Black Scientists Lead the Push for Equity in Science and Medicine

By Tonya Russell

Donita Brady, PhD

The Juneteenth holiday celebrated on June 19 is one of delayed recognition. It’s a day for Black Americans to celebrate freedom and civil rights. It commemorates a date, in 1865, when the last large group of enslaved people in the U.S. belatedly learned they were legally free, at the end of the Civil War and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

It took over 150 years for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday, and today, in academia and other large institutions, the pattern of delayed progress toward equity persists.

But there is a great deal of momentum and leadership toward racial equity today. In response to recent years’ calls for equitable practices, the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) have undergone their own racial reckoning. In a recent article published in the academic journal Cell, 52 Black scientists give voice to the barriers and struggles faced by the population—where only 5% of academic faculty are Black. The Cell commentary included insight from three Penn Medicine faculty: Donita Brady, PhD; Blanton Tolbert, PhD; and Cornelius Taabazuing, PhD.

Brady, the Harrison McCrea Dickson, MD and Clifford C. Baker, MD, Presidential Professor in Cancer Biology and assistant dean for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Research Training in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the corresponding authors of this piece. An accomplished cancer biologist and leader in advancing health equity, Brady spoke about the process of tackling this tough topic, including an exploration of barriers to racial equity in the U.S., why the number of Black scientists is still so low, and the ways that Penn is protecting the mental health of marginalized faculty and students.

What prompted the Cell commentary about Juneteenth in STEMM, and how did you form the author group?

A lot of work went into having Cell Press use prime real estate for the June 8 issue of Cell to talk about Juneteenth and what it means in STEM and to highlight and amplify the voices of Black scientists. The vision and leadership for the seven-part series in this issue was orchestrated by Dr. Antentor Hinton Jr, an assistant professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University, who worked closely with Cell Press’s Inclusion and Diversity Officer Isabel Goldman to brainstorm ways to highlight the importance of Juneteenth to the scientific community and especially, Black scientists. Dr. Hinton orchestrated the inclusion of everyone from senior faculty, new principal investigators, to trainees by identifying contribution types that aligned with the Cell portfolio like the stories, voices, and a commentary as a way to amplify our voices.

Many trainees and faculty started working behind the scenes in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. As Black scientists, we all felt like we needed more community and as a result many of us united through social networks using hashtags in the form #BlackinX, such as #BlackinCancer or #BlackinSTEM, to launch new communities. A lot of that was driven by the fact that there are not that many of us. For example, a Black PI (principal investigator) group was created and I was thankful to be a part of the discussions with colleagues and now friends from across the country and world. Our ability to connect to one another to create this piece really comes from building out these networks in a grassroots way. We provide support from one another for research, mentoring, and day-to-day life. We celebrate the wins and we support the losses.

You and your co-authors work in a wide variety of different specialties, yet you came together on this. What is a shared experience among Black academics?

I think a shared experience is feeling like you’re only one or amongst a few wherever you are — whether that is at the institution where you’re doing your transformative research, or when you go to share your ideas within a research community. With that knowledge and reality of being one of the few is feeling that, in order to be successful, we have to work two times as hard to make sure that we succeed and we don’t have the freedom to make mistakes along the way while battling impostor syndrome, microaggressions, tokenism, and stereotype threat. We also feel responsible for the generations after us and ensuring that they have the opportunity that we do right now.

With only 5% of professors at institutions across the country identifying as Black or African American, we know what’s at stake. That has always felt really heavy to me, and I want to make sure that I am leading the way in creating opportunities for others and ensuring that the environment they arrive in provides a sense of belonging.

What barriers have prevented more people of color, specifically Black people, from getting into academia and/or STEMM fields?

One of the things we emphasize in this piece is that Juneteenth was a moment in our history where enslaved Black people were freed, but there continued to be other ways to decrease our upward mobility. We experienced these additional institutional barriers that were put into place from Jim Crow laws, segregation, a lack of equal housing opportunities, the disparities in resources for public education, and limited generational wealth due to slavery. For those of lower socioeconomic status, the educational barriers can be exacerbated and limit access to and knowledge of opportunities. The reality is that most of us including myself were less likely to know someone that shared our identity in this career path and could provide opportunities for us in academic medicine and research. I didn’t know that this was a career until the summer of 2002 when I completed a 10-week summer undergraduate research experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill based on a chance recommendation from my advisor at Radford University.

But, ultimately, as we strive to increase representation it won’t matter if we don’t improve retention, which will require changes in academic medical institutions to make them feel more welcoming to people who have been historically excluded from these spaces in the past.

What can academia do to avoid their Juneteenth and/or DEI efforts seeming performative?

That’s a hard one. Juneteenth became a federal holiday only two years ago. I don’t know that many knew of its significance and its important to Black Americans at their institutions. I think one of the biggest ways is with financial resources. We must commit to promoting diversity in hiring practices so that representation is increased and the generations behind us know that they belong here. We need to fortify the pathways to career opportunities in STEMM by engaging across the educational trajectory within our communities through spearheading research and clinical experiences. We should also identify ways to address the mental health struggles and stress felt by students, postdocs, and faculty that come from historically excluded backgrounds so that they’re not overburdened when trying to achieve their goals. We must value the time spent by trainees and faculty on DEI innovation that helps to create a culture of inclusivity by providing community engagement certificates and considering the contribution as part of promotion practices. Finally, institutions should provide opportunities for everyone to contribute to improve the culture and climate to reduce the diversity tax.

The commentary mentions the stress that comes with being a Black scientist. Do you feel that institutions are doing enough to protect the mental health of Black scientists?

I think that some institutions are thinking carefully about the mental health of students in general, and I think that we all recognized this even more during and coming out of the pandemic, the stress, anxiety, and pressure that comes with being a researcher or an academic and how that strains your mental health. While the trainees at Penn have access to counseling services, we find that pipeline issues in that profession lead to a reduced likelihood that you can work with a mental health professional who shares your background and identity. At Penn, above and beyond the support systems that are available for counseling and peer support such as Penn COBALT, we’re focused on the creation of communities of belonging through our IDEAL Research Trainee Affairs and providing support and advocacy for trainees with the Trainee Advocacy Alliance (TAA). Specifically, TAA is collaborative group of Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) graduate students, Biomedical Postdoctoral Program (BPP) post-docs, and Penn faculty members from across the University who are committed to creating, nurturing, and maintaining a Penn biomedical research community that embodies inclusivity, diversity, and equity. TAA provides support for trainees experiencing adversity or distress as members of the Penn Medicine research training community.

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