By Sarah Krichel
Flipping through the glossy pages of my middle school science textbooks, the faces of old white guys stared back at me. I loved looking at Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei as much as the next student—but those aren’t the only faces I should be staring at.
Katherine Johnson, George Washington Carver and Flossie Wong-Staal are the faces of people of colour who contributed to scientific innovation: enabling NASA space programs, preventing soil depletion and helping prove HIV causes AIDS. But Tanzina Nowshin, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Ryerson University, wondered why she wasn’t learning about these scientists, along with other Indigenous, Black and people of colour (IBPOC) researchers.
We were never explicitly taught to celebrate IBPOC accomplishments in STEM. According to a 2017 journal, which analyzes science education culture, existing accomplishments of Indigenous scientists in Canada have been neither recognized nor implemented in classrooms. Our government lists discoveries integral to Western civilization, from chewing gum to petroleum jelly, yet no First Nation person’s name is there. The field’s ethnic makeup is also disproportionate to Asian, Hispanic, Black and Native American identities, according to U.S. organization Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science.
Nowshin can only imagine the impact learning about people whose voices aren’t often heard in research fields would’ve had on her. Students could feel more connected to their studies and motivated to follow in their footsteps.
“We’re missing knowledge. We’re missing opportunities. We’re missing innovation,” said Imogen Coe, the dean of Ryerson’s faculty of science. “And that’s not good for [any] of us.”
During the first days of Deborah Mepaiyeda’s computer science degree, she sat in a lecture in a row with four friends—all girls she met through a coding program. Looking around, she noticed the disproportionate gender ratio. She later realized there was an even greater absence of other Black women in her program.
It can be isolating to look around and not see people who look like you, she said. Sitting in a row of girls was a support system, a source of comfort for the now third-year student. “I kind of got used to it over time,” Mepaiyeda said. “But it’s something so there, so evident.”
Moments like this made her turn to Women in Computer Science (WiCS), a student-run initiative that aims to encourage women to pursue goals within the computer science field. Mepaiyeda became co-president of the group last May. She said that WiCS’s main goal is to plan events, workshops and ambassador programs in Ontario high schools also geared towards IBPOC students hoping to pursue STEM.
Margaret Yap, associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, is an advocate and researcher for diversity and equity in organizations focusing on ethnicity, race and gender. She said that while we see diversity in post-secondary STEM programs, it doesn’t always translate into the workforce.
Yap isn’t always quick to blame racism and sexism. Her main concern is what she calls the lack of a “pipeline” for women and minorities, referring to education and experience acquired throughout their career. This can happen through schooling and mentoring. For many IBPOC, the pipeline gets closed off. “Getting in” is different from “getting up,” Yap said, adding that if you’re hard working and willing to learn, you should be able to advance.
Women were first permitted to study science and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries. However it was only white middle-class women that succeeded in studying subjects like Latin, math and science.
“We’re missing knowledge. We’re missing opportunities. We’re missing innovation”
While European women in the 18th century were fighting for suffrage, Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman, conveys the long history of exploitation of people of colour in science. Her “large buttocks” became the subject of fascination to a British surgeon, who would take her to England from South Africa and put her on display for entertainment and research. After dying in captivity, her remains were on display in a French museum until the late ‘70s.
Today, socioeconomic status can serve as a barrier, making for generations of intellects that go ignored. It begs the question of what society might look like, had colonialism and racism not killed and silenced women and people of colour for so long.
We have to come to terms with Canada’s racist history in order to realize the severity of the problem. Maclean’s reported about this in October, referencing a University of Western Ontario professor, now dead, who published a paper in 1989 in which he argued, “People of East Asian descent have evolved to have bigger brains, higher IQs and smaller penises than those of African descent.”
In 2016, the Toronto Star reported that Canada is trying to pay more attention to Indigenous knowledge by turning to Indigenous science communities for a better understanding of climate change. The Canadian government recently announced $21 million would be provided to science, health and humanities research organizations, which work to “achieve greater diversity” among recipients and improve support for women, underrepresented groups and early-career researchers.
Yap agrees a diverse range of perspectives is beneficial to everyone, but this progress takes time and planning.
When Nowshin was visiting her little cousin, the 13-year-old turned to her and said, “Nowshin apu!” referring to her cousin as “older sister” in Bengali. “Did you know the pangolin is going extinct and no one knows about it!?” The pangolin, found in central and southern Africa, looks like an anteater with hard scales. Nowshin looks to her cousin and smiles, in awe of how similar they are in their passion for learning and science. “No, I did not know that, tell me more.” The aspiring scientist’s voice went high-pitched, explaining the need for increased awareness for endangered animals no one knows about.
Nowshin looks to Tiera Fletcher, a 22-year-old rocket structural analysis engineer who helped build a rocket NASA plans to send to Mars. Nowshin also loves the 2017 film Hidden Figures which tells the story of three women of colour whose calculations helped get the first man on the moon.
While Nowshin appreciates the increased visibility of women and IBPOC people in STEM, she wants to see more highlighting of specific scientists in the field and the change they’re making, rather than just being presented as a statistic in an article. She wants to see their faces showing up in those glossy textbook pages for future generations. “For women in engineering and people of colour in engineering, we’re much more than that.”
Nowshin dreams of changing the world by applying what she learns in school in unconventional ways to find solutions to climate change. With her little cousin’s glowing eyes glancing up at her, she saw herself. “It was from that moment on that I knew this girl was going places.”