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Black scientists' influence hailed

HIDDEN FIGURES: (from left) Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson and singer Janelle Monáe will appear in a biopic honouring black scientists

THE UNIVERSITY of Leicester’s physicists are marking Black History Month by profiling the most influential black and minority ethnic (BME) scientists from both history and modern times.

Throughout October, staff at the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy will recognise one BME scientist each day with a summary of their life and work at their campus home.

Organisers Dr Rhaana Starling and Rosie Johnson, on behalf of the departmental equality and diversity working group, said the idea was to raise awareness of the under-representation of black and minority ethnic people in the industry, and to celebrate those who have changed the way we view the universe and everything in it.

Explaining to the Voice the inspiration behind the concept, lecturer Dr Starling explained: “The reason we’ve done it
really is, in one aspect, to have more role models that people can identify with.

“There are a lot of black minority ethnic scientists who have made a really massive contribution to our knowledge of the universe, our knowledge of physics and how the world works so we wanted to highlight those people as well as some contemporary scientists who are also making really important contributions some of which are in our own department.”

In this respect, the university is leading the way and is above benchmark figures set out in 2002 for representation of BME
students taking physics degrees.

Dr Starling said it is always a statistic that the department was aiming to improve.

She said: “Our statistics show that while 18 per cent of our physics students identified as BME or mixed race in 2015, that figure was six per cent for academic and research staff.

“We aim to improve upon this through activities including events to highlight role models, to address barriers to participation, expand our mentoring programmes, and constant re-evaluation of our policies and procedures, creating and maintaining an inclusive working culture.”

Along with highlighting heroes in the field, the campaign is also about encouraging black students to pursue more senior roles in academia.

She said: “We try to make sure that everybody’s experience is a good one and we know that the percentage of BME students that we have is quite high, but when we look at staff, the percentage of BME staff is much lower, so people are obviously not being progressed to the top level.

“So something we want to do is to be able to support everyone, no matter where they come from, to reach their full potential and become the leaders in their field.”

A 2014 diversity analysis of the scientific workforce carried out by the Royal Society confirmed that Black and minority ethnic students are less likely to progress to scientific jobs after graduating than white students.

The challenge of the campaign to battle against a lack of visibility coupled with unconscious bias has meant the concept of a black scientist is still difficult for some people to grasp.

HIGHER LEARNING: The University of Leicester is above benchmark figures for the number of black and minority ethnic students taking physics degrees

“There’s some research on that being carried out in Harvard with implicit association tests that people don’t associate scientists with black or with female, but that is changing, hopefully. There are quite a number of prominent scientists who don’t fit the ‘Einstein look’ – they look different, they have different backgrounds,” highlights Dr Starling.

“It’s a shame when people can’t name a black scientist, it’s the same with female, very few can name a handful.

“I think the contributions have in places been downplayed.

“One of the people that we’re profiling is Katharine Johnson, known as ‘The Calculator’. She was so gifted that she was
promoted to engineer looking at the flight trajectory of the Mercury and Apollo missions.

“People like her, their story hasn’t been out there until recently – she’s going to be profiled in a movie coming out next year, called Hidden Figures.”

The upcoming biopic, which stars Empire actress Taraji P Henson, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and singer Janelle Monáe, has been tipped for box office success while telling the story of Nasa mathematicians who were instrumental in helping launch astronaut John Glenn into outer space.

“We’re hoping that this kind of campaign sticks in people’s minds and a lot of people will now know these role models,” said Dr Starling.




Margaret Ebunoluwa “Maggie” Aderin-Pocock MBE is a British space scientist and TV personality.
Aderin-Pocock has worked for the Ministry of Defence, as well as working at Imperial College London with the group who were developing a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope in Chile.
Aderin-Pocock is well-known for her passion for science and is extremely committed to inspiring the next generation.
In 2009, she was awarded an MBE for her services to science and education. Aderin-Pocock is currently a co-presenter on the BBC programme The Sky at Night.



George Robert Carruthers is a physicist and space scientist. He was born in 1939 in Ohio and brought up in Chicago.
He has worked almost entirely for the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC, working on far ultraviolet astronomy.
He was awarded a patent for an “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wave Lengths”. His cameras have been flown on missions from Apollo 16 to the Space Shuttle.



Mae Jemison trained as an engineer, social scientist, dancer and medical doctor, and spent six years as Nasa astronaut. She was the first woman of colour to go into space aboard a joint space shuttle mission with the Japanese space agency.
Jemison is an entrepreneur and has founded two technology companies and the non-profit Dorothy Jemison Foundation
for Excellence, which designs and implements STEM education experiences. She was also the first astronaut to appear
on Star Trek.



Diarra was born in French Sudan, now Mali. He studied maths, physics and mechanics in Paris, completed his Masters in aerospace engineering and doctorate in mechanical engineering in the US. Working for JPL, he has been involved with planetary and solar missions, such as Magellan, Ulysses and Galileo. He was Director of Education and Public
Outreach for Nasa’s Mars Exploration Programme. He was Acting Prime Minister of Mali from April to December 2012.



At West Virginia State College, Katherine Johnson took every maths course the college offered and new maths courses were added specifically for her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in maths and French, aged just 18. Johnson worked at Nasa from 1953 –to1983, during this time she calculated flight trajectories for Mercury and Apollo missions. Astronaut John Glenn asked for her personally and refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations, because he didn’t trust the computers calculations as they were new technology.

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