POC:STEM / Kemi Oloyede

Our first interview for the POC:STEM project is with analytical chemist and toxicologist, Kemi Oloyede.

Kemi studied at Coventry and Kings College London Universities, before pursuing their work in research and industry. Since the start of the pandemic, they have also struck out a path as a digital artist and illustrator, finding inspiration in the LGBTQ+ community, and their Nigerian Heritage.

While giving an insight to life as a professional scientist, Kemi offers a look into the hurdles a person of colour faces when pursuing a career in STEM.

Noah started off by asking Kemi about their work in industry…

N: How would you describe your work in chemistry, to an uneducated fool such as myself?

K: Up until recently my role was an analytical chemist and toxicologist. Making up dilutions and finding unknown compounds in samples. In the past I’ve worked in environmental settings and more recently in drug analysis, where I’ve tried to analyse drugs in biological samples such as urine and blood. That was all until April, from then onwards I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator and digital artist.

N: Out of interest, what is the most interesting sample you have ever worked on when doing drug analysis?

K: None in that role actually. I guess I’ve found a lot of weirdly coloured samples especially with the urine, that makes you question whether it’s even come from a human. Some people need to drink more water…

N: Have you ever analysed a sample sent from a business and thought ‘This person is about to lose their job’ considering what you’ve found?

K: I probably haven’t verbalised it in the lab, but I sometimes wonder how much this person must have ingested. Particularly with fat-soluble drugs such as marijuana which can take up to maybe three or four months to entirely clear from your system.

For one of my master’s projects, I was looking at how taking CBD products can result in a positive result in a drugs test. Obviously it depends on how much you take but there have been cases, so watch out!

N: So do you think the next step for you is to do a PhD?

K: It’s a bit weird.. I think I’m lowkey bonded with academia and that every time I feel I’m done with education and university I always end up coming back. I’ve always joked with my friends that I’ll never get a “real job” and will stay on to become a lecturer…professor… but I still want to explore my artistic side and spend some time on that.

N: From my point of view Coventry and Kings seem quite different in terms of diversity, both in the students and lecturers, what was your experience of that?

K: I found that there was more diversity with students at Coventry than in Kings, which is really bizarre when you think about it because I feel London is a very diverse city in general. There were some black and Asian lecturers I noticed in other science departments in Coventry, but not many in my one. In comparison at Kings, I did not see much diversity, in my campus at least.

N: If prompted do you think you would be able to name two black Professors who taught or interacted with you at Kings?

K: Definitely not. I find it very shocking when people say they have had a black professor lecture them, as I think I’ve only seen one in my life and I only know one person who have had a black professor teach them consistently through their degree (neuroscience).

N: Where do you think this happens, the cut-off point where many black and minority people fail to progress to higher levels of academia?

K: I think that right off the jump there are fewer black people wanting to do STEM subjects, with many opting do go for subjects such as law or business. Then those who do chose to do a science subject will usually go for the biological sciences, with even fewer going for chemistry or physics.

I think that there is this impression that black people do not do fundamental science… a lot 1st generation black British students will have parents wanting them to do subjects such as medicine or law.

When considering people progressing to professor-level I think it’s since the visibility just isn’t there. It’s harder for people of colour and especially black people to make it to that status. I’ve heard from Post-Docs and PhD students that the effort just is not made by Universities to get black people into these positions. Most of them stay on the same sort of level and are not able to progress or they’re treated with bias. These things will happen from school all the to Post-Doc.

N: So there are just hurdles at every step of the way, which makes the final professorship so unattainable, that very few non-white people manage to get there.

K: Exactly. Some people argue that science isn’t political. In my view most science objects are headed by white, cishet (cis-gender and heterosexual) men… how could it not be? It’s almost as if it’s like an exclusive club, and that exclusivity makes it much harder for people like us to reach the top.

Until that sort of system can be dismantled, or at least until there is some form of allyship to help people of colour to get to that level, there won’t be a change.

N: I found it surprising that when comparing Universities and academia to the traditionally “Old Boys Club” professions of banking and law, there doesn’t seem to be many POC-aimed internships and drives to improve representation.

K: I hear it, you’d definitely think that there would be some sort of effort made. With the resurgence of the BLM movements, these institutions were blagging “welcoming all kinds of students from all walks of life…” and it just doesn’t show in their statistics.

I think another factor in why black kids don’t want to go into these fields is who they have to look up to. When they think of biology, chemistry and physics they literally see old white guys in lab coats. Those are the only people they see in school; they don’t know about black people who are doing this right now, they don’t know about younger people like you and I doing science right now. The visibility isn’t there… I can see why people are being turned off.

N: What kind of initiatives and ideas would you suggest to improve things?

K: Well there has been an effort already. There’s an Afro-Caribbean researchers collective from people around the UK, and similar groups. But these are groups and collectives that we’ve had to create ourselves to see our own visibility; we have to be the change we want to see.

By forming these groups and trying to build connections with universities and going into schools we can definitely try to encourage black kids to see STEM as an option. That coupled with actually being able to see esteemed black scientists in the field, doing lectures and running workshops…hopefully we can see a change.