Making the Work of Black Scientists Accessible to the Public

Category: Black Issues,News,STEM EDUCATION,Subfeature |
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by Lois Elfman

Since 2000, The HistoryMakers (www.thehistorymakers.com) web campaign has been conducting interviews with prominent African-Americans in fields such as business, education, entertainment, law, music and religion. So far, 2,000 people in more than 80 U.S. cities and towns have been interviewed.

Two years ago, HistoryMakers founder and executive director Julieanna L. Richardson put a focus on the field of science with the mission of using the life stories of individuals in the sciences as a way to encourage people to enter professions in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. A $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation has made the ScienceMakers project a reality.

“The reference to a Black scientist is George Washington Carver,” Richardson says. “There is a huge lack of knowledge that our project is really committed to changing.”

The grant provides for partnerships with 10 science centers around the country, and there is an ongoing series of public events at which some of the ScienceMakers speak to enraptured audiences. In the coming months, the video interviews will become available for viewing on the web.

“Our project has the capacity to change the whole paradigm by introducing the world to the lives of these scientists,” says Richardson. “Up until now, the focus has been on subject matter, but not on the people.”

Each video recorded interview lasts about three hours, and the subjects are asked about everything from their childhood to their mentors. The goal is to interview 180 ScienceMakers. Thirty have been interviewed, and through collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon University Informedia Project those interviews are now edited and about to be placed online.

Starting next month, another round of video interviews will take place. The public programs and outreach efforts will increase.

Dr. James H. Stith, a physicist and retired physics professor and vice president emeritus of the American Institute of Physics, conducted four interviews and was also the subject of an interview. Growing up, Stith says he did not know any African-American physicists. In college, he studied under Dr. John Hunter, but it wasn’t until later he learned that Hunter was only the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in physics.

In his video interview, Stith said his greatest regret was that early in his career there was no one he could bounce ideas off before making big decisions.

“Rightly or wrongly, at that stage of my life you always felt you were on display,” he says. “When you had doubts about what you should do or trying to decide which trajectory to take, you felt you couldn’t talk about these choices with people from the majority group.

“What I do now is I spend a lot of time talking to folks about diversity,” he adds. “It is one of the most difficult conversations people can have, but it’s also the most needed conversation.”

As a member of the advisory board for ScienceMakers, Stith has helped identify some of the interview subjects. Many of the early interviews featured “mature” people who had achieved historic accomplishments, including physicist Dr. Julius Taylor, who was 96 when Stith interviewed him last year. As the interview process has progressed, Stith has tried to broaden the list to include younger people who are mid-career.

“As we go into school systems and start talking to young people, they want to see people a little closer to their age than I am,” Stith, 70, says.

Stith says when he speaks to young people with a passion for science and their parents, they often do not understand what a career in a STEM field would entail. Some may pursue careers in medicine by default because it is clearer what a doctor does. What he tries to enlighten people about is that a vast number of science career possibilities exist.

“We hope through ScienceMakers and through the Web we can put this information in front of a larger subset of people who are trying to make decisions,” Stith says.

In addition to the Web, Richardson and Stith say public events will provide inspiration and motivation to spread the word.

“The key thing is once we build it, we need to have collaborations to get the information out,” says Richardson.

Stith says ScienceMakers will show the human side behind scientists as well as inform young people and their families how interest in the sciences translates into careers.

“It is a great framework in which to think about emerging issues,” he says.

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