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What does it mean to be a Black scientist?

What does it mean to be a Black scientist?

A doctoral student who was collecting data for his dissertation posed this question to me. Our interview had started off in the usual way but quickly diverged toward this unsettling inquiry once it was clear that he had already read my CV and was not interested in it. He was interested in other things, besides Neruoscience- my experience as an NSF grantee; how I sustained my research program at an HBCU and why I was focusing on STEM education and not interleukin response to social stress in a rat model.

So, what DOES it mean?  The question is so laden with meaning and memory. It’s like pulling nylon thread out of decanedioyl dichloride in cyclohexane solution. The reaction occurs between the solution and molecules in the air. As long as you stir and twirl the glass rod, the synthesized thread will continue to wrap around it like a liquid snake. A fitting analogy for what this graduate student was doing. He was stirring things up and agitating snakes that were better off, hidden and still…. But are they hidden or still?

Early in my career, I realized that writing a grant was the easy part. After receiving my very first NSF grant at an institution that was not an HBCU, I found myself being pulled in other directions. I was asked to join various diversity committees. I joined them because shouldn’t I care about the University’s stated intention to increase its number of minority students? More African American students wanted to work with me in the lab but many of them had no prior skills or experience. I took them because shouldn’t I take the time to provide mentoring to African American students, even if it adds to the list of tasks and potentially slows down the research program?  I was already juggling family obligations and community involvement. I asked myself “What must I drop so that I can spend more time in the lab?”

I admitted to my young interviewer that my research was eventually compromised due to a lack of focus. There were no publications and the grant was not renewed. I had made other things more of a priority. The choice of those priorities had a lot to do with being an African American woman. At that time, I actually believed the University’s stated intention. I understood my student's need for my mentoring. I was committed to my family and my church and my sorority. So, when it came time to do reading from the databases and manuscript writing and planning the next project and managing the current project, there appeared to never be enough time for these important tasks. I’d chosen a mission over the research, before I even realized what I was doing.

This is not a new dilemma. Over one hundred years ago, two of the most famous African American scientists exemplified the benefits and costs of focusing on the research or including the research as part of a larger mission. They were George Washing Carver and Earnest Everett Just.

After obtaining a Master’s Degree from Iowa State University in 1896, George Washington Carver turned down an offer to work for Thomas Edison. Instead, Carver chose to pursue a science career at Tuskegee Institute where he outfitted his lab from items found in the local landfill. His pioneering work was credited for helping the entire American South salvage its cotton-depleted soil and produce a new cash crop- peanuts. He won international acclaim and national honors. Reflecting on his use of plants to create many common household products, Carver said that he never got a patent for his work because he felt that the starting materials rightly belonged to God. His 1943 epithet read: "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." (1)

In 1907 Earnest Everett Just, graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College. His first job was at Howard University. After working as a researcher at the Woodshole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, Just attended the University of Chicago where, in 1916, he earned a Ph.D.  By 1920 Just had published 4 papers and obtained a 10 year fellowship at Woodshole, all while he continued to teach at Howard. However, unable to obtain funding and “hindered by racial discrimination” he left the U.S. for Europe in 1930 where he conducted pioneering research on embryology and published two books before the Nazi invasion forced his return to the U.S. and to Howard University, “one of the few institutions at the time that would hire a black scientist.”  Earnest Everett Just died in 1941 (2,3).

Fortunately, times have changed and there are many more opportunities open to scientist of color. However, the dilemma faced by Just and Carver remains with us: to choose the mission (and be ok with or without recognition) or focus on the research (and endure a type of personal sacrifice that the majority of our white colleagues will never understand.)

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that African American scientists and women continue to be faced with this difficult choice between mission and research.

"People who struggle with questions of equity really struggle with career decisions," said Mary Dillard, director of the graduate program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College. "Is it more important to do scholarship on equity or spend time with the student in your office who can’t call home for advice?" can be a painful choice. ….” (4)

This article offers insight through personal vignettes that confirm what has also been shown in qualitative data. There is evidence of institutional bias in Higher Education (5, 6, 7) that directly impacts the experiences of racial minorities and women (8). This bias is rarely acknowledged (9) but takes a toll on productivity (10). In addition, there is evidence of racial bias in the way that grants are reviewed and awarded (11). Besides all of this, the micro-aggressive and normative-approved racial/gender attitudes inflicted by the most liberal, well-educated and well-meaning colleagues, strengthen any seeds of self-doubt. So, just as the molecules in the air reacts with the solution to synthesize the nylon thread, the subtleness of the race-conscious environment threatens to confirm the stereotypes. The snake is made alive by molecules in the air.

So I finally have an answer to the question, “What does it take to be a Black scientist?”  It means to consciously choose the mission of contributing to the uplift of the community while conducting the best research you can OR it means focusing on the research, being aware that others are race-conscious even if you try not to be. You must also align your working and personal lives around whatever choice you make.

As my interview with the young doctoral student ended, he asked one final question, “What would I want NSF reviewers to know and understand about researchers from HBCU’s”  I didn’t really have an answer then but after thinking about it, I would hope that NSF reviewers would at least be knowledgeable of some of the research that I have cited here on racial disparity in higher education. That may serve to educate them on the additional  emotional baggage that some of us carry.  However, much more than that, I would want them to realize that the racism that weighs on us is probably as invisible to them as molecules of air.



(1) Editors George Washington Carver Biograph.  accessed March 22, 2017

(2) Editors, Ernest Everett Just Biography, The website Accessed March 22, 201

(3) Wellner, Karen, "Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2010-06-16). ISSN: 1940-5030 accessed March 22, 2017.

(4) Gluckman, Nell “Research or Mission? Professors of Color Face Tough Choices on Where to Work” - The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 16, 2017 accessed March 22, 2017) 

(5) Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education, 36(1), 9-29

(6) Sandler, B. R. and Hall, R. (1986). The campus climate revisited: Chilly for women faculty, administrators, and graduate students. Washington, DC: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges

(7) Stanley, C. A. (2006). Faculty of color: Teaching in predominately white colleges and universities. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

(8) Hurtado, S., Eagan, M. K., Pryor, J. H., Whang, H., & Tran, S. (2012). Undergraduate teaching faculty: The 2010–2011 HRI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

(9) Kwon, S. A. (2013). The comforts and discomforts of race. Learning and Teaching, 6(3), 39-50.

(10) Eagan Jr, M. K., & Garvey, J. C. (2015). Stressing out: Connecting race, gender, and stress with faculty productivity. The Journal of Higher Education, 86(6), 923-954.

(11) Ginther, D. K., Schaffer, W. T., Schnell, J., Masimore, B., Liu, F., Haak, L. L., & Kington, R. (2011). Race, ethnicity, and NIH research awards. Science, 333(6045), 1015-1019.