Virtual conference draws Black scientists, inspires university students
'No matter what people are telling me, I'm definitely going to now follow my passion'
A virtual event called BE‑STEMM 2022 aimed at highlighting Black Canadians in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine welcomed more than 1,500 attendees and several guest speakers earlier this week.
Among the speakers was 21-year-old Dalhousie medical science student Sinmi Ayantoye, who said the event encouraged her to continue her studies.
"I feel so amazing to be a part of this because for the longest time you think you're not seen when you're doing this kind of work," said Ayantoye.
"Now I see that there's so many people … this is definitely totally doable. There are definitely people that have done this ahead of me."
The event, which ran from Sunday through Tuesday, was the first national gathering for the Canadian Black Scientists Network, a coalition of Black people in the STEMM fields. It was sponsored by a number of Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie.
Speakers and guests at the event engaged in conversation on a wide array of topics. They included photonics, a branch of technology concerned with the properties and transmission of photons, for example in fibre optics; using virtual tools to create community-based education around vaccines; as well as the problem of plastics and how to have an economy that reuses rather that disposes of things.
Ayantoye was among one of five speakers from Nova Scotia at the event. Others included Eddia Solas, an assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University who specializes in the challenges students face in learning science; Kevin Hewitt, a physics professor at Dalhousie University; Tamara Franklin, a professor in Dalhousie's department of psychology and neuroscience; and Perrine Tami, who holds a chemistry degree and is currently attending Dalhousie's school of medicine.
Maydianne Andrade, an ecologist, professor and president of Canadian Black Scientists Network, said in the past she's attended STEMM-related conferences which saw at most 800 people, so to see over 1,000 at the group's first event came as a surprise.
"We're actually above the number that we had hoped for and they are from across the country," she said. "We have people from every province, which is great."
She said while most of the 1,571 attendees were Black, about 300 to 400 were not Black — something she said is important in facilitating diverse conversations.
"We don't want to talk in an echo chamber," she said.
Don't let stereotypes interfere
Andrade said she hopes the event will normalize the idea of Black people in STEMM fields and encourage allies who attended to understand that Black scientists are no different from other scientists.
"I was the only Black woman in biology on the three campuses of the University of Toronto for 15 years. That's pretty stunning, considering how many professors there are," Andrade said.
"With those kinds of numbers, it's hard for people not to sort of think maybe there's something wrong with Black folks, we don't really ever see them at the front of the classroom.… There may not be many of us, but we are just like people from the statistically dominant group, we have various interests, we pursue our science with passion, we mentor our students, whether they're Black or not."
Andrade said she doesn't want deficit narratives or stereotypes to interfere with Black people's ability to do something they're passionate about.
Ayantoye, the Dalhousie student, said although she's considered taking time off for her studies, she now feels confident she'll be able to graduate this spring and receive a degree in medical science.
She advises other young people pursuing careers in STEMM, especially those who are Black, to keep going because all the work pays off.
"No matter what people are telling me, I'm definitely going to now follow my passion."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.