not just another box being ticked off. I hope all the energy towards doing something actually goes into action, to creating fairer and safer workplaces.

People don’t realise how stressful and triggering it can be to just talk about race, with all of the statistics and the silencing of Black people in “BAME” — I am not a huge fan of the acronym BAME anyways. When you break it down, how are Black people being treated in organisations and what is the progression like beyond undergraduate programs? When you go far up the academic ladder, you see fewer and fewer Black professionals and researchers. On top of the day job, Black professionals also have to deal with racism, micro aggressions (that people are often unaware they are doing) — and sometimes you don’t have the energy for anything else when you are constantly protecting and defending yourself.

Dr Bahijja: When you really look into the diversity in my field, there are only two Black professor of Pharmaceutics in the UK. I used to follow her career and when I got the opportunity to meet her at UCL, she was amazing, but still, fewer of 1% of university professors being black. Why do you think this issue is important to talk about?

Dr Faith: It’s just so important! When you think of this statistic, that there are so few Black professors, it’s honestly just very saddening. When I think back to when I was thinking of going into my PhD, and there was nobody there, that is a huge deterrent. If there are people like you in these high up positions, its easy as a young person to envision your future and career trajectory. People say “you can only be what you can see”, and while you can of course become something you can’t see, it’s just significantly harder.

It’s also important for science, you know, talking about research, topics like sickle cell anaemia is incredibly understudied — likely because it is predominantly affecting Black and African populations. If you have people around you suffering from or who are more aware of conditions like this, or issues faced in other countries, then the whole scientific community and the world could benefit from it. Diversity of people brings diversity of thought, and that is really how we progress as a society and as researchers.

Image of a technician at the National Cancer Institute.

Dr Bahijja: What would be your advice, especially for young Black scientists, interested in going into STEM or your own field of study, immunology?

Dr Faith: I always say this, but really catch and go for every opportunity. Its just a good idea. When I was younger and applying to University, I applied to King’s, Queen Mary, and two non-Russel group universities. I didn’t apply to UCL or other universities, even though I had the grades, because I thought “thats a bit too much”. Sometimes you just need to take opportunities — the worst outcome is people will say no. Don’t underestimate yourself.

Additionally, if you are interested in a job, look for people in that field and look at what they did — what was their career trajectory, etc. Use that information to guide your own choices. Mentorship is also very important, and a mentor doesn’t need to necessarily be Black, in the case of Black scientists, but they should be able to advocate for you and care about your career progression.

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An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.