Can you name a Black scientist?
We asked a similar question a few weeks ago regarding women in genetics and the same problem seemingly applies here. Many people seem to find it difficult to name a black geneticist.
According to a report in 2018, in the UK, the percentage of minority groups studying at undergraduate level falls from 26% to 14% at postgraduate level. In the US, Black and Hispanic workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Estimates indicate that Black individuals only make up 9% of STEM workers. In addition, among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Black individuals are just 7% of the STEM workforce.
BlackInGenetics (BIG) is an organisation dedicated to amplifying voices and work of Black geneticists across the US and beyond. Last month, they started a week-long trend on social media encouraging Black geneticists across the world to share their jobs, work and experience within genetics.
Here at Front Line Genomics, we support the increased representation of Black and other minority groups in STEM. Not only this, we note the importance of acknowledging the work of communities who are often undervalued. To mark the start of the UK Black History Month, we would like to share with you some of the most influential Black scientists who have impacted genetics today.
Herman Branson (1914-1995)
Herman was an American physicist and chemist, best known for his research on the alpha helix protein structure. His research was pivotal for understanding the biochemical roles of proteins and deciphering the structure of DNA. He helped found the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and served as president of two universities.
William Warrick Cardozo (1905-1962)
William was a physician and paediatrician. He was also a pioneer investigator of sickle cell anaemia. His findings in sickle cell concluded that the disease was largely familial and inherited. He also discovered that the disease was disproportionately impacting individuals of African descent.
Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)
Marie was a biochemist and the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry in the US. She is most famous for her contributions to work on protein synthesis and the chemistry of histones.
James Bowman (1923-2011)
James was an American physician and specialist in pathology, haematology and genetics. His discoveries took him all over the world, exploring and gaining a better understanding of favism and G6PD deficiency. In later life, he focused on the ethical and legal issues raised by genetics. He served on the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Working Group for the Human Genome Project.
Rick Kittle (1976-)
Rick is an American biologist who specialises in human genetics. He has contributed to our understanding of African ancestry and also set up a company – African Ancestry, Inc – which helps people of African descent trace their ancestral roots. He gained recognition for his work within prostate cancer and has devoted his time to raising awareness of health disparities among minority groups.
Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924-2017)
Jewel was an American biologist and cancer researcher. Most of her work focused on melanin, skin damage and the impact of chemotherapy drugs on cell division. She was an advocate for increasing representation of women and minority students within universities.
Jane C. Wright (1919-2013)
Jane was a pioneering cancer researcher and surgeon. Jane and her father were one of the first groups to report the use of nitrogen-mustard agents as cancer treatment. They also were one of the first to test folic acid antagonists in cancer treatment. She also cultured tumour cells and treated them with different drugs to determine what drugs would have the most robust effect in patients. This method represents the contemporary concept of precision medicine.
Georgia M. Dunston (1944-)
Georgia is a professor of human immunogenetics at Howard University. She has explored the role of genetic variations within human MHC genes and antigens and their relationship with disease in African Americans. She also founded the National Human Genome Center at Howard in 2001.
Tracy L Johnson
Tracy is the chair and professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on understanding gene regulation, chromatin modification and RNA splicing. She has received a number of awards and honours and recently became the Dean of the UCLA Division of Life Sciences.
For many Black scientists, barriers to success not only exist within day-to-day life but also within their careers. It is often more difficult for Black scientists starting off in their careers to build up their connections and personal networks. Even when Black scientists have established themselves, they often work in more junior roles. Diversity and inclusion are essential to bring about real change within research and academia. Increasing Black representation across universities, including staff and students, is important to inspire both current and future students. There must be support for personal and professional growth for Black scientists and online communities with free resources for individuals who need help to build connections and learn about career opportunities. Another major barrier that needs to be addressed is a lack of financial support as black scientists are often from less affluent backgrounds.
Most importantly, Black scientists deserve recognition for their achievements. This recognition should not only happen within the workplace but should be extended to the education sector. Representation of Black scientists and embedding the amazing work they do into education will help encourage young children to pursue careers within STEM. Black scientists have made, are making, and will continue to make amazing contributions to genetics. Let’s acknowledge this!
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