My first Keynote as a Newly Minted Ph.D. & Corporate D & I Professional
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
Since joining Genentech, I have been exposed to a myriad of STEM programs ran by resident scientists. One in particular, NexGeneGirls, which “provides opportunities for young girls of color from low-income communities to participate in the scientific processes through fun, hands-on science activities, [and] lab experiments,” is closest to the work I am doing internally as well as my own social justice crusade for scientific equality & inclusion.
I had the chance encounter of meeting NexGeneGirls’ founder, Marlena Jackson, during one of the girls’ visits to the Genentech campus. As the young women are only a few years away from being eligible to apply for an internship at Genentech (and, elsewhere), it became apparent that my current work around the intersection of D & I and development/retention had intended outcomes greater than the present workforce. The work we as D & I professionals do now is setting the next generation of scientists and engineers up for access and success.
While I have given many research presentations, this was my first time being able to leverage my social science and historical knowledge to craft a message to the very population that is always the subject of “underrepresented talent.” And, less often foregrounded in a way that demonstrates their potential through a lens of the centuries long accomplishments of Black and Brown scientists. Asked what I would say to young Black and Brown scientists about D & I and STEM, my ruminations led me to the ancient Africa and the Mayan/Aztec civilizations. Read a transcript of my Keynote below to see exactly what that entailed…
Aside from the fact that I was probably a cartographer in another life, why do you think I have a map of ancient Africa and Mesoamerica here?
I could stand up here and talk to you about how hard it is for women or people of color in science because trials and tribulations are the definition of Black and Brown folks existence in this country, riiight? And, any contributions beyond our downtrodden structural realities are mere anomalies to be celebrated, riiight?
Well, that is the dominant narrative about Black and Brown American scientists because it stems from a history that was not written from your vantage point. We know the numbers are low. We know why the numbers are low, which is attributed to racial disparities in our K-12 Education system that stratifies who has access to college preparatory classes, who takes AP STEM exams, and who passes them.
We know all too well that it is no coincidence that Black and Latinx students are less likely to attend high schools that offer advanced courses in Physics and Calculus, for example, which is astounding when 69% of public high schools offer AP courses. And, for the Black and Latinx students who have access to AP courses, they are less likely to participate in those courses or take an AP exam (U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights, 2014).
But, what message does it send about your future possibilities and contributions for me to reiterate the dominant narrative? So this evening, while I have the attention of our next generation of scientists, I choose to feed your mind with information that affirms your worth, value, and need in science for you’ve been told everything but that.
Instead, I choose to change the narrative. I will discuss your current and future accomplishments alongside others in a very deep history that spans thousands of years ago. Black and Brown scientific interventions have been edited to make it seem as though all the scientists are white men and its subjects are people of color. And, our contributions as scientists are somehow “special” by being selected as the “few” who can make into “their world.”
So, I begin with the origins of scientific innovations in Africa and Ancient Maya to:
1) debunk the myth that Black and Brown folks are not interested in STEM. And, clearly you are because you are here, and the data says it to also true, but many lack the resources to cultivate and sustain that interest, and
2) to demonstrate how your contributions to science are more than a noteworthy anomaly — as it was then and certainly now.
For African descendants, whether it was the creation of a numeric system by Yourba people to chartering the movement of the sun and cycles of the moon to tool making to then using these tools to build environments to engineering palliative medicines from plant extracts to developing navigation systems to trade with inhabitants of South America and Asia — most happening in the era BC.
And, in the Western Hemisphere, the indigenous peoples of what is now parts of Latin America, created many scientific innovations between about 300 A.D. and 900 A.D., using astrological cycles to develop calendars, discovering that rubber products could be made from a combination of the rubber tree and other plant extracts, as well as creating a system of counting that enabled them to calculate area and width.
In this sense, science emanated from Black and Brown civilizations. And, has since been expanded (and, some may even argue colonized) by other civilizations. Allow me to repeat this fact: Science emanated from Black and Brown civilizations. And, has since been expanded (and, some may even argue colonized) by other civilizations. So do not allow your curiosities to succumb to the revisionist history that marginalizes your capacities to do science as a person of color. Scientific discovery has always been diverse.
Consider this: “If the first hue-man was African, then how is it that scientific history — as we are taught it, at least — begins with Greek and Roman history? Well, one answer, as a family friend put it is that “Science is so deeply saturated with the myth of white supremacy that even our cells have been colonized.”
To this point, our consumption of STEM pioneer history paints a portrait of obscurity and budding “firsts.” In the American context, as women of color, we have been purposefully excluded from science because we were the subject. Whether it was examining the labia and “enlarged” buttocks of Sara Bartmaan or Samuel George Morton who used the science of craniometry to justify white superiority or Dr. Marion who was considered the Father of Genecology, in which he was bestowed this title by practicing on enslaved women without anesthesia — whether it was delivering babies to performing hysterectomies.
So, I want you to remember these things as you continue to read the Immortal Life of Henritta Lacks, realizing that some of the contributions your ancestors made to science were unknowingly and forcefully done (as in the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments — the reason we know about the natural progression of syphilis is because those Black men were purposefully injected with syphilis. And, the very reason we learned how to manufacture effective, non-life threatening birth control was at the risk of Puerto Rican women’s lives). They were all preyed upon, non-consenting participants. We were the subject! We were never the investigator. But, the tables are turning in that sense.
So, it is not just about gaining access to STEM education, but it is through gaining access to a field from which we have been systematically excluded that we are also affirming our humanity as we move from being the subject to being the scientist and investigator. We really have to name that.
We have always been a part of science — what do you think midwifery is? What do you think the herb women are? They are scientists. They are doing medicine. They use the chemical properties of plants to heal. And, as many of you have taken the summer to do cancer and autism research, like your ancestors, you too are seeking cures for ailments with the technological advancements available to you at this historical moment. I mean what we call aspirin is nothing more than willow bark.
So, we cannot forget that our cultures are just chalked full with scientists. As my friend, a Black female doctor in training, says, “Scientists just don’t wear white coats and glasses, they also wore headscarves and a house dress.” They were helping to deliver babies, cure sick community members, you name it. Know this: science is in our blood. And, we as people of color, have to learn to embrace that. Just because mainstream renditions of science have not recognized our contributions, does not mean that we were not there.
The contributions from our stolen cells, untreated diseases, and ignored side effects of clinical trails nonetheless have fundamentally changed how we do science and what we know. But, in 2017, I want you to imagine yourself on the other side of the lab table making history on your own terms. We are taught to consume history, and often without challenge. But, you, believe or not, are agents and can create history as you have been doing. You are not merely the “first,” or an outlier, or at worst, the subject of medicine, but you are and have always been its innovators!
Do not be defined by what you consume about your potential as a scientist. Our forbearers didn’t:
Just think, we might have never made it to the moon — and mostly importantly back — without the genius of Katherine Johnson, or linked Yellow Fever to mosquitos without the cultural perspective of Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Juan Finaly, which has effectively saved millions of lives, or performed classical music in space as Ellen Ochoa did on a Space Mission in the 1980s.
Whether your love is numbers, experiments, or algorithms, let your sense of inquisitiveness drive you. And, who knows what you will become, how you will enrich scientific history with innovations carved from your unique perspectives, and how you doing science now helps to usher in the next generation of Black and Brown students into the science pipeline.
As you continue to make history, be brazen, be unabashedly you whether that is sprinkled with Black Girl Magic or Latina Flava, and, who knows what types of problems you will solve. So, I leave you with this question: are you merely another “first,” a “statistic,” or will you think of your scientific innovations as additional contributions to the very ancient field of science?
A special thanks to my ever-giving and enlightening posse Betty Hightower, Kulwa Apara, & Kehinde Apara for earlier comments and feedback.