Chasing the Ghost of Diversity


As a black Canadian living and working in the U.S., I have a different perspective of diversity and workforce issues than most of my native-born American counterparts. My perspective is, perhaps, unusual, but my conclusions aren’t novel: I believe that the climate for people of color interested in science careers could be improved. How? There isn’t a “magic bullet” to fix the problem, but all things are possible if individual members of the scientific community are willing to work together. After all, science itself has never been a purely independent venture. Scientists have always collaborated and discussed ways to attack a problem.

Getting the Science Bug Early

I have always been interested in science. As a young child I was encouraged by my parents to explore and experiment. I had every chemistry, mechanics, nature, and physics kit imaginable, as well as dogs, parrots, rabbits, sheep, fish, and even a pet snake and turtle. I loved to learn and always wanted to grow up to be a scientist. Understanding the natural world and how it worked was the only thing that gave me fulfillment.

Although I was born in Canada, my family lived in Ghana, West Africa, so my early schooling took place there. I excelled at science throughout my primary and secondary education in Ghana. I attended the prestigious Mfantsipim secondary school, an all-boys school established in 1876 by the Methodist Church to foster intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. Kofi Anan, secretary general of the United Nations, is another of our proud graduates.

North America Bound

In 1985 my brother and I left Ghana to return to Canada for college. I didn’t have much money, so I had to work for a year and a half before I could even think about going to school. Since I had relatives living there, Montreal became my home base, and eventually I had enough money to enroll in a local university part time. During one of my night classes, I experienced a problem that many people of color have to face. My physics professor, who was from India, told me, “your people are not good at math.” It turned out that the class was a review of material I studied in high school, so I aced it and proved him wrong.

Sometime later, I decided to transfer to the University of Toronto for my undergraduate degree, interested, initially, in pursuing a B.S. in chemistry. I made this move for a few reasons. First, I wanted to attend a renowned institution with a strong science program. Second, my girlfriend, Laurie-Ann (now my wife), was completing her master’s degree at McGill and wanted to move to Toronto because it was the “industrial engine” of Canada. Finally, Quebec was experiencing linguistic/political problems between French and English populations. So Toronto was the best choice at the time.

During my third year I took courses in biochemistry and molecular biology and was so captivated that I changed my focus to obtain a degree in biochemistry. I graduated in 1994 with a newfound sense of self, ready to take the science world by storm. But, I realized after a series of temporary jobs that I needed to go back to school.

During the mid-1990s Canada didn’t have a lot of opportunities for scientists, so the local brains drained south to the U.S. I moved to Toledo, Ohio, because my uncle was chair of the geography department at the University of Toledo. I entered the graduate program in the biology department and earned a Ph.D.

After successfully defending my dissertation, I accepted a postdoc position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research facility in Beltsville, Maryland. I am currently lab manager at the laboratory of molecular pharmacology at the National Cancer Institute.

A Rough Road

Minority scientists are no different from majority scientists in terms of intellect, drive, and competitiveness, yet we are sometimes treated differently. For instance, I’ve been snubbed at national conferences countless times, introducing myself to colleagues only to have them ignore me. These experiences may have nothing to do with my race, but whatever the reason, I was made to feel that I didn’t belong. The fact that there usually aren’t many black faces in the crowd only compounds the problem. The only way to get through it is to keep telling yourself that you do belong. If you hear it in your head enough, you’ll start to believe it in your heart.

Thoughts About Diversity and the Workforce

Looking back over my short career, I have found my experiences as a scientist of color to be, on the whole, positive. Throughout my undergraduate studies in Canada I was encouraged to follow a career in science by several of my biology professors, partly because of the profound lack of diversity in the sciences. Virtually all my professors pointed out opportunities for people of color. This encouragement continued during graduate school and my postdoctoral fellowship at USDA.

I believe that I have benefited greatly from being a minority in science. I know of horror stories about people of color having difficulty breaking barriers, but it hasn’t happened to me. It is important to note, however, that I had strong credentials and very good references for each position I applied for.

Are we ready to change?

I believe that there are two things that minority scientists can do right now to improve the experience. I found as an undergraduate and graduate student that often I only made friends after I had proven that I was competent in a subject area. I was never, or very rarely, invited to join study groups until I had established, through coursework or exams, that I was good at something. After that, I was asked to join, usually, in order to help everyone else. It was never easy to get help when I needed it. Nevertheless, proving myself with the quality of my work made it easier to be accepted.

We must also increase the number of students of color coming out of high schools with an interest in science careers. I know first-hand that there are not enough minority students to fill the gaps in the scientific workforce. We must put a great deal of effort into recruiting at an earlier age to actually get to the point where we have many talented scientists of color competing for the same job.

Best Advice

My advice to scientists of color embarking on careers in science: Work hard at your research, know the science, and network, network, network. Really get to know the people who are willing to help you. Spend time with them. Securing really good references from these people will send you on your way to a successful career. Yes, there are problems inherent in our field–a long training period, low salary, lack of opportunity for advancement, etc., but these problems are not unique to scientists of color.

Because we live in an age of global communication and travel, we should expect and encourage scientists from many backgrounds and cultures to share in the human endeavor of discovery. This diversity would enhance our lives and our science. The unthinkable alternative, a workforce composed mostly of members from a few privileged groups, would keep humankind from fully realizing his potential. Right now it seems that the scientific community is interested in diversity, but not committed to it. Once this mindset changes, the situation will, too.

Keli Agama, Ph.D., works in the Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. He may be reached at .

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