Black legacies in STEM

  • October 5, 2020
Black legacies in STEM

Black History Month exhibitions aim to inspire students to build a career in STEM

There is still significant underrepresentation of Black people in STEM in academia mostly especially in the UK and we wish to showcase our  legacies to inspire other upcoming scientists.

Sandile Mtetwa

A series of mini exhibitions, ‘Past & Present: Black legacies in STEM’, launches today [5th October] to highlight the impact of Black scientists throughout history and to inspire Black students to pursue a career in science.

The exhibitions, which will include posters around Cambridge and an online showcase, are organised by Africans in STEM, including Gates Cambridge Scholars Sandile Mtetwa [2017] and Cynthia Okoye [2018], to celebrate Black History Month.

The idea for the campaign evolved from last year’s Africans in STEM symposium which highlighted the role of African scientists. Following the Black Lives Matter movement protests around the world, the student-run organisation decided to focus on more general matters affecting Black students in Cambridge and across the UK.  The exhibitions feature Black scientists from history, such as inventor and engineer Otis Frank Boykin, oncologist Jane Cooke Wright and environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai, up to the present-day.

They include Gates Cambridge Scholars Jerelle Joseph [2014 – pictured above left], who won a Bill Gates Sr Award for her work on protein folding and for setting up CariScholar, a nonprofit mentorship programme which aims to connect students with successful professionals and academics in the Caribbean, and Valentina Ndolo [2018 – pictured above right], who is doing a PhD in Veterinary Science exploring the occurrence patterns of Anthrax in Kenya and Uganda and founded the STEMing Africa Initiative to advocate for the active inclusion of women in STEM by supporting talented female graduates in STEM to secure scholarships for advanced degrees. The international scientists featured in the campaign include academic researchers and those involved in community-based activities and are from a range of STEM-related fields.

The posters will be visible in STEM departments at the University of Cambridge throughout October and online profiles will be published on the Africans in STEM website and social media platforms.

Sandile says: “We are doing this because there is still significant underrepresentation of Black people in STEM in academia mostly especially in the UK and we wish to showcase our  legacies to inspire other upcoming scientists and also inform others of the good work Black people in STEM have done and are doing all over the world.”

Cynthia says that it was clear from speaking to Black STEM students that lack of representation was a key issue for them. “A lot of students mentioned it. Having the mini exhibitions is a way to show people the amazing things Black people have achieved and to address the low retention rate in STEM after undergraduate,” she says. “Black British STEM students are represented at undergraduate level, but at graduate level most students are African. It is important to question why.”

Sandile adds that even if they study at graduate level, many Black STEM students don’t stay in academia and she feels more needs to be done to highlight the barriers they face and to encourage them to stay on.

Cynthia and Sandile would like to do a bigger exhibition next year and possibly some videos and to extend their reach across the UK and internationally. They have been inspired in large part by Engineering undergraduate Tse Uweja’s 2019 Black History Month exhibition and more generally by the Black Cantabs work, initiated by Gates Cambridge Scholar Njoki Wamai. They say they have had a lot of support from STEM departments at Cambridge, including the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, the African Society of Cambridge University, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Pan Africa Chemistry Network and Cambridge-Africa which supports African researchers at the university.

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