Carla Faria and Antentor Hinton discuss inspirational Black scientists, the pros and cons of diversity panels, and mentoring styles.
David Payne: 00:04
Hello, I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast.
In this seven-part series, Science diversified, we're exploring how the scientific enterprise truly benefits when you have a team of researchers from a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines and skillsets.
In this sixth episode, we focus on race and ethnicity in science. We meet two Black researchers to discuss the challenges, the value of mentoring, as well as the pros and cons of diversity initiatives.
Antentor Hinton: 00:39
I'm proud of my Black skin, I'm proud of the struggles that we face and the things that I face now. But I also think of it sometimes as a burden. Because sometimes in certain defined spaces and academe, you're the only one.
And that has its own set of challenges because there's so many eyes. You’re like the rubric or the curriculum that everyone will go by, in order to either acquire someone else or not.
My name is Antentor Hinton, most people call me AJ, and I am an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in the department of molecular physiology and biophysics, and I study mitochondrial dynamics regulation during aging.
And if I find the fountain of youth, I'll try to bottle it and put it in a pill so that everyone can have, you know, a chance to live forever.
I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and I was always a curious child. I first learned about science through my grandparents. My grandparents would take me to garden, and my grandfather was an auto mechanic.
And so he would always teach me how things went together in a car. So I got a lot of physics exposure and engineering exposure. At the time, I didn't know that's what it was called. And then I also got a lot of plant biology or botany exposure.
Carla Faria: 02:03
So my name is Professor Carla Faria. I work at University College London. I'm a full professor. My area of expertise is intense field laser metal interaction. So I work with matter in intense fields, very, very, very short timescales. I was born in the Amazon Delta, in Belém. I'm also ethnically of mixed heritage. So I'm what people in Brazil called a Pardo. So these are black people of Afro European ancestry. So we have Afrro-European heritage, which is to say Portuguese/African and everything mixed up. And my mother’s family, they are more indigenous. I would say where I come from I am quite posh and I’m quite pale, but this is the north of Brazil.
So yes, I’m Black, but there are racial hierarchies based on colourism. They are horrible and we should not ignore. I have to start by acknowledging my privilege and say that I am on the pale and privileged side.I descend from ten ethnics groups which is insane, some African, some European, some indigenous.
Antentor Hinton 02:42
The 1000 Black Scientists list is an opportunity to showcase the history that has occurred from Black scientists over the years in science in general.
So there could have been more names, but we chose 1000 based upon a set of criteria, and also a review panel that helped us to do this. We meaning me, plus the community of scholars, to do this 1000 list.
And it is a tribute for all the years of hard work, where Black scientists were not recognized for the efforts in science. And then also to demonstrate what the newer generation, the younger assistant professors and some just associate professors are now doing to change the face of science, whether it's in cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, you name it, engineering, you know, and even mathematics.
And another thing is that a lot of times a lot of the older generation that paved the way to be able to allow for me to have a PhD, were not recognized.
An example of that would be Sandra Murray. She actually received her PhD in Iowa, I believe, in the ‘70s, when no person of colour had ever received their PhD.
And if it wasn't for her, putting up with certain institutional challenges that had occurred throughout that time period, I wouldn't be able to have a postdoc at Iowa, nor be able to be mentored by an African American male, that is Dr. E Dale Abel, that actually runs the Department of Internal Medicine.
So mentoring is applying your experiences to individuals. It’s kind of like an echo. So if someone told me something that was useful, and I relay it to someone else, the individual that now is the mentee, or the trainee will be able to remember what I've said, but really what they are actually remembering is the echo that came from my own individual that trained me.
And so that concept is important. And I think that's what we have to impart in trainees. Echoes that are of positive emotional, moving towards a goal very oriented task. Mentorship is a set of principles that align with who you are as an individual. And you're learning how to work with another individual to create a relationship that prospers that person towards their goals. And it meets their aspirations. And sometimes it can be a cumbersome process, not everything's easy if you want to obtain it. Itshould be something that's towards a process or a goal every time.
Carla Faria 05:18
In fact, more than mentoring, I would say we need a restructuring in how the current system works.
But because this is not going to happen overnight, individuals who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they need to be able to navigate the present system.
So, be able to do this more easily with mentoring, because the system is already rigged in favour of let's say, a white, middle class, British person. Or if you want to be even more precise, white middle class, British male person.
So these people they have learned things by osmosis if you want, from their family, from their peers. They have connections. They know what to say at the right time.They had access to education. Now pick up for instance, a person who is Black and is coming from a poor background or a working class background.
This person doesn't know these things, because they didn't learn this at home. So they need to have some help to be able to navigate this.
Ideally, everybody should have access to good education, should have the same opportunities.
But while this is not the case, people need a help to be able to compete in a level playing field, or at least in something that is not that unequal, as it is right now.
My case, I mean, I'm a privileged person, because I learned a lot of these things first by osmosis, because I come from a rich and privileged background.
So if you wish, I had a lot of informal mentors. I have great allies, I have people who have helped me navigate through things.
I have support from my family, I have support from my friends. I have a great partner. And the only reason why I had to blaze my own trail is because I decided to leave home.
Once I left, say, the north of Brazil, I had to deal with racism as well, many times with sexism. But in a way, I always had very helpful allies and people who really helped me along the way.
Antentor Hinton: 07:42
And I think that's one thing that a lot of people don't realize that mentorship has to be intentional.
And it has to be discovery-based. And what I mean by that is that you're sitting down using the individual development plan, a mentoring compact.
These are tools that can be used to develop a mentor. So an individual development plan that allows you to mark down your strengths, your weaknesses, your future goals, and then what honours and awards you're going to do.
And then areas that are outside of the sciences that you need help, you know improving. And the mentoring compact just for everyone to know is a set of criteria that a mentor guides themselves by and that will guide you by while you're in their presence as a mentor.
And it's a contractual agreement that, you know, that you'll agree to do these things that you know they're asking you to do.
Oh my gosh, I feel like I do so much mentoring. The individuals that I've actually mentored myself are around 49 or 48. I can't remember it's it's getting close to 50. My goal is to get them to where they become better than me. At that stage that they're at. The mentoring style that I have is consistency, a lot of hard work and helping them reach their goals a lot sooner than what they think that they can achieve.
And believing in them when they lose hope in their selves because times can be challenging when you're coming up against so many oppositions whether it's your grades, whether it's family, personal relationships, you know. Or just having your own, you know, mental health challenges when you're going through school because you've never balanced this load before.
Carla Faria 09:23
The status quo is never going to change without pressure from below. And also, you have to find ways of getting in the system to be able to try to influence things from the inside.
And committees, if effective, would be a way to do this. Some committees can be effective, some cannot be. There are other ways, for instance. There are pressure groups. There are people who demonstrate. There are many many other ways, so we cannot dismiss the committees, but you need to ensure that they are effective is going to depend on whether you are given some power because the committee is within an institution, a university. And sometimes there's a framework within you have to operate. And this is limited.
At the moment I'm not involved in any diversity committee.Because I need to focus on my research. And I need to get my priorities right.
However, I am involved in several initiatives. For instance, I am a mentor in a B mentor scheme at UCL, which is focused on Black and minority ethnic groups.
So I'm involved, but not in a committee in which I have to meet regularly.
And that is gonna take a lot of my time, I have been in the past, but I feel I need to prioritize things.
Antentor Hinton: 11:00
Basically, I keep myself busy, but not too busy. I always remember the power of saying no.
And how I do that is I focus on my mentoring evaluations with Dale.
So we meet one time a month to talk about diversity, to make sure I'm on target to do the things I need to do with my diversity role.
And then we stay focused on the research on a day to day basis with Renata Pereira in the lab. She helps me to do a lot of those activities.
And then for the bigger task of how to say no. Dale works with me very closely about the opportunities that I may have for a month. Sometimes I have maybe 60-70 opportunities come. I know it sounds a little insane. But then we choose to do maybe four or five. But it's a balancing act. And there are times when I also say no for a whole month. So basically, you know, in December, I said no to everything
Carla Faria: 11:54
I have to balance power and time. It’s not worth getting involved in our community where we are going to spend a lot of time and you're not going to have power to change things. Because you are going to spend precious time which is time you would be investing in your research. And if you are discussing things that are going to have little effect. And if you're not going to be able to make pressure, you have a lot to lose, basically. Another thing I would call your attention to is that physics in particular, and STEM subjects in general, they are very competitive, and they require immersion from you.
So if you are doing diversity work, you're going to be asked to do the same thing over and over and over again.
Sometimes you are going to talk to deaf ears. And what is going to happen is that your white male counterparts are going to publish another paper while you are spending our time doing this. So you already have the issue that the system as it is built doesn't favour you. And on top of that you have a taxation which is associated with this committee work.
So you really have to ensure that time and the effort that you're putting there is effective. Because otherwise, you're going to be sacrificing your whole scientific career at the altar of diversity. And you don't even know if something is going to happen. But on the other hand, you would like something to change because you have been at the receiving end.
So you would like to change culture. You would like to change society. But you cannot become a martyr. And sometimes it's better to wait. For instance, I supervise a lot of PhD students who are involved in these (I have supervised). And I told them wait a little bit, build your reputation as a scientist. And if you are an established scientist and you say something, whatever you say is going to have more weight.
Antentor Hinton: 14:05
I believe that being a Black scientist can be challenging, and I recognize myself as a Black scientist.
But I also think of it as sometimes a burden. So I'll start with the high note first. And the reason that I want to start with the high note is because you know I'm very proud of my Black skin and I never want to change who I am because I know where I come from. I know my family history. I'm proud of coming from individuals that may lemons that may not have known how to read and write like my grandfather.
But we're able to produce a PhD down the line, you know. So I'm proud of my Black skin. I'm proud of the struggles that we face and the things that I face now.
But I also think of it sometimes as a burden, because sometimes in certain defined spaces in academe you’re the only one. And that has its own set of challenges because there's so many eyes, You’re like the rubric or the curriculum, that everyone will go by, in order to either acquire someone else or not. And so sometimes a may be a burden. But I take on that leadership responsibilities so that there are other individuals that will be at the table, like me, to help make decisions for individuals that don't have an opportunity.
I like to use my voice as a way to effectively communicate why scientists of colour, and especially Black scientists, should have an opportunity to excel, and to be given the opportunity to critically think and evaluate problems from a different angle.
And I think it's the most beautiful thing when you have scientists of all colours and all ideas working together for, you know, a common cause.
Because the idea here is to rescue or alleviate or treat, or even cure, a disease. That is the main object of why we're in academe. It shouldn't be based upon race politics, or, you know, anything related to religious, you know, morals. I mean, I think everyone is entitled to everyone's beliefs.
But I think it's just around asking the question, what does it take to answer the question? But we do have to have a sense of morality, or we remember that everyone's different. And those experiences actually can allow for you to critically think from a different angle, and allows for maybe more accelerated science to occur.
I mean, look at Kizzmekia Corbett. You know, she's helped to develop a vaccine that we're all taking. You know, and I think that's a beautiful thing when you have diversity at the table. It's very powerful.
David Payne: 17:39
Now that's all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by the International Science Council, which looks at why diversity is so critical to advancing science and the steps we can take to improve it.
I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. Thanks for listening.
Shirley Malcom: 17.59
I think that the whole reckoning on race woke a lot of people up. And it helped people understand: there's different rules for different people. That likely is the case in science, not just in the larger society.
Daya Reddy: 18.20
This series of podcasts has been an important start of a much-needed conversation for the International Science Council, one that will drive us towards action in addressing the persistent systemic issues of racism, and of lack of diversity in science.
At the beginning of this series, we said that it was time to step up to address these systemic issues. We said that transformation requires an openness to having difficult conversations and a healthy degree of critical self-reflection on the part of international organizations like ours.
During this series, we have had to put this into practice, as we navigated some critical issues that were raised by students, by early-career scientists, and also by representatives from the ISC’s own committees, such as our Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science.
Combating systemic racism in science is a process that requires continual reexamination of what it means to be anti-racist, not only as an individual, but what taking an anti-racist stance means for individuals and also for science organizations that are working to uphold the right of everyone to participate freely in and to benefit from science.
In broadcasting this series, the ISC wants to honour that continual reexamination, and honour also the voices, and the science, of the interviewees who participated.
Marnie Chesterton: 19.45
Welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council. That was Daya Reddy, President of the ISC, and Chair of the Council’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science.
I’m Marnie Chesterton and in this final episode, we’re focusing on addressing systemic racism in science and science systems. We’ll be hearing from people who’ve spent their careers working to transform research institutions, and from an early-career scientist, about her science and her call to action.
Adam Habib: 20.16
The inclusion project has to be reinvented. And I do think we are in a historical moment where science, science collaboration and higher education has to be completely reinvented.
Brittany Kamai: 20.29
Systemic change happens with each of us as individuals, in the way that we interact, communicate, think, the way we invite people, the rooms that we show up into.
Shirley Malcom: 20.40
This isn't about doing just doing the right thing, even though it is about doing the right thing. It is also about doing things right, doing the science in a way that is open and responsive to many voices, and many visions.
Marnie Chesterton: 20.50
This is Shirley Malcom, Director of Sea Change at The American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, which is one of the ISC’s partners, working on combatting systemic discrimination in science.
Shirley Malcom: 21.08
I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. And if I have been at AAAS for 40 years, you know that I am old.
And so for a Black woman to go into science, back in the 60s and 70s, that was highly unusual.
I didn't see other Black men or women in my classes, or in my seminars or at professional meetings. We looked to try to undertake a lot of different intervention programmes.
But it wasn't the kind of impact that was needed in order to really make the science and engineering community truly representative of the larger society. The problem was not going to be addressed by trying to fix the individuals who were going into science or that we were trying to attract intO science, because there was nothing really wrong with the individuals, there were things that were wrong with the systems that we asked them to enter.
Marnie Chesterton: 21.10
This is how Sea Change, the AAAS initiative led by Shirley was born.
Shirley Malcom: 21.16
We needed to make huge adjustment, huge changes, huge transformations within colleges and universities, so that they were welcoming of diverse populations, as opposed to erecting barriers.
I think one of the things that I find really disappointing is that many of the barriers that I faced when I started in my education within the sciences, they're still there.
And I hear this from many young people. They may be the only or one of a few of the persons of colour or women within their classes.
They talk about being discouraged or maybe having people actively say something about whether or not they're in the right place.
The fact that they can be confronted by campus police who wonder why they're in the building at night when they obviously got in there with the key that they have.
In some places, in some institutions, it's better, but in other cases, they are confronting the same kinds of issues that have been there for decades.
Here in the US, for example, women are 57% of participants in higher education.
And if you add all women, including women of colour, and men of colour to that, what you end up with is like about two thirds of those who are in higher education.
What does it mean to have intervention programmes for the majority? What does it mean if most students are not being served by the existing structures?
To me, it means that we've got to reimagine what those structures are going to be.
Marnie Chesterton: 24.08
This kind of reimagining calls for systemic change. To find out more about what kind of action can be effective, it’s useful to look closely at some of the research systems – and societies – that have seen profound changes in the past three decades.
Adam Habib: 24.24
If you're looking in the cycle between 1990 and 2020, I think that there is no higher education system that has undergone a more dramatic transformation than the South African one.
I lived through the transformation of these institutions in various guises, as a student, as an academic, as an administrator, and then as a, Vice-Chancellor.
Marnie Chesterton 24.50
That’s Adam Habib. Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, at the University of London.
In this interview, Adam shares his experience at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
When I walked into the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in Pietermaritzburg, in 1985. And then Wits University, in 1987/88, what you effectively had was an institution that had about 20% , 25% Black students.
In 2020, Wits university had about 80% Black students. There has been a fundamental shift in the university system, and that's true of most universities in the country,
And as we’re thinking through the the diversification of the scientific community, the non-racialization of the scientific community, I think learning the lessons of South Africa, could be – it has positive lessons, but also negative lessons.
This is not the result of clever Vice-Chancellors or higher education executives. It is an outcome of pressures, both societal and institutional,
Remember that our institutional transformations occurred in a context of societal transformation, the demise of apartheid, the emergence of a democratic South Africa
Marnie Chesterton: 26.24
While Adam says that those early attempts were successful in terms of transforming the student community, the professorship, for example, remained largely White and male. So, a second generation of reforms was rolled out.
Adam Habib: 26.37
What we did this time is we found that the following individuals who were scheduled to retire in the coming two to three years. And then what we did is we made an appointment against that retirement. And so the appointment was more sustainable if you like.
The second thing that we were able to do is target academics in the system, young academics who had been appointed in earlier years. What had happened is they got all of the teaching loads, all of the administrative loads. And as a result, they never progressed up the hierarchy.
And we were very cognizant that you couldn't simply promote them if they didn't meet the qualifications, because that would weaken the Academy.
And so the question was how to create the conditions, the life circumstances so that they could develop their skill sets.
Marnie Chesterton: 27.37
They custom-made solutions for individual academics in order to develop their careers further, from funding for postgrad students, to travel grants or additional support for childcare.
Adam Habib: 27.49
Within two or three years, these people started making appointments, applying for promotions and succeeding in the promotional applications. And so what you had is two sets of things:
Firstly, a new generation of new academics emerging from diversified communities.
But the second is helping those who were already in the system to achieve promotions up the system.
Marnie Chesterton 28.09
Other kinds of initiatives were directed at students, like scholarships targeting schools in marginalized communities. It also meant looking at things like the class, rather than just the race, of potential students.
Adam Habib: 28.21
Because even though Black students came in, these Black students came in from the most privileged of circumstances, many of them came from private schools. And so there wasn't an equal playing field, even within the disadvantaged racial communities.
And so we brought in really talented students from rural schools and from impoverished urban schools. The diversification wasn't done only on racial terms, but also in class terms, which I think is something that one needs to take into consideration, and so we need more far more nuanced approaches to understanding and affecting diversification.
Marnie Chesterton: 29.03
For Adam, the process of diversification is continuously evolving.
On June 10 2020, many academics and scientists around the world stopped work for ‘Shutdown STEM’ in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We speak to one of its co-founders.
Brittany Kamai: 29.20
I am Dr. Brittany Kamai, I am an astrophysicist. I am based in Los Angeles, and I have a joint appointment between University of California, Santa Cruz and the California Institute of Technology. And I also am an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi-West ʻOahu.
And so I work on a field of research called metamaterials, to try to design new techniques that would improve our detectors, and the detectors that I work on are gravitational wave detectors that can give us new signals in the universe.
If we want to build all these sensors, and we want to have a deep understanding, we need to work together.
Marnie Chesterton: 29.58
Understanding signals from the cosmos requires knowledge from a lot of different minds.
Brittany Kamai: 30.00
On my path through astrophysics, what's given me a lens is, is to see how we actually create the knowledge, right? It starts when we're in conversation with one another: you ask questions, and you wonder about something, and you read a bunch of things, and you start writing.
What you start to see is the connection between the way that we think and what we say and what ends up into a research paper.
And then what ends up into a textbook. That imprint influences the way that anyone who reads that textbook thinks about the topic, right?
And so I think that that is a powerful thing that we as scientists really need to take more ownership over, in terms of really evaluating our own consciousness and how that's getting imprinted into what we write, what we say, and how that impacts society as a whole.
Marnie Chesterton: 30.59
The science community cannot ignore its impact on society as a whole, including when it comes to its record on diversity.
Brittany Kamai: 31.05
I don't want to perpetuate an idea that diversity equals one subset of a group, right. When we say diversity, we have to really evaluate, what does diverse representation look like, and what different axes are going to be able to be in different spaces. And so when we talk about diversity, we really have to have a diverse conversation, right?
Is that like, if you bring in a person of colour, then they should not have to talk and educate the entire group about what racism is.
Systemic change starts with us - like talking to the people you're closely interacting with. And we have to hold space for the emotional work that goes into this kind of growth, right, to talk to a person of colour, and ask them: What is it like, you know, when your, like, race interacts with science? Like, that's a heavy question, because oftentimes, we'll have to relive our traumatic experiences in front of someone who's not even equipped to hold that, right.
So I think, like, that's where, if you go to parties outside of the group that you're working with, listen to that group, and then slowly evolve it into your space. Really, like, it is all of us and we have influence. And I think that what was powerful with ShutDdown STEM is that it's a combination between us as individuals, and then your local environment while also being connected with the rest of the globe.
Marnie Chesterton: 32.40
From the small to the large scale, as we seek to make more diverse spaces of science, we need continuous evaluation of ourselves and our institutions.
Brittany Kamai: 32.48
Each of us need to say: I am going to commit to learning about how to be an active ally to a specific group of people. And in order to be an active ally, you need to start by listening. And so listening happens in many different forms, like we are, luckily, in a space where we have so many people on social media who are sharing their stories. And so you can start to hear like what is happening, and how people are being impacted. And then you can translate that into evaluating what is it that you're doing that could be something like that.
Adam Habib: 33.27
We continuously define, redefine what it means to be diverse. T,hose definitions of diversity and anti-racism, and transformation and anti-discriminatory, cosmopolitan, if you like, what it means to be cosmopolitan continuously changes over generations, as it should, because it's a never-ending process of inclusion.
That's what the universities bring to the fore. That's what the scientific community should be about, is about enabling a never-ending process of human inclusion.
Shirley Malcom: 34.10
What gives me hope, what keeps me going, what keeps me in this business, this transformation business, is watching young people begin to raise these same questions of "where is everybody? Why aren't things equitable? What does it mean to be fair? Does science in fact have a race problem, a racism problem? And what can we do to remove it?"
Once we tear down the barriers to even asking these questions, we can't unsee the challenges. We need to then respond to them.
Let’s go back to Daya Reddy, President of the International Science Council, to talk about the project launched in 2020 on combating systemic discrimination in science.
Daya Reddy: 35.09
The global science community needs to reckon with the stark reality of injustice. Silence and inaction simply sustain discriminatory practices.
Marnie Chesterton: 35.20
The project convenes many of the ISC’s global partners to gather knowledge and to agree on concrete steps aimed at correcting systemic discrimination and racism in science.
Daya Reddy: 35.32
We've called upon all our members and a number of international partners to join us to take urgent action in various ways, to gather and share knowledge on discrimination in science, and to take concrete steps to correct discriminatory practices and to make science more inclusive.
This will take action across a range of units and institutions, from Vice-Chancellors’ offices to research funding agencies, Academies of Science, international science organizations, publishers, research teams, right through to labs and individual researchers.
At the International Science Council, our strength comes from the breadth and the diversity of our Members and networks, by working together, we are seeking to examine what really works to promote diversity in the science system and to implement the necessary change. This is not a one-off activity. There will not be a time - not in the near future anyway - at which you could say, well, the job is done. Change is hard and takes time. And it has to be pursued by each new generation of scientists.
Marnie Chesterton: 36.49
To find out more about the International Science Council, its Members, partners, and ongoing projects, and resources related to the issues raised in this series, see the website at www.council.science. As the global voice for science, the ISC invites you to join the ongoing conversation on diversifying science.