Black History Month offers a chance to reflect on the pioneering accomplishments of Black scientists of the past, but it’s also a time to recognize the ongoing outstanding work of Black scientists today – and those working to inspire and champion future Black excellence in STEM.
Award-Winning Scientists and Innovators
AAAS has long honored Black scientists among its elected fellows – members whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications in service to society have distinguished them among their peers. Elected fellows span the full range of disciplines represented by AAAS, from pioneering cell biologist Ernest Everett Just, elected in 1920, to this year’s induction of NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space.
AAAS’ slate of awards are another avenue for recognizing scientists, engineers, authors, journalists and public servants for significant contributions to science and the public’s understanding of science. This year, recipients of AAAS awards included Rashawn Ray, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution, who received the 2022 Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science for his work that integrates his internationally recognized expertise on racial and social inequality with extensive public engagement efforts. Kizzmekia Corbett was the 2022 recipient of the 2022 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science for her work in developing the lifesaving Moderna mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. She also played a central role in the effort to address vaccine inquisitiveness in communities of color, her nominators noted.
Corbett “has likely saved tens of thousands of lives in the last year. When people are asked why they decided to take the vaccine, they say ‘because of Dr. Kizzy,’” said Kafui Dzirasa of Duke University.
Honoring HBCU Innovators
AAAS programs, too, recognize the innovative work of future Black leaders of the scientific enterprise –and work to make science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine a space where all participants can thrive.
The 2021 HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase was hosted by AAAS with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) HBCU-UP Program. Dozens of student teams from historically Black colleges and universities pitched innovations developed in response to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University won the 2021 showcase for creating a UV sanitation drone designed to battle airborne pathogens.
The showcase “highlights the inventive and entrepreneurial talent at our nation’s HBCUs” said Neela White, AAAS project director and NSF co-principal investigator.
The showcase was first held alongside the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM, which brings together more than a thousand undergraduate and graduate students from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to share their research. AAAS has also supported students from HBCU at several other events, including the Virtual HBCU Innovation Summit and Presidents’ Meeting and the 2021 Virtual Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) Fall Forum.
“The goal of these initiatives is to tap into the full potential of a diverse cadre of students to support and advance equitable STEM education, research, innovation and career opportunities,” said Iris R. Wagstaff, AAAS STEM Program Director and NSF PI.
Building a More Inclusive STEMM Enterprise
The SEA Change initiative at AAAS takes a systemic approach to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. Under the guidance of Shirley Malcom, SEA Change supports colleges and universities as they undertake a data-informed self-assessment process to identify barriers to DEI. Based on their individual findings, each institution creates their own plan to break down barriers for students, staff and faculty from groups who have been excluded or marginalized based on race as well as gender, ethnicity, disability status or any other aspect of identity that has been a source of bias in STEMM.
Twenty-five educational institutions have joined SEA Change so far as charter members, and five universities have earned SEA Change Institutional Bronze Awards for the work they have accomplished in pursuit of inclusion.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Since 2019, AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors – women representing a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers – have served as high-profile role models for middle school girls. Among them are many accomplished Black women who have connected with and inspired the next generation of women in STEM.
Ciara Sivels, for instance, is a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, a nuclear engineer and the first Black woman to receive her PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan. She was featured in a recent docuseries, “Not the Science Type.” The film, produced by 3M in partnership with Generous Films and AAAS, celebrates four female scientists who confront stereotypes as they rise to prominence in their fields.
A pair of AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors, Jasmine Sadler and Arlyne Simon, are collaborating on their grant project to set up a “FEMME Pals” website. The platform will facilitate women engineers signing up as pen pals to Black girls between the ages of 10-18.
Health technologist Nicole Jackson has connected with 1,090 students from 26 states through the educational volunteering platform Nepris, which has allowed girls to reach out with questions about science and technology – and more personal concerns.
“We started talking about George Floyd. We started talking about the emotional impacts of being a Black woman leader in technology,” Jackson said. “They wanted to hear the truth, and I think the fact that they were bold enough to ask tells you everything you need to know about this generation.”