Lessons from Black History Remind Us That Diversity Among Scientists Is Crucial to Scientific Advancement
Do the names Charles Richard Drew, Mark Dean, Gladys West, and Percy Lavon Julian mean anything to you? For most Americans, the answer is “no.” But the work of these brilliant Black scientists enabled multiple innovations essential to modern life.
As we observe Black History Month, recounting these researchers’ careers illustrates precisely why the best science requires ensuring the best minds are in the room.
Charles Richard Drew was a physician widely regarded as “the Father of the Blood Bank.” A native of the District of Columbia who earned an MD from McGill University and a doctorate from Columbia University, this surgeon developed methods for preserving and storing blood that saved countless lives during World War II; these methods later became the model for modern blood storage and preservation. He served for many years on the faculty of the Howard University School of Medicine.
Mark Dean is a computer engineer who co-developed technology that helped make personal computers widely usable. The Tennessee native, who earned his PhD from Stanford University, went on to lead a team of IBM engineers who developed the first gigahertz processing chip in 1999, making PCs vastly more powerful. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and emeritus professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Gladys West is a mathematician whose work for the Navy led to the first accurate models of the Earth’s surface; those models paved the way for the creation of the Global Positioning System (GPS). The Virginia native was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame for her work.
Percy Lavon Julian was an organic chemist who discovered processes for using soybeans and other plants to synthesize hormones now used in drugs like cortisone and birth control pills. He earned an MS from Harvard University before going on to receive his PhD from the University of Vienna. The Alabama native was eventually inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
Each of these innovators had to struggle to gain their education and then to find employment opportunities where they could use their expertise to contribute meaningfully to the world of scientific advancement. While the barriers aren’t as blatant today, African Americans in STEM fields still face significant hurdles to success. For instance, although Black Americans represent approximately 13% of our population, they accounted for only 2.8% of all natural sciences and engineering PhDs awarded by U.S. universities in 2018.
This inequity creates an obvious problem: We’re missing out on lots of talent, which makes it difficult for the United States to remain competitive on the global scientific and technological stage. For more than a decade now, according to the Census Bureau, the majority of children born in our country each year have been non-white – with that share growing annually.
This is why AAU, our member institutions, and our partners are working on multiple fronts to ensure greater diversity and equity in STEM education and career pathways. For instance, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program works to increase diversity among, and opportunities for, STEM students. Vanderbilt University partners with its Nashville neighbor, the historically Black Fisk University, to operate a master’s-to-PhD bridge program that provides historically marginalized students with opportunities to engage in cutting-edge research. And the University of California Irvine has established a cutting-edge program to make the entire university more welcoming to, and supportive of, Black students. Called the UCI Black Thriving Initiative, it aims to change the culture and eliminate structural barriers campus-wide. These are just three of many programs at AAU’s 66 member universities whose goal is to ensure we don’t exclude our best scientific talent.
AAU is also engaged in broader equity efforts. Our Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative and PhD Education Initiative are leaning in to their longstanding focus on diversity, equity, and community. And AAU recently launched a dialogue between our institutions’ leaders and those of research-intensive historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on how we can work together to achieve equity and broaden Black representation in all areas of research.
While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. But I’m proud that AAU and our members are working more intentionally than ever before to ensure that exceptional scientific minds have access to exceptional educational and research opportunities.