Seeing yourself in STEM: attracting Black talent
“Black people often don’t see themselves represented in STEM so gravitate towards other fields where they do see others that look like them. This results in a cycle of underrepresentation in science,” says recent Arts and Sciences graduate, Chelsea Anthony.
Undergraduate student, Yasmin Said, agrees, “We were looking at all the medical school graduation pictures in the Medical Sciences Building, talking about our experiences, and how we often don't see people that look like us in this field.”
Making a deliberate and welcoming space for young Black scientists is something that the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine has high on its agenda. Spearheaded by Professor Paul Hamel, the department expanded its Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Program (SURE) to include a stream designed to specifically attract Black undergraduates.
“We recently recruited for some new faculty and despite our best efforts we didn’t attract a single candidate who identified as Black,” says Hamel. “There is a complete tapering off of talent – once you get to the level of PostDoc or faculty, there is a stark underrepresentation in our field.”
Hamel started investigating how LMP could play a role in identifying and nurturing Black talent in life sciences. “It’s a complex problem and people face many barriers, but giving young students an opportunity to get research experience is one way we can try to make a difference. Gaining skills early on and being exposed to people who can write references and provide support is one step towards getting into grad school and starting a career in science.”
Yasmin and Chelsea were among the first cohort to benefit from the program.
Yasmin, now a second-year student majoring in population health and currently deciding between neuroscience and immunology for her second major, is based at U of T’s Scarborough campus.
“I’ve always loved science and the process of experimentation,” she explains. ”My high school offered many great research experiences but I had never been in a real research wet-lab before.”
Alongside learning the practical techniques of creating viruses and staining cells, it was being exposed to the process and mindset of research that was most valuable for her. “As a child, I always had to get things right, so it was amazing to learn from someone like Dr. Hamel that it’s ok to fail. That in fact, failure is an important part of the research process. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from other people at such an early stage in my career and to apply knowledge in a practical way”.
Chelsea has recently graduated from her undergraduate program of neuroscience and political sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Used to working in dry laboratories for neuroscience research, Chelsea wanted to challenge herself to get out of her comfort zone and expand her skills. She had been studying autism and the placement in LMP allowed her to investigate the genetic and molecular aspects of this condition.
“It’s not an environment I’m comfortable in and I was very nervous, but Dr. Hamel was very patient and willing to help me build my skills and confidence,” she explains. “He showed me the joy and frustration that comes with having to repeat the same experiments over and over. I learned a lot from that and now feel I can be a better researcher.”
Both students worked alongside graduate students in the lab to get experience of working in a research team, learning skills and completing their own independent research projects which they presented at the SURE program research day at the end of the summer.
However, it wasn’t just the science they enjoyed. The fact that they were not the only Black student in the room made a difference. “It shows us that we deserve to be here. We make sure we support each other, even outside the lab. It is a great opportunity to let Black students find each other and build their network so they don’t feel alone,” explains Yasmin. “I think sometimes Black students are hesitant to enter a space where they don't see a lot of people that look like them it's because they don't think it will accommodate them. Programs like this are a boost that will encourage people as they have a seat at the table”.
Attracting more Black students into the department is one way to inspire the next generation and create a pipeline of talent in the sciences, but also a great learning experience for LMP. “We need to really understand the barriers that young Black scientists face if we are to make a difference and gain more representation in STEM,” says Hamel, “having them in the room with us enables this dialogue.”
Hamel is aware of the difficulties of developing the program. “It’s tricky to make a program like this sustainable over the long term as the system is geared against it. Labs are highly competitive, funding is limited, and they are encouraged to take on the most experienced students, not necessarily undergraduates with limited or no lab experience. We need to make space for initiatives like these and investigate where we can reduce barriers”.
Dr. Rita Kandel, Chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology has supported the program and mentored students in her own lab. “There is enthusiasm and support for developing this initiative at all levels of the department. We have the will, and we are working out the ways. I am hoping for a future with many more Black scientists in Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology”.
The LMP Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Program (SURE) is open to undergraduate students across Canada.
This is initiative is a partnership with the Community of Support's Research Application Support Initiative (RASI).