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Currently working as a Data scientist for a company that provides Covid-19 screening services, Axel is a biomedical scientist whose past research includes studies on bacteria involved in cystic fibrosis, and anti-microbial products. After touching on his work, Axel speaks on his experiences in science, imposter syndrome, and the lack of POC representation in the scientific curriculum.
Noah: When did you decide that you wanted to become a Scientist?
Axel: I didn’t really see myself taking research further until 3rd year, during my research project. The project was researching different anti-microbials, looking at products made by a chemist at UCLAN (University of Central Lancashire), and seeing if they could kill a broad range of microbes. My supervisor, Dr Garcia-Lara, was a huge help and mentor and I guess my he saw something in me… he had read a report I wrote in 2nd year and persuaded me to do a project with him, which translated into a summer internship and eventually a year-long position. While at the position I was also looking at biofilms, how microbial organisms interact and form complex communities on surfaces, research important to understanding infections and diseases like cystic fibrosis.
All this work then fed into my master’s project at Liverpool, where I was looking at a certain bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa which are notorious for forming biofilms in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. We were trying to find how Pseudomonas aeruginosa displaces the normal resident bacteria to form a persistent infection.
N: So after finishing your Master’s where do you see yourself going?
A: Ha well that’s the golden question! Can you answer it for me? I’m at that point where I’m thinking shall I do a PhD? Shall I wait a bit get some more work experience? Or shall I do something completely different?
N: No clue! I’ll give you a hand once I sort my life out
A: There’s loads of different avenues that are not made obvious at university. Academics at these institutions obviously will try to tell about all the opportunities out there, but if they’ve been in academia their whole life they might even not know the full picture, they’re restricted to what they know.
N: So for me as an outsider, I would say that the Life Sciences seem to have a better track record when considering diversity…at least compared to physics and chemistry. Would you say that’s the case from what you’ve experienced?
A: I’d definitely say that’s the case when we talk about degrees like medicine or dentistry, I think that probably has to do with immigrant families holding the title of “Dr” or “Dentist” to very high regard, ’cause they know that once that child graduates, they’ll have a vocation which makes them a decent amount of money and can pull themselves out of whatever situation they might be in. When it comes to biomedicine a lot of people take it as a route to become a medical doctor, so you can still see fair amounts of diversity of there, however there is a huge gap in people of colour going from undergraduate degrees to research roles and PhDs, there’s waaaay less.
N: What was your experience as a researcher at Lancashire and Liverpool, did you feel yourself as being a bit of an anomaly within the demographic?
A: At Liverpool I think I can safely say I was the only black male on my course, I was definitely the only black male in my lab. I think there was an African PhD student somewhere in the building because I bumped into him once and he tried to get me to go to his church, but that’s it.
It’s hard, in any lab its just the norm for me to be the only black person, it’s what I’ve come to expect. But I didn’t really feel like an “outsider”, except when I was doing my internships. You get the whole imposter syndrome creeping in… do I really belong here? Why have they chosen me? I’ve never met a single black male with my kind of accent in those research environments. You feel like you have to work harder than your peers, so that you don’t somehow reinforce someone’s prejudice in their head, it’s not a good feeling.
N: What do you think the reason behind the cut-off of people of colour not going further in their academic career?
A: Well I do say there is some diversity that takes courses like Bio-med and Medicine, but I think its still not amazing. I can’t really say there’s one reason and one part where there is a cut-off. It’s more as you go up the rungs in academia, they’ll just be smaller and smaller fractions. If I had to isolate a single point it would probably be from school to higher education. Everyone has to take a science GCSE, but then non-white students studying STEM only make up 6.2% of the total university intake (Less than half of the percentage of the non-white English population, 14.6%).
I think it’s a multi-variate problem. You’re going to have low expectations amongst our communities if not that many make it to higher education and have notable achievements in science. One of the biggest issues is definitely the lack of role models, which causes the whole thing to become a bi-directional problem… lack of representation causes low expectations and diminished interest in science, which in turns causes lack of representation. As a black boy if you don’t see anyone having those high-level roles you’re not going to expect yourself to ever make it in the first place, I mean we don’t even learn ANYTHING about black science history. I would have to use my own initiative to find any number of great black scientists who should be held to the same regard as the Darwins and Newtons that we are expected to study.
N: Definitely, Or even higher considering the obstacles they would have had to face
A: There’s some amazing black scientists whose work has been instrumental in shaping modern society and we know nothing about them. Don’t mention them in the curriculum just because they were black, mention them because they played such an important role in the subjects that you’re teaching us. Just doing that would let young black students know that there is nothing out of the ordinary about a person of colour being a scientist. Type in black scientists into google and you’ll get a list of all these people, it’s just a shame you have to put in the word “black” to find them.
As Axel pointed out, during a British school education it is hard (or impossible) to recall a time when a black scientist is mentioned. Ironically the awarding body OCR has even written a blog about black British scientists for black history month (https://www.ocr.org.uk/blog/six-black-british-pioneers-of-stem/) but still fails to actually include any of these pioneers in the general curriculum. If you want to find out more about notable black scientists, check out this article on researchers at Cambridge University (https://www.cam.ac.uk/bhmresearchers) (to note: from 2012-2016 one college in Cambridge did not offer a single place to a black applicant)