Push on for more African-Americans in STEM fields

Feb 20, 2018

The Great Lakes states have produced several influential African-Americans in the sciences.

There’s astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson -- he’s from New York. And nuclear scientist J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., who attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13.

Now, many are encouraging young African-Americans to enter fields where they’re under-represented.

Like Dr. Kevin Burke. He's an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo's Department of Electrical Engineering.

Burke is African-American.  And, he’s among a small number in the STEM field – that’s science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s disheartening too from this side of the table, to look out to the classroom and not see as many underrepresented minorities," he said.

According to the U.S. Census, about 6 percent of STEM workers are black and about 7 percent are Hispanic.

"I remember early in my graduate career, going to conferences and me being the only black person in the room out of a room of only 1,000 or 2,000," Burke said. “It’s eye-opening for sure. It also served as motivation."

At UB’s medical school, Dr. David Milling works to ensure diversity among the students. He also works in internal medicine, and has felt racism cast a shadow on his experience as a doctor.

Doctor David Milling, UB Jacobs School of Medicine

“This is something that, I can tell you that every physician of color has had some experience with," he said. "Walking into a room, with it being a medical student or somebody else, and the obvious intent of the individual is that you’re not the physician. It’s the medical student that’s the physician.

"You have to make that clear.  Or you walk into a room, and the tension will be obvious, and some individuals may actually say to you, 'I don’t want you to take care of me.' And so, those are all things we have to navigate.”

As a solution, Burke says getting African-American students interested in STEM topics at a young age is key. “So I think exposure is the answer, and how we do that? We need more guys like Neil deGrasse Tyson."

That’s the scientist often seen on television or the internet.  There are also STEM professionals like doctor Scott Williams.

He’s a retired UB mathematician. And as far as anyone can remember, the only tenured African-American in the department

“First and only, first and only? There’s never been another," Williams said.

He said overall, his career was good. But, there were a few times where the issue of race made its presence known.

Doctor Scott Williams, retired mathematician from UB.

"I was invited, at some point, to give a talk at the Naval Academy. I went dressed in a suit and tie," Williams recalled.  "And, someone on the elevator asked if I was one of the workers on the roof.

"Turned out later, he came to my talk, not realizing I was giving a talk there. So all kinds of things like that would happen.”

So, how should minorities handle situations like this?

“To do mathematics you really have to have minimal emotions, you really have to put that down," Williams said. "You can’t think clearly if you’re angry, if you’re pissed off, if you’re harassed.

"So you essentially have to shove that stuff off, or you can’t do mathematics. You can do something else but you can’t do mathematics.”

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