July Science on Tap Was Celebration of Black Scientists

This image is a flyer for a Science on Tap event titled Celebrating Black Scientists.

What does breaking up a “toad couple” mean to a scientist? To Korin Jones, it meant a normal day turned into an awkward situation.

Jones, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying the skin microbiome of frogs, visits wetlands and ponds in the New River Valley to collect data on mating frogs. One day, while doing research in the field, Jones was mistaken as a female mate by a large male toad. Jones’ hand was squeezed tightly by the confused toad.

“He seems to have mistaken me for a female toad and assumed that we were now going to become an item,” explained Jones, “which was not the case.”

Being mistaken as a female toad is not the only danger that Jones deals with in his field. As a young Black male scientist, he says, he would be very uncomfortable collecting his research animals anywhere but Kentland Farm, which is university property and staffed by people who recognize him as a researcher.

After the number of tragedies this year related to racial injustice in the United States, the Science on Tap organizing committee felt that it was important to hear from Black scientists, both about their research and about their experiences related to race. The July Science on Tap event allowed an online audience of more than 100 to participate in a conversation about being Black in science.

Patty Raun, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science, moderated the panel of graduate students and faculty as they talked about their current work and their personal experiences and opinions related to social issues in academia.

The panelists began by sharing the joys of their work, much of it with animal and plant species native to the New River Valley. Talking about what got them to go for their passion in academia, scientists on the panel listed their families and other Black scientists as their main support systems in helping them gain the confidence to get where they are now.

Amber Wendler, a Ph.D. student in the biological sciences studying the behavior of tropical birds, talked about how social media has connected her to many people of color in science, making her feel more represented and empowered.

Wendler’s new-found Twitter science community led to her participation in Black Birders Week this past spring, a social media movement to increase the visibility of Black birders and highlight Black nature enthusiasts. The events of the week were inspired by an incident that caught major media attention, when Black birder Christian Cooper was harassed by a white woman in Central Park while birdwatching.

Another panelist, Dr. Emmanuel Frimpong, associate department head and professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, shared that entering public spaces for science requires perseverance in young Black scientists, perhaps especially in areas like southwestern Virginia.

Perseverance helps to break down barriers, he said, as once residents know you are there to do good as a scientist, they will often welcome you.

“I have made some incredible friendships with people who, when they hear my story and they understand where I’m coming from and what I do, they want me there,” said Frimpong, who studies the ecology and conservation of freshwater fish.

But he also has grown accustomed to being treated with suspicion. While walking in public parkland, he has been told by whites that he is “on private property.”

A lack of diversity is not only an issue for Black scientists in public spaces. Academic departments would also benefit with more diverse cultural backgrounds and points of view. Dr. Shaz Zamore, a faculty member at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who focuses on inclusion in STEM shared that their initial assumption of academia as a place of rigor in science and in social issues has often been proved wrong, stating that “academia is no different from the rest of the world.”

“I kind of just forgot that scientists are human and are going to be subject to all of the human vices like the tendencies you learn in your society,” said Zamore.

Zamore, who conducted research at Virginia Tech on flying snakes before moving to Colorado, compared recruiting Black academics to inviting a vegan to a dinner party and providing no vegan options. Simply giving more people a spot at the table is inadequate, they said; education, structural changes, and active anti-racist efforts also are needed.

Raun asked what short- and long-term changes the panelists would like to see to make academia more inclusive.

Panelist Daniel Smith, a biological systems engineering Ph.D. student studying the role of plants in streambank erosion, mentioned diversity hiring as an immediate change needed in larger academic recruitment efforts.

Smith recommends creating concrete plans to increase diversity and inclusion, such as recruiting through conferences. On top of that, Smith urged leaders to “get rid of the sense that diversity and excellence in the field are mutually exclusive.” Departments need to recognize that diversity hiring and excellence go hand in hand, he said.

Frimpong also wishes more departments would increase diversity hiring.

“I feel lonely sometimes” he said, “and I think my work would be a little more fun if I had a little more of my kind around here, doing biology.”

Wendler called for academic departments to actively dismantle systemic racism, instead of relying on “color blind” practices currently used, to provide a better environment for all scientists.

“There’s multiple identities,” she said. “We are scientists. I’m black. I’m also a woman, and these things I cannot separate. I think that needs to be acknowledged.”

Jones described an ecological process relevant to his research to express his hope for societal change.

“Priority effects can be disrupted by community disturbance,” he explained, referring to species in a community altering conditions that affect other species. “So even if a historical contingency has led to the status quo as we know it, through disturbance this can be changed. In the same way. . .just because something was racist doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. It’s easy to disrupt or disturb that thing and bring about a new community. Ecology has shown this with other communities. . .We can take some of these principles and apply it to what we’re dealing with here.”

You can watch the July event here to hear more from the five panelists.

Science on Tap has gone virtual during COVID-19. Don’t miss the September 24 event, 5:30 p.m., on all things bicycling! Register here.

By Catherine Watling, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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