Friday, February 3, 2012

Honoring history through STEM

Photo of Nikky Finney, available from
her official website .  
On her Facebook page, Maya Angelou recognizes the work of Nikky Finney, a professor at University of Kentucky and winner of the 2011 National Book Award for poetry.  Born in South Carolina, she was the child of activists and came of age during the civil rights and Black Arts Movements. From an early age she recognized and grew to understand the powerful synergy between history and art.
In addition to recognizing and congratulating Professor Finney on this achievement, I think it's also worth a moment to reflect on the connections between (Black) history and modern science. How does your history (be it personal, cultural, societal, etc.) empower and motivate your decisions and efforts?

For me, I'll admit, this is not a question that I've long been attuned to... although, my years spent living in Germany and China have made this question far more personally relevant and important to me. By going into science--I had always thought that I was "doing my part." During my doctoral studies, I decided I'd "done" enough.  I felt that academia (at least not in a biophysics lab) was not a place where I would thrive.

This personal reflection, my overall interest in the science workforce, persistent evidence that Blacks in general are not thriving in research environments, and others' perspectives on what to do about it are influencing how I perceive the "dilemma". How can Black scientists benefit from reflecting on the continuing struggle for the broad acceptance African American Studies as a discipline important to more than African Americans. How might this pertain to science and its conduct?

I don't know the answers and I'd love to hear your views on whether these are the right questions, but I am coming to believe that focusing on getting minority students to study and pursue a career in science is not enough. I'd like to challenge my own assumptions about how research "should" be done and how the "right" questions are framed. I am sure people who are far more intuitive than I am have put forth some great questions and perspectives on this. If you know of any, please share!  For change (evidenced by increasing participation and a less "leaky" STEM pipeline) to happen we must find a way to make our voices coherent, aims cohesive, and efforts persistent. Perhaps we can find a way to do this through history.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! I'm thinking about these same things, too!
    I read "The Diversity Problem in Science"
    which lead me to a paper by WEB DuBois, The Negro Scientist and now my head is full of unformulated ideas about what it takes for minorities to 'thrive' in science. I have a pdf of the WEB DuBois paper if you want it.