Exploring Black legacies in STEM

An online exhibition of Black scientists and a panel discussion about Black women scientists aims to encourage more Black students into STEM careers.

Woman smiling into camera


There has been much focus on getting more women to pursue STEM careers, but far less on the lack of Black scientists.
For Black History Month a group of postgraduate students at the University of Cambridge are determined to change this and have organised a series of mini exhibitions, ‘Past & Present: Black legacies in STEM’ to highlight the impact of Black scientists throughout history and to inspire Black students to pursue a career in science. In addition, they will be holding a virtual panel discussion with the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge University on Black Female Scientists in Cambridge.

The exhibitions, which will include posters around Cambridge and an online showcase, are organised by Africans in STEM, a group of four postgraduate students including Gates Cambridge Scholars Sandile Mtetwa and Cynthia Okoye.
The idea for the campaign evolved from the Africans in STEM symposium held in Cambridge last year which highlighted the role of African scientists. Following the Black Lives Matter movement protests around the world, the 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 award-winning immunologist and paediatrician and Oxford professor Faith Osier, who researches the mechanisms of immunity against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadly parasite that causes malaria in humans, and aims to translate this knowledge into highly effective vaccines against malaria.  Professor Osier [pictured] designed KILchip ©, a custom Plasmodium falciparum high throughput protein microarray platform which has enabled scientists to advance their research on malaria and founded the SMART network, a collaborative global network for malaria research leaders.

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 can be seen on the Africans in STEM website and social media platforms.

Sandile Mtetwa, from Zimbabwe, is doing a PhD in Chemistry on discovery of novel materials useful in alternative energy production as well as sensing technologies. Alongside her studies she runs a community-based project in Zimbabwe which works to empower young women. Sandile set up The Simuka-Arise Initiative as a result of her experiences as a single parent, particularly the tumultuous relationship she had with her daughter’s father. She hopes the mini exhibitions will inspire other Black students to take up a career in science. She 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.”

Lack of representation

Cynthia Okoye, who is doing a PhD in Pharmacology linked to understanding the role of the protein ubiquitin in cancer progression, 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.

Africans in STEM has 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.

Cynthia and Sandile say they are keen to extend their reach across the UK and internationally to build the pipeline of Black STEM researchers.

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