How Might We Encourage Black Students to Study Science?

On February 12, 1900, five hundred school children in Jacksonville, Florida performed what would become known as the Black National Anthem, one of my favorite songs to sing in church.

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Lift Every Voice and Sing, James Weldon Johnson

Ever since the murder of George Floyd, many voices have been singing, ringing, and resounding. Two of those voices rose last week from researchers Erich Jarvis, Ph.D. and Joseph Graves, Ph.D.. In a powerful piece published in The Scientist, Dr. Jarvis and Dr. Graves called upon us to apply racial justice to the area of scientific research. The two implored us to examine the difference between scientific enterprise and the scientific method.

Institutional racism means that established structures within a society are infused with racial/racist ideology and practices. This includes the “enterprise” of science, which can be separated from the “method” of science. The scientific method is an objective means to better understand nature, whereas the scientific enterprise is a reflection of society’s values and decides whose interests are represented in the formulation of research questions and directions. American history shows that science, like other enterprises, has been mainly directed towards fulfilling the interests of persons of European descent: “whites.” This has resulted in the historical and ongoing underrepresentation of blacks in the sciences. Other racially subordinated minorities (RSMs) face these issues (e.g., brown and red people*). Here we describe the timeline of racial subordination in America in the context of the growth of modern science and the research university.

Graves and Jarvis,

Dr. Jarvis and I first met in 2008 at an ornithological conference in Philadelphia. My youngest daughter adores birds and I decided to take her to see and listen to researchers in that field. And while Dr. Jarvis and I are not friends by a traditional definition, nor colleagues, we have corresponded over time; our bond being his research on bird brains.

In messaging Dr. Jarvis over the weekend, I again thought about what I think about most often–students and teaching. Part of the problem Dr. Jarvis and Dr. Graves speak to is the dearth of Black scientists, or other potential scientists they call RSMs, racially subordinated minorities.

Why does this chasm exist?

The answer might be found in the mission of the Three Doctors Foundation out of Newark, New Jersey. The three doctors represent what many would consider the quintessential success story. Three guys who grew up on the streets of Newark, who got into their fair share of trouble, but then after high school made a promise to one another to become doctors. They did; but the story didn’t end there. Dr. Sampson Davis, Dr. Rameck Hunt and Dr. George Jenkins now work to make sure their achievements model success for others. And they live by the premise:  “Our Children Can Not Aspire To Be What They Can Not See”. To me, that is key; and most likely the answer to why we don’t have enough minority scientists.

Students see athletes, actors, musicians; essentially they see and cling to society’s stars in hopes of achieving those jobs despite the odds. Students participate in sports, musical concerts, marching bands and dramas, but never step foot in a lab beyond the one in their middle schools or high schools. How often do K-12 students see or meet actual scientists?

The Three Doctors Foundation tries to change that paradigm each year by sponsoring what it calls Mentor Day. I had the honor of helping organize the 2018 event. The goal is to get mentors from all walks of life to come and talk with students about careers. Mentors share stories of their own career paths. They talk to kids about their passions and what kind of careers might dovetail into those passions. They have a meal together. The energy in the room is tremendous.

Despite my best efforts, we had no research scientists. The Princeton Physics Lab, for example, is 15 miles away from where the event was held. Despite sending emails and leaving phone messages, no one called back, or wrote me. And it is in those moments of non-response that people come to conclusions. Mine was that the Princeton Physics Lab personnel didn’t see an event like Mentor Day as advantageous to their mission–as if those scientists would find the Fountain of Youth and live forever. They didn’t need to nurture the future. Or, like others in my own community, they saw the event as just for Black children even though any child, from anywhere, could attend. We had one family travel from Massachusetts.

Mentors and students sitting around a table in conversation.
Mentor Day, Three Doctors Foundation, September 2018

I grew up on Mr. Wizard; my daughters consumed Bill Nye the Science Guy. My daughters were also lucky enough to have my high school classmate live with us while he wrote his dissertation. Don Moore, Ph.D. runs the Oregon Zoo in Portland. When he lived with us, he was teaching my kids about everything they happened upon in the backyard, including an injured baby bunny they named Jessica. The bunny died despite interventions; but my kids learned an awful lot. Don also dissected owl pellets with them one Christmas Eve.

But as I told Dr. Jarvis, I will never forget the gift my younger daughter received from the Master Bird Bander who taught her how to rehab birds. It was a lab coat adorned with bird pins. It is one of my daughter’s prized possessions. At the time, that lab coat helped my daughter aspire to be what she could see on the horizon.

Kids dress in athletic wear. They buy expensive cool sneakers. They get to perform on stage. They get to sing in concert attire. What do schools do to inspire them to learn science? Or medicine?

Here’s a suggestion for at least K-8 teachers. Have a lab coat in your classroom. As part of your morning meeting, let a student don that lab coat and report on a science story. Any science story. Set parameters if you’d like; set a topic maybe. Start with birds, for example. Ask the students to choose a bird, or have them ask to be assigned a bird. Give them one question: What do you want us to know about your bird? See what they tell you.

We must lift up the children who don’t have the benefit of informally seeing, or meeting, doctors, lawyers, researchers, and other professionals. We are called upon to help those students envision their futures too; we need to help them find their passions beyond a stage, an athletic field, an arena.

One hundred and twenty years after the performance of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, which became the Black National Anthem, we need to embrace the conversations and realities George Floyd’s death has brought to center stage.

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won.

Lift Every Voice and Sing, James Weldon Johnson

Let the present include a march to bring diversity to scientific research and more minority scientists to labs. And let’s start with our students.

Three doctors and a student during Mentor Day.
Left to Right: Rameck Hunt, M.D., Sampson Davis, M.D., unidentified laptop winner, George Jenkins, DMD (Mentor Day September, 2018)

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