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Celebrating Black Scientists; Virtual Gathering This Week

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Science on Tap
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A group of Black intellectuals is working to increase the visibility of Black scientists and urge more to consider making it a career. They’re holding a virtual gathering this Thursday as part of “Science on Tap” in the New River Valley.

 The gatherings began informally, just people getting together after that incident in New York’s Central Park in May, when a white woman falsely accused writer Christian Cooper, a Black man who was out bird watching, of threatening her. It was a moment that sparked a movement. Dr. Shaz Zamore says part of what grew out of that moment, are gatherings like these, where people get together to grapple with these issues.

 

“This is a monthly event where we go to -- a bar typically, well, pre- Corona (virus). We have various scientists and engineers speak to the public about what they do and just field questions. It's really like a town hall for the curious minded."

 

Zamore is a professor at University of Colorado Boulder, who did post-doctoral research at Virginia Tech and stays connected with colleagues there.  The area of study?  Flying snakes.

 

“Virginia Tech is one of the only institutes in the entire world that has these incredible animals, says Zamore.We take them out onto high lifts out in the field or in very, very, very tall indoor arenas. And we're able to study their kinematics; how their bodies move as they glide.”

 

The snakes exist in the wild in only a few exotic places, “Like Bali and Malaysia, Indonesia,"  "You can imagine it makes field work quite terrible.

 

But when you can see scientists of color, like Zamore, in a field where there are few, more might consider going into it. Currently, African Americans are under-represented in the sciences, possibly more so than in any other academic field.

 

“We're really at this national conversation where we're talking about, how do we actually achieve equity and what are the issues that are extant in academia? And so, we're focusing on Black scientists not to be exclusive by any means, but just to really focus on that conversation and roll that conversation, not just into the academic circles where it's already happening, but also with the public.”

 

Korin Jones is a third year PhD student in Biology at Virginia Tech.  As a kid he was fascinated by frogs and today he studies a deadly microbe that affects them.  It's his dream job.

 

“I think I just got lucky with a lot of the things that I'm interested in are finding opportunities, because I think on average and I mean, this is partially a Black thing, but it was highly unlikely that I was ever going to come in contact with somebody that was going to approach me as like a child and be like, Hey kid, would you like to study frogs and bacteria? Because, there's a way to do that.”

 

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Robbie Harris reports

But, with fewer people of color studying the sciences at universities, those opportunities are more difficult to find.

“There’s this vision of scientists that people have and by people, I mostly mean, the general public; We're thinking of ‘Doc Brown’ basically, from the movie 'Back to the Future:' crazy hair, he wears a white coat, he's a scientist. A lot of people think of that when they think scientists.”

Jones says he sees that people are trying to help solve problems like these, part of the desire to change many things about our society, as articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

“I think what’s plaguing people right now is like, what do we do? How do we help? And a lot of people want some sort of big action that they can do, that's going to solve this problem. And I think that's absolutely great. And I think we should keep trying to find like this big solution, but as we're working on that, and I do mean as we're working on it, because it's not like we should stop, but as we are working on that, we should consider the smaller things, like just acknowledging the black people can be scientists is important.”

When you say that sentence out loud, “It sounds crazy.” Says Brown. “You're like, of course anybody can be a scientist. But without people acknowledging that black people can be scientists or rather that black people are already scientists and have been scientists, it becomes a lot more difficult to move forward past these other issues.”

A virtual event will be held Thursday, July 30, 5:30-6:30 p.m., hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech’s chapter of Sigma Xi. Register for the virtual event here.

For more information or questions, contact Susan Chen at schen518@vt.edu.