Experiences of Black STEM event examines inequities, calls for action

On July 14 and 15, faculty, students, and staff from five academic institutions came together to share their perspectives on the current barriers facing Black scholars in STEM fields, and to inspire participants to take action to address racial inequity in STEM.

The two-day event, “Experiences of Black STEM in the Ivory: A Call to Disruptive Action,” was held virtually and organized by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago (PME), the Molecular Engineering and Sciences Institute at the University of Washington at Seattle, Georgia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, and Boston University.

The event takes shape

The conference came about after worldwide calls for racial justice prompted the organizers to postpone a virtual scientific poster session and change course. Among the organizers were Rovana Popoff, senior associate dean and dean of students at Pritzker Molecular Engineering, and Andrew Ferguson, associate professor of molecular engineering at PME.

“With the killing of George Floyd and other Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, and the protests and awakening that it sparked, it was our feeling—and that of the student organizers—that it was not appropriate to send a message of scientific ‘business as usual’ by continuing with the molecular engineering virtual poster session as planned,” said Ferguson, PME deputy dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

In addition to postponing the original event, Patrick Stayton, a professor at the University of Washington, proposed an online conference to highlight Black experiences in STEM and to try to catalyze change within the discipline.

“I think that it is critical to raise awareness of the systematic and institutionalized discrimination and racism that Black scholars, staff, and administrators face,” Ferguson said. “We felt that with the increased awareness and activism surrounding Black Lives Matter, BlackInTheIvory, and AbolishSTEM, there was a lot of energy, interest, and desire for an event like this.”

Students get involved and share their stories

The first day of the conference consisted of panel discussions with staff, students, and faculty sharing their experiences as Black scholars and professionals in STEM. It was important to the event organizers to foster collaboration, and student voices were a crucial component.

Two of the student participants were Susan Okrah and Britteny Cassaidy, PhD students at PME.

Susan Okrah
PhD student Susan Okrah

Okrah decided to participate on the student panel after experiencing feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome during her first year. "I was the only one coming from a Historically Black College or University, and I felt like I was representing all HBCUs. So if I didn’t do well, they would think that all HBCU students could not handle the rigor of the program."

Eventually, Okrah realized many of her peers felt the same way. Talking with them, along with her undergraduate professors, helped her overcome the feeling of not belonging.

"I knew it was important to tell my story," she said. "I felt like everyone should know they are not alone in their feelings of frustration or isolation. When people know they are not alone, it helps them find their community and start a conversation on how to decrease those feelings for future cohorts."

After the event, she felt that people were listening and genuinely cared about the issues that students were raising. "Seeing the deans' responses to some of our concerns on Wednesday made me feel like they are going to take this call-to-action seriously,” Okrah said. “Although it is going to take some time, they are willing to put in the work to help fix the problem."

Resolving to do more

The second day featured a panel of deans who talked about how colleges might take action, followed by a Q&A discussion on ending racism in academia. Dean of PME Matthew Tirrell said academic institutions must respond during this time of reckoning with racial injustice.

“At PME, we want our students, faculty, staff, and community to know that we are listening and committed to taking action. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are our goals, and we plan to develop and implement actionable steps to improve our work in those areas,” he said.

In the course of the event, panelists mentioned disruptive actions that individuals and institutions could take to combat racial injustice in academia, such as abolishing tenure, firing faculty who practice or promote racism, making faculty recruiting and promotion contingent on commitment to and participation in EDI efforts, academic reparations, protecting those who call out racism, issuing fines for racist behavior, redistributing funds to EDI initiatives, ending tokenism in public relations efforts, and anti-racism training for faculty.

“Raising awareness and providing a platform for Black experiences in STEM is just the beginning,” Ferguson said. “We hope this event and others translate into concrete actions for equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism in STEM.”

A list of resources from the panelists can be found here: IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism) Resources.