A lack of visible role models can make it harder for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) scientists to feel they belong.
Here, a selection of BAME scientists tell TIR what inspired them to follow their chosen career.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
“I remember walking into a building and seeing white face after white face after white face.”
“If I don’t see people that look like me, how can I pursue what my dreams are?”
“You sometimes need to see someone that looks like you to make you believe you can do it.”
“If there had been someone I could look to, that would have made that walk along the hall that much easier.”
One of the subtlest but most profound points made by Professor Derek Applewhite, interviewed as part of our coverage of racism in academia, was this: white scientists have little conception of how much reassurance they gain from seeing the scientific hierarchy populated by people that look like them. Conversely, BAME/BIPOC scientists do not have the benefit of being in an overwhelming racial majority, something that can easily cause them to question whether or not they belong.
A while back we published a posting entitled MySciMoment on the event that TIR writer Brooke Morriswood credits with directing him towards a career in science.
To coincide with Black History Month in the UK, we’ve brought these two threads together, and asked a group of BAME scientists to share with us what inspired them to follow a career in science, what sustains them, and what they do.
MySciMoment: Amma Simon
I am a post-doctoral research associate in the Chemical Ecology group at Keele University, where I research the interactions between wheat, aphids, and pathogens to better understand wheat defence mechanisms and improve sustainable wheat production.
I grew up in a working-class family in West London but was exposed to quite a bit of nature from a young age, as I spent my summers exploring my grandfather’s unkept garden. These explorations were the catalyst for my interest in the environment and I was particularly interested in woodlice. I didn’t really think of ecology or entomology as being a career and slowly lost interest in these garden explorations as a teenager. However, I often took advantage of the free travel and entry into the Natural History Museum and Science Museum which certainly sustained my interest in biology.
I learnt about science research as a career path during an outreach event at Imperial College for sixth form students. The event was very informative and inspiring, but I was not sure whether research was the right fit for me. Regardless, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in science and studied biology at university.
During my undergraduate degree I rediscovered my fascination with entomology and ecology, found that I enjoyed doing research, and realised I wanted to pursue a research career in ecology. Despite this insight, as someone from a working class and minority background I was apprehensive as to whether I would fit into the scientific research community. With encouragement from mentors and lecturers I completed my Master’s and PhD and am now a researcher! Throughout this journey, I had strong academic and personal support networks where I felt comfortable asking rather naïve questions and ranting where necessary, which often helped me put my successes and failures into perspective. This support undoubtedly helped me transition into academia and science research.
MySciMoment: Izzy Jayasinghe
I am currently transitioning from early- to mid-career researcher. I am funded under a 7-year UKRI Future Leader Fellowship, which has also allowed me shift my career focus from cardiovascular biology to developing new microscopes and imaging techniques.
I always had an interest in science because I grew up reading some brilliant science books. I was also not very interested in many other subjects in school. In high school, I built a new experimental rig as a part of my final year physics project. The project went on to win the physics prize in the local science fair – and the prize was a scholarship to go to Auckland University to study science.
I have been lucky enough to work with colleagues who have been both inclusive, supportive, and driven by innovation. My formative years were spent in labs that nurtured my creativity and encouraged me to take pride in my work. I especially drew inspiration from a number of inspiring women (both BAME and white) whom I had the privilege to work with; I particularly learned about hardships and resilience from them. As I became more independent, the desire to do better became more intrinsic to myself. I have learned to draw inspiration from a whole range of role models from all walks of life, career disciplines, and identities. My definition of success in science has also become broader and more robust, I think.
MySciMoment: Aduragbemi Adesina
I am a Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I was inspired to pursue a career in science when I read about the several attempts made by earlier scientists with their archaic instruments before they had a breakthrough, and how some of them were doubted by the scientific communities before their theories become commonplace. I believe scientific pursuit has been limited from a full circle search to a small arc. Discovery has been narrowed to the point where out-of-the-box thinking is becoming frowned at. You can imagine that it takes people like Elon Musk to pursue unconventional ideas while academics debate why they won’t be successful. The discovery of science was not through rational search but by focus, discipline, and limitless possibilities. I pursue science for such a radical concept.
My inspiration kept my innovative spirit and allowed me to challenge the status quo. Of course, such part can be riddled with challenges and people think you are charting difficult terrains. However, my few successes have kept me going, and one breakthrough could be rewarding for a lifetime. Rather than repeating and advancing other people’s success, I prefer to solve problems that scientists often find difficult.
MySciMoment: Geeta Hitch
I am senior lecturer in pharmacy. I was inspired to commit to a scientific career, because pharmacy is a vocational degree programme that attracts a huge number of students from BAME /international backgrounds. I wanted to make a difference to their lives as a BAME person so they could see this was a pathway that was also open to them.
I have achieved a lot since I became a pharmacist and always wanted to remain in research and academia. When I was offered this role at the University of Sussex, I worked my way up slowly by engaging and leading on widening participation projects in pharmacy, serving on the Senate, chairing the University’s academic misconduct panel, leading in pharmacy for digital learning and teaching, serving as exams officer, and being an invited speaker to international and national pharmacy conferences. I feel I have made the most of any opportunities to expand my role within the pharmacy department and also university-wide.
I have had to relinquish my research/teaching contract in order to gain a promotion to senior lectureship and sadly much as I enjoyed research, I would not have been supported by my head of school. This was very painful for me since I had supported the teaching of physiology due to the sudden departure of one of the faculty members. This in fact impacted negatively on my research hours and the university did not support me in this. So, I think, if BAME students want to pursue a career in academia, then nothing should stop them; however, be prepared to make sacrifices along the way as certain roles and promotions will not be awarded to BAME staff despite all the rules and regulations and policies the institution has on EDI (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) and race relations. I believe Sussex is one such university from my own personal experiences. I continue to be an inspiration to my students and even then, I have been totally marginalised from departmental roles on student experience and the BAME committee, despite being the only full-time female BAME academic. The university’s leadership appears unfortunately to be all about words and no action. I am highly respected university-wide but have apparently little value in Life Sciences, especially since the installing of the new director in pharmacy who is a Caucasian, and the departure of the previous Director of Pharmacy (a BAME person).
MySciMoment: Maaya Modha-Patel
I am currently working as a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy Practice at the University of Sussex from Monday to Wednesday, supporting clients as a Personal Trainer (PT) on Thursdays and Fridays, and helping patients as a community pharmacist on alternate Sundays.
I always knew that I wanted to help people and I had a real passion for science at school, so I decided that pharmacy might be a great career pathway for me. Little did I know that this choice would take me to Vienna to do a Master’s project as well as providing me with opportunities to work in hospital pharmacy, community pharmacy, and now academia. It’s been fantastic and an amazing adventure that I could not have imagined.
If I had to think about the single biggest influence which inspired me to pursue a career in science, I would have to say it was my parents. My mother worked as a nurse before she started a family, and she took excellent care of me and my sister growing up. My father was a pharmacist but left this behind shortly after qualifying to support my uncle in the running of his shopfront business. After a good few years working in this role and gaining a host of new skills, Dad then started his own company and has recently pivoted to a new career as an entrepreneur, using his scientific background and knowledge to grow budding businesses.
Both of my parents are immigrants who came to the UK from Kenya – my mother arrived with her family as a young child, and my father came alone as a teenager and studied pharmacy here at Brighton. Their commitment and dedication to make the most of the opportunities in a new nation is something that they also cultivated in me and my sister. Looking back, I now really appreciate how my parents supported us in pursuing our chosen professions – mine being pharmacy and my sister’s being accounting.
My choice to pivot careers at different stages seemed foreign to my parents and often difficult for them to understand, but they supported me and celebrated my achievements nonetheless.
I remember Regina King’s Oscar acceptance speech where she gave thanks to her mother and acknowledged how her mother’s love and support significantly contributed to her success. It is this love and acceptance that I received so freely from my family which gave me the confidence to follow my passions in areas such as teaching, creative writing, and fitness, despite there not being many BAME role models in these fields.
At present I am studying for a Master’s in Education at UCL. I look forward to seeing how the impact of this learning helps me to enhance the connection and understanding I have with my pharmacy students and PT clients, because working with people has always been at the heart of what I love to do.
MySciMoment: Shane Lo Fan Hin
I am currently a teaching-focused lecturer in chemistry at the University of Sussex. I have been there since Jan 2010 after working for about 15 months as the Ogden Science officer in the Schoolslab at the University of Liverpool, delivering outreach activities to secondary school pupils.
Growing up in Mauritius, I was encouraged from early on to become a medical doctor by my mother, who was a nurse. I had a fantastic chemistry teacher for my GCSE; he did a postdoc in France prior to training as a teacher, and was always telling us about his time in the lab. He transferred his passion for chemistry to my younger self and when it was time to apply to university, I decided to do chemistry instead of medicine. During my MChem, I did a placement at Johnson Matthey and my time spent there reinforced my desire to pursue further studies after the MChem. I was lucky to get the outreach position straight after the PhD. I enjoyed transferring my passion for chemistry/science to pupils just like my GCSE teacher did to me. So from there, the next step was a position in chemistry teaching in higher education where I am still involved in outreach activities.
There were no two identical sessions during my time delivering outreach activities at the University of Liverpool, as pupils were coming from different yeargroups from different schools across the north-west of England. I still remember the look of amazement that I saw from some pupils while they were performing their “first reaction with chemicals” in the lab. Being able to ignite students’ passion for chemistry is the motivator which drives my career.
Are you a BAME/BIPOC scientist? Would you like to share your #MySciMoment? Leave a comment if so, or send a DM to Brooke Morriswood or TIR’s discussion leader Calvin Tiengwe