Democratize the White Coat by Honoring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Science

Democratize the White Coat by Honoring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Science

Celebrating BIPOC's achievements in science are a strong first step to make science a guiding force for all.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

Journalists, educators, and curators have responded to Black Lives Matter by highlighting the history and achievements of Black Americans in a variety of fields, including science. The movement has also sparked important demands to address longstanding scientific inequities such as lack of access to quality healthcare and the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental pollution on neighborhoods of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Making such improvements requires bringing BIPOC into science and into positions of leadership in laboratories, graduate schools, medical practices, and clinical trials. The moment is right to challenge scientific gatekeepers to respond to Black Lives Matter by widening the pathways that determine who becomes a scientist, a researcher, or a clinician.

The scientific workforce has long lacked diversity, which in turn discourages Black people from pursuing such careers. Causes include a dearth of mentors and role models, preconceived notions that science is exclusive to white males, and subpar STEM education. Across race, gender, class, ability, and all other dimensions that inform how an individual navigates the world, from the familial to the global level, seeing role models who resemble you impacts what you strive for and believe possible. As Marian Wright Edelman stated, "You can't be what you can't see"—a truth with ever-increasing resonance since the U.S. is projected to be minority-white by 2045.

Black Americans have paved the way for the nation to lead in science and technology, despite marginalization and exclusion from textbooks. Physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson invented the technology behind Caller I.D. and Call Waiting. Otis Boykin's patents made televisions and radios what they are today. Thanks to the 2017 movie Hidden Figures, millions of Americans know about Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose calculations were essential to the successful trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission.

However, highlighting past role models who were Black achievers is not enough and paints too static a picture—especially when examples of transformative work by contemporary BIPOC scientists serving BIPOC communities abound. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Jackson founded the Community Access, Recruitment, & Engagement (CARE) Research Center with the goal to break down barriers so that people of color participate in clinical trials. Geneticist Dr. Nanibaa' Garrison's research creates ethical frameworks to overcome genomic injustices so Indigenous populations can benefit from genetic research. Computer scientists Joy Buolamwini and Dr. Timnit Gebru's research drew attention to reinforced racial bias in artificial intelligence, leading Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM this summer to halt use of their facial recognition software.

"Integration does not mean equality if the space being integrated isn't exuberantly down for the cause."

In order to honor concretely the ubiquitous public statements and commitments to justice and equity that flooded everyone's inboxes in early June, we must include traditionally underrepresented voices in all phases of science and its applications. For guidance, we would benefit from listening to activists leading, for example, climate marches and protests over toxic water. Indeed, science is at the core of the issues for which young BIPOC are mobilizing. We need to sit down with these individuals to gain their input on how the narratives, practices, and opportunities in science should change. As Zeena Abdulkarim, a youth climate change organizer working with Zero Hour, explains: "Minority communities are exposed to what the privileged and people in power are not; therefore these communities know the right steps to take in the change we need for the kickstart of true social and environmental justice."

Two other Black youth, for example, used the platform of the laboratory while in high school to mobilize for change. Elle Lanair Lett, now specializing in epidemiology as an M.D.-Ph.D. student in Philadelphia, was prompted by family prevalence of diabetes to research the genetics of pancreatic cells. Dr. Otana Jakpor, now an ophthalmology resident in Michigan, was motivated by the pollution in her hometown of Riverside, California, to research the pulmonary effects of indoor air purifiers, with findings that influenced California ozone regulations. Both became finalists in a national science fair, propelling them on paths toward science careers. These young scientists demonstrate how people's communities and lived experiences can shape trajectories of science research, which, in turn, determines which visions for society are materialized and popularized.

We can also gain insight from another childhood science fair veteran, self-proclaimed "Black STEMinist" Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, who graduated from college in May and works as a bioengineer. In her view, "we need to shift the burden away from Black people and onto individuals who have contributed to our current reality—fundamentally requiring understanding, open-mindedness, a lack of bias, cultural competency, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and many, many other things."

Celebrating BIPOC's accomplishments in science and cultivating new leadership today are strong first steps to make science a guiding force for all. Ms. Uwamanzu-Nna keenly reminds us, "Integration does not mean equality if the space being integrated isn't exuberantly down for the cause." Indeed, educational institutions, scientific companies, and medical centers must acknowledge and embrace their role in democratizing science in order for society to realize racial and scientific justice.

[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]

Garance Choko and Aaron Mertz
Garance Choko started her career as a concert pianist at a very young age. Later, when she moved to the United States to continue her performance studies, she pursued her passion for public administration and innovation. She earned her Masters of Public Administration from Cornell University. Garance has launched innovation firms and designed and implemented physical spaces, national and local health care systems, nationwide public administration processes, and labor policies for institutions, corporations, and governments in North America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. - - - Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa

Tardigrades can completely dehydrate and later rehydrate themselves, a survival trick that scientists are harnessing to preserve medicines in hot temperatures.

Adobe Stock

Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.

Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.

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Gail Dutton
Gail Dutton has covered the biopharmaceutical industry as a journalist for the past three decades. She focuses on the intersection of business and science, and has written extensively for GEN – Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Life Science Leader, The Scientist and BioSpace. Her articles also have appeared in Popular Science, Forbes, Entrepreneur and other publications.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience

Jamie Rettinger with his now fiance Amie Purnel-Davis, who helped him through the clinical trial.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Rettinger

Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.

"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.

A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.

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Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.