#BlackHistoryMonth & the importance of mentors. #DiversityJC recap


February was #BlackHistoryMonth, and we decided to celebrate it in our monthly #DiversityJC, along the discussion about the importance of mentors and role models. You can read the complete Storify of our discussion here.

For our discussion, we addressed an article that indicated black science students are more likely to stay in science if they have at least one black professor (a discussion about the results of this study was also published by Inside Higher Ed).

Given that article and that February is Black History Month, we asked:

The point was connecting the research article about how black students stay in school with the point that we all need role models that look like us. This may not be recognized by those of us who see people like us in positions of power and in the people we look up to and go to for assistance.

And, as the research from Dr. Price demonstrates, it’s not just mentors and role models. It’s the people we see working in science every day that also matter.

This impacts all of us
, not just minority scientists. We are all trained that the people we look to for mentors and role models should be white, male, cis-gendered, straight, and able bodied. Whether we realize it or not, not only does leaving scientists out that don’t fit that bill marginalize them and their work, it also tells the the rest of us what a scientist should look like.
So – what can we do about this?

We can do better at both highlighting minority scientists of the past, and amplifying those currently working. We can assess our own internal biases and address our own internal ideas about what a scientist looks like. We can let go of the notion that groundbreaking science was done by a lone white man, and acknowledge instead is usually done by teams of scientists working together. We can encourage our institutions to hire diverse faculty and staff, and demand conference planners to ensure diverse speakers and panelists. Essentially, the importance of role models and seeing ourselves in the jobs we aspire to is another critical reason diversity and inclusion matter.

From Dr. Price’s work, critical piece of this is addressing those communities most marginalized. While Dr. Price found black students stay in STEM with at least one black professor, the same was not found for female students, suggesting they already felt more “normal” in the scientific community. While this does not negate the importance of more women in STEM and leadership positions, it does speak to the fact that communities of color may be more marginalized.
Another point made by the discussion looked the other direction at our topic:

That is, systemic bias and resulting conscious or unconscious stereotypes alone may overtly discourage underrepresented minority scientists from attaining leadership or mentoring positions. This stress can potentially cut both ways…

These points come back again to the importance of inclusion, and ensuring our institutions not only want to become more diverse, but also be more welcoming. In so doing, that they actively work to address internal the internal culture.


Thank you to everyone who joined us for the Diversity Journal Club this month! Please check out the entire conversation on Dr. PMS’s Storify, and the Role Models we shared over the month. In addition, some important links shared during the discussion to check out:

George Washington Carver, Planter of Productive Farmers

Percy Julian, Natural Products Chemist

Til next month!

Doctor PMS
Emily Klein
Ian Street

Don’t forget to give our twitter account a follow at Diversity_JC!

The first anti-vaxxers were in… 1721??

Dear Diversity Journal Club,

As we await the recap of our discussion on Monday 9 February about privilege and vaccines refusal, I wanted to post the following email from a dear friend who studying the history of medicine.

Which, by the way, is an insanely interesting field. You should ask Sonic about it. She’s on twitter (@SonicWoytonik).

In any case, I emailed her about potential historical research into vaccines and vaccine refusal, given our conversation. Her response:

So, here are some thoughts. I’m not sure this is exactly up the alley of your group, but I think at the very least you will find this interesting. The first anti-vaxxers in North American history are on the record from 1721, even before vaccination existed (they were protesting inoculation, vaccination’s undeniably more dangerous grandparent). In many ways the 1721 episode is extremely relevant today: it involved physicians, religious leaders, and racial/class diversity. Historians have understood the pro-vaxxers to be folks who simultaneously believed in observational science (“Oh look, people who have smallpox never get it again, how about that…”) and divine intervention (i.e. inoculation is a gift from God). The anti-vaxxers were mostly rich white men who thought their authority to dictate public health was being undermined by a bunch of slaves and clergy. People were beaten in the streets, inoculation was banned, and everyone continued to get smallpox until Edward Jenner burst on the scene in the 1790s with…a vaccination! Vaccination remained controversial until the mid-1800s, when it became mandatory in many countries and totally replaced inoculation as a form of building immunity.

The second article I’m attaching here is much more recent and has to do with HPV. Personal disclosure: I believe that STIs represent the biggest failure in American public health, because controlling them is easy but totally flies in the face of the American obsession with personal responsibility. So in this article, we see how the issue of the HPV vaccine, at the time being debated as to whether it should go on the mandated vaccine register for female adolescents, is deconstructed through a feminist lens of bioethics, academic-code for OMG-levels of privilege. The author makes a lot of good points. Those good points are dripping in privilege. Just putting this one out there as food for thought.

I also learned something: inoculation was first developed in Africa, and used there before white people ever figured it out. In 1721, the pro-vaxxers learned of it from African slaves – which, for them, created significant confusion, and demonstrates that race and privilege were an issue back then too. They couldn’t reconcile their observations that inoculation worked with their belief that good things came as gifts from god, and that African people were inferior. Why would God grant an inferior people such a gift? On the flip side, anti-vaxxers said they were against a dangerous practice (which it was), but really they couldn’t see lowly slaves and clergy infiltrating on the privileged doctrine of medicine. This all also relates back to the ideas about identity – that your physical being (your body, skin color, etc) was directly tied to who you were. That is, the idea that skin color somehow says something about your ability. This gets wrapped up in disease and public health as these are things that actually affect the physical. Don’t think we’re over this today – a friend on Facebook pointed out that another layer to the story is about believing certain groups of people are more likely to carry disease.

The second article she sent along discussed why feminists should be cautious about HPV vaccines (which I actually have and currently think is a good thing). Valid points therein, in my opinion, include the “where are the men??” question – as men carry HPV, so why the f-all aren’t we calling for young men to be vaccinated? Again, ideas about identity, and responsibility (that is, women are responsibility for sexual health – as we are also responsible for pregnancy). HPV is a particularly neat one for male privilege as men don’t show symptoms (or get cancer), so can hide behind that as an excuse – they don’t need to worry about it. Never mind that being so symptom-less means they can spread that around more easily. Also, as the article wonders, shouldn’t men care about women’s health because they likely have moms/sisters/wives/daughters/friends?

So, you see, race and identity are always a confounding factor when we talk about public health. We should better understand that they should always be part of the discussion. As the anti-vaxx controversy of 1721 demonstrates – they can and do lead us astray.