Some thoughts on the blackSTEM project

Over at Twitter, I’ve been honoring Black History Month by highlighting the contributions of black scientists, engineers, and inventors. I’ll be attempting to continue a similar trend next month for Women’s History Month, but I thought I would pause for a moment to reflect on the project so far, and share some of what I’ve learned.

1. My original tweet stating the purpose of the project was wrong.

Here’s the tweet I sent out on February 1 announcing the blackSTEM project and its goals:

The mistake is subtle. Do you see it? It’s the word “random.” My original thought was that I found it odd, with my breadth of knowledge, that I would know so little about the contributions of the black community to science and technology. Based on my knowledge of trivia and my grades throughout school and college, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I would be regarded as a “success story” of the traditional education establishment. But the fact that I know next to nothing about black men and women in science is anything but random.

The explanation is simple: I don’t know about them because I was never taught about them. It’s not that they don’t exist, and it’s not that their contributions aren’t noteworthy. One factor in all of this is showmanship: the scientists who are good with the public are more visible, regardless of what they have achieved scientifically. (Think Stephen Hawking vs. John Bardeen.) But another, more important, factor is sheer numbers. Science has a diversity problem, in that white men make up 30% of the US population but 50% of its scientists. Non-white men, and all women, are underrepresented–sometimes severely, depending on the exact field of science. Purely from a statistical point of view, the small number of black scientists is naturally accompanied by an even smaller number of black scientists in the spotlight. In fact, most of my focus this month was on noteworthy black scientists who weren’t in the spotlight (in other words: noteworthy, but little noted). I already knew about George Washington Carver and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I wanted to know who else was out there. Or if you like, I wanted to make my random knowledge more truly random.

2. It’s embarrassingly difficult to find information about many of these scientists.

At the beginning of the project, I wanted to focus specifically on the scientific achievements of the people I was highlighting, rather than their social achievements. While social achievements (achievements such as “first black astronaut”) are extremely important both for societal and scientific advancement (if for no other reason than to open up the field to a more diverse audience), I wanted to dive into the remarkable achievements that this group had bequeathed to scientific posterity in particular. However, in most cases the focus was so intensely on the social side of the equation that there was a paucity of information on what, scientifically, the men and women that I was studying had achieved. Occasionally I was able to access their contributions to the original scientific literature, and often what I found were exactly the kinds of gems that one would expect from a group of high-achieving scientists: simple, clear, elegant, and absolutely rigorous science. I only wish their work was more easily accessible.

3. The dearth of black women, in particular, is shocking.

I thought about stopping the project halfway through the month because I was afraid I was going to run out of women to highlight. I had told myself at the outset that I wanted to include as many women as men in the project, but I found this very difficult to do in practice, and I didn’t end up succeeding on that front (though I did better than I was expecting: 12 out of 29 for a total of 41%). The fact is that there are hardly any black women in the sciences. Shirley Ann Jackson (Feb. 3) was one of the first black women to earn a Ph.D. in physics…ever. And this only happened in 1973, 43 years ago. To put this in perspective, the last time someone walked on the moon was in 1972. Between then and 2012, only 66 black women earned physics Ph.D’s, while in the same period, more than 22,000 white men earned the same degree. For every 1,000 white men that have earned a physics Ph.D. over the last 40 years, only 3 black women have joined them, and the numbers in the other sciences are not particularly less dismal. Black women make up 6% of the US population but only 2% of its working scientists.

Testimonials from black women in the sciences generally take the same tone: “We love science, but we don’t often feel welcomed by other scientists.” The popular image of scientists might be as quiet, aloof nerds, but my experience has been that scientists are just as social as the rest of the population. The fact that entire groups of people have different experiences is not entirely surprising, but is disappointing nonetheless.

Luckily, there are a number of good programs coming together to promote STEM education within traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities. Efforts like Black Girls Code and MentorNet are blazing a much-needed trail, and many of the people I highlighted this month have been very active in advocating for improvements in science education among minority schoolchildren.

4. I had a few crises of conscience over whether the project was useful or harmful (and I’m still having them even as I write this).

Projects like this are inherently dangerous. There’s the tendency for people to see a list of 29 eminent black scientists and say to themselves, “See, I knew science didn’t have a diversity problem.” Of course, as I’ve partially explained above, I had a considerable amount of trouble even completing one short month at the rate of one highlight per day. There’s also a tendency toward hero worship: the notion that a person’s work is not valuable if they don’t have a Wikipedia page. In reality, thousands of scientists pour their lives into their research, receiving at most a modicum of attention from other scientists working in closely related fields. And yet, it is only by their collective efforts that our technology has advanced to the point where it is today. The point of diversifying science is not to generate more famous minority and women scientists, nor is it to meet some politically expedient racial or gender-based quota, as a box to be checked in some equality “to-do list.” The point is to ensure that the potential of a creative mind is not squandered because that mind was made to feel inferior. It’s to recognize that promising solutions to the pressing issues that face our society are in danger of being lost because the inventors of those solutions feel uncomfortable letting their voices be heard.

So why did I bother with all of this? I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m not an expert on race relations or history; I worry constantly that I’m offending people with this project. So what was the point? Part of me wants to feign innocence and say that I simply wanted to plug up some holes in my knowledge. But I knew going into this that I would encounter uncomfortable truths: credit stealing, passing as white, struggling against Jim Crow. Science is often idealized as a pure meritocracy, but deep in our hearts, I think most scientists know this isn’t strictly true. For me, this project has thrown into sharp relief just how far we are from that ideal. Part of the point of the project was for me to attempt, in some small way, to come to grips with this fact. And, to be honest, the stories fascinated me too much for me to quit. I hope it was as interesting to everyone reading this as it was to me.


  • The NSF report from 2013 on women and minorities in science was an eye-opener. It can be found here.

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