I originally published this article for the Aspiring Professionals Hub in 2015. It’s still relevant to my work today as sadly much hasn’t changed in terms of representation in the STEM community. Do share your comments.
Up until 2011, the concepts of ‘science communication’ and ‘public engagement’ were alien to me. I had never been to a science fair, a science show or even visited a science museum! I had never sat in an audience where someone or a group of people discussed the range of opportunities and possibilities which could arise from pursuing a career within STEM.
I belong to two categories classed as underrepresented audiences in STEM; I am black and female. My recent discovery of the variety of ways in which scientists engage with the public is despite the fact that I have always been interested in science. I studied all three science subjects – Physics, Chemistry, and Biology – as well as Maths for my A’ Levels and have ‘stayed in science’ till date – working towards a PhD in Cell Biology. So, how does one with such an interest in science have such a myopic view on the diversity of career pathways within it? It’s a simple case of nature versus nurture.
When I considered science careers, I thought that the only options available to me were those depicted in the media such as forensics, lab technicians, medics and pharmacists. When researching my options for University, I would use ‘forensics or ‘pharmacy’ as keywords as opposed to science careers in general. If only I had invested in a careers fair then – perhaps my options would not have been so narrow and cliché. If I had listened to a passionate early career scientists science tell me I could have a fulfilling career as an Education Consultant, I may have made different career choices!
I can look back now that I know better and discuss various outlets that may have influenced my subject choices and helped me make informed decisions. The reality however is that there are many out there like me whose knowledge of career options are limited by their environment. The good thing is that now, decision makers within the STEM community have noticed these knowledge and information gaps and are actively seeking for ways to draw in minority communities.
An acquaintance once asked my opinion on the best way to reach BME groups – in reference to disseminating STEM information – and my response was ‘Go to church!’ My answer may be biased based on my background however, almost everyone I know goes to church on a Sunday and so does everyone they know. Some of the larger ‘black’ churches run about three services each Sunday and each service will almost always be filled to capacity. These churches also have branches all over the country so do the maths.
As a ‘black girl’, going to a science fair is not a default answer to ‘How will you spend your weekend?’ It’s a cultural thing. It is also worth considering the fact that in many of these communities, parents are usually first generation immigrants who themselves have not had much exposure to STEM. When I read articles about reaching the unrepresented in STEM I can personally relate. Relate on the level of being black and being a woman. If we want to reach any underrepresented audience, it’s important to first of all understand where they are coming from and why I wouldn’t get out of my house just to hear a science talk or look down a microscope.
So what changed in 2011? I returned to study after working two roles that I did not find fulfilling. I signed up to the STEMNET Ambassadors programme when they came to my university so once my checks were complete, ambassador requests started coming through. After my first assignment, the sense of fulfilment meant my life with STEM was here to stay. I also attended the life science career conferenceorganised by the Royal Society of Biology and this was my turning point. There was a whole world of science out there that had never crossed my path. I would highly recommend this annual conference to anyone seeking career advice.
My exposure to the alternatives with science came about after my time at the careers conference. But why was I not aware of these vast options earlier? How can the STEM community effectively ensure that the right career advice is being disseminated? In my opinion, we have the option of two routes – schools and parents. Career evenings and talks are popular with schools now so pupils have the opportunity to hear about various options. Whether or not these career evenings and talks are being embraced by a selection of schools, or are happening across board I cannot confirm but it’s a start.
In the BME community, parents play a major role in the choices their children make so it is essential that they are informed about these career options.
Although neither of my parents are in STEM careers they are both in ‘white collar’ professions, yet in guiding my career choices, they could only advise on what they knew. What is needed is an effective way of reaching the parents and guardians of children from the BME community so they may have the knowledge to support the choices their children make. The BME community will not voluntarily come to us, so we have to go to them and the best way is to reach them through their communities and this includes places of worship, market places, clubs and societies.
I’ve now been to a couple of science museums, experienced a few science fairs and wouldn’t mind giving up my evening or weekend for a science talk or event because I’m now better informed and have experienced the impact of public engagement with science. It is for this reason that I now choose to actively engage the public with science and encourage my BME network to tag along to events as well as organise events tailored to the BME community.