The students behind the Black in STEM event in April, which was anchored by a panel discussion featuring distinguished Black scientists, professionals and students, understand there is a need for more representation and recognition in a field they believe is lacking both. The same goes for the classrooms and labs at colleges and universities.
“We wanted to bring a panel of black scientists in so that the students could have the opportunity to hear some of their experiences and maybe some of the advice that they could give as far as some of the things that they’ve struggled with being black in a STEM field,” said Jordan Forman, who organized the April 15 event with fellow STEM majors Anna Thomas, Ashauntie Reid, Amethyst Barnes and Davonya Cheek.
Diversity in STEM remains an issue. According to Pew Research, Black students earned 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees as of 2018, the most recent year available, below their share of all bachelor’s degrees (10 percent) or their representation in the over-18 population (12 percent).
The five organizers noted challenges of being Black and pursuing STEM disciplines, such as a lack of representation that makes it difficult to establish a support system. They also spoke of preconceived notions from peers and wanting to be taken more seriously by fellow students. Yet they have persevered through their drive and focusing on impacts they can make.
“I remember sophomore year I was going to change my major… I just really thought about it,” Barnes, an astrophysics major, said. “I thought, ‘This is what I really want to do. I’m going to work for it no matter what comes in my path because at the end of the day, it’s what makes me happy, and I know that once I get to that professional career, once I am older, I am not going to be upset about my decision and I’m going to be happy that I chose to continue and that I am there in that place.’”
The inspiration to get into STEM disciplines was ignited by previous interest for a few of the students.
Cheek, an astrobiology major, was interested in astrobiology and interdisciplinary studies long before she became a STEM major. Forman, who can play piano, ukulele and guitar, almost went to a performing arts school before deciding on astrophysics, tapping into her childhood passion for science and space. Similarly, Barnes developed a passion for science in middle school. Curious about the opportunities for space discovery, her interest was furthered in high school when she took physics and saw a chance to combine both passions into a degree.
For Thomas, her choice of biomedical engineering was inspired by her parents. Her mom is a physical therapist and her father is an airplane mechanic. However, Thomas noted the field initially was not what she thought it was, as she thought she was going to be making prosthetic limbs. Instead, she has seen how diverse it can be, taking on such tasks as self-culture coding and working with circuits.
Being her grandma’s first-born grandchild and the first person in her family to go to college in a new city, there was interest from Reid’s family as to what degree she would pursue. One summer, the Jacksonville native volunteered at her hometown zoo.
“I realized that I had a love for animal nurturing and taking care of animals and researching to figure out ways to conserve them and seeing the animals that were on the brink of extinction and like, ‘What can I do to fix it?’” the biology major said. “I wanted to study something that’s going to help me become more knowledgeable in the world of life sciences, so that’s what brought me over here.”
Though it remains a work in progress, the STEM students are helping to create a broad support system. Doing so can be challenging.
“We have people who are leading clubs, like Torene Scott. She’s the head of the BSU (Black Student Union) this year, she is taking these leadership roles and taking the initiative to make spaces for us,” Thomas said. “We make a space for ourselves. That’s how we do it. We go out and we force our way into whatever position we want to be in.”
“I know when I was younger, I didn’t really see myself in a STEM field because we’re not really encouraged to be in the STEM field,” Barnes added. She said one benefit of the Black in STEM event was allowing children and teenagers to see what success looks like.
“I’m just very, very excited about that and just influencing them and just letting them know that they can do it,” she said.