STEM: Branching into Black British History

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As a result of the critically acclaimed 2016 film Hidden Figures, more people can reference the work of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson when thinking about black history in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Along with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, she solved the orbital mechanics necessary to map the moon’s surface. This served the success of the Lunar Orbiter Program and the future 1969 moon landing.

According to bbstem.co.uk, 6.2% of UK domiciled students enrolled in STEM-related subjects at UK universities are black. This statistic is very daunting to a black woman studying engineering such as myself. Representation matters, and when I thought about Black British history in STEM, I was certain that the UK was sure to have their own ‘Hidden Figures’. That is why for this year’s Black History Month, I knew that I needed to research, become more aware and celebrate the Black British contribution to Science and Technology, through the following examples.

Hidden Figure #1
Born in Birmingham in 1947, Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu is an Emeritus Professor of Nursing and Patron of the Sickle Cell Society. Elizabeth was inspired to become a nurse at a young age after positive experiences with one during her childhood eczema treatments. She began work at age 16 as a school nurse assistant for the NHS in Wolverhampton. Her following achievements were outstanding with her early focus on working with the black and minority ethnic (BME) groups in London. She completed her PhD at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education and later worked at UCL as a lecturer in Community Genetic Counselling. Beyond being recognised by the field of nursing, Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu has also been knighted and honoured with Damehood (DBE), highlighting her great achievements in her field and contribution to British society.

Hidden Figure #2 
Born in London in 1968, Professor Clifford Johnson is a Theoretical Physicist. He received his BSc in Physics at Imperial College London before completing his PhD here at the University of Southampton. He is now a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California. His research interests include superstring theory and particle physics. In 2005, he was awarded the Maxwell Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics. This prize recognises outstanding early-career contributions to theoretical physics. As well as his research achievements, he takes an active role in consultancy work for both the History and the Discovery Channel and outreach projects such founding the African Summer Theory Institute (ASTI). Scientific outreach is very important for getting people, who may not have all the resources or opportunities, to get involved in science. ASTI gathers students, professional educators and researchers annually to learn about different scientific research topics in an enjoyable and inspiring manner.

Hidden Figure #3

Bola Fatimilehin is the current Head of Diversity at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Her twitter biography expresses that she is “committed to increasing diversity through dialogue and by stimulating culture change. Promoting access, inclusion and progression for minority groups.” Not only does she want to improve diversity within the Royal Academy of Engineering itself she also aims to do the same in the engineering profession. Regarding her plans in making engineering more accessible to minority groups, she has proposed projects which bring students and BME role models together to discuss and give insight into what a career as an engineer is like and show the range of different people working in the sector.

As we have seen in these examples, there is a common thread when exploring black history in STEM. The many trailblazers who have paved the way to more great achievements are willing to help others, and strive to diversify their field of study. Their stories and actions show us that no matter your gender, ethnicity or background, nothing is ever out of your reach.

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