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What’s science got to do with Black History Month?


Black History Month
What’s science got to do with Black History Month?

by PRIDE Newsdesk

Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research.

Although issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion have been at the forefront of many peoples’ minds (even more so after last summer’s social and racial justice protests) the annual Black History Month celebration helps remind us that creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment does not happen overnight. It is something we must actively and constantly work on.

Science requires diverse voices to succeed, and academia has ignored and sidelined Black voices for too long. For science and research to move forward in the most equitable and effective way possible, we must remember the path makers. We must critically self-analyze and identify places where we have failed in the past, where we continue to fail, and where we can make improvements that go beyond just saying ‘the right thing.’

Every U.S. president since Gerald Ford has designated February as Black History Month, but the celebration evolved from Negro History Week, which was established in 1926 by Black historian Carter Woodson. A child of parents who had been enslaved, Woodson became the second African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University in 1912, and he sought to promote the achievements of African Americans and other people of African descent. In a manuscript discovered in 2005, decades after his death, Woodson wrote: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition. It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

The opportunities available for Black people in the United States have been consistently limited and outright curtailed throughout our history, especially in predominantly White spaces. As a result of racist and segregationist practices, many institutions of higher learning kept their doors closed to Black people until well into the 20th century. Vanderbilt University, which was established in 1873, was the first privately endowed university in the Southeast to admit a Black person. The Bishop Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt, which was established to enhance the experience of Black students, faculty, and staff, commemorates the student, Bishop Joseph Johnson Jr., who was admitted in 1953.

Neighboring Meharry Medical College, the first medical school in the South for Black people, had been granting medical degrees to Black people for more than 70 years when Vanderbilt granted its first M.D. to a Black person in 1970. Levi Watkins, Jr. graduated from the School of Medicine and became a cardiac surgeon celebrated for his excellence and his utter commitment to increasing the diversity at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins University, where he worked for most of his career. Today, Vanderbilt honors his legacy through the Levi Watkins, Jr. Faculty and Student Awards, which are granted to members of the School of Medicine each year. Recipients (including six faculty and nine students affiliated with Basic Sciences) are lauded for promoting opportunities for underrepresented minorities in our educational or research programs and for fostering a more diverse environment that is enriching, encouraging, and embracing of all students, faculty, and administrators.

It was not until 1980 that Vanderbilt granted its first biomedical science Ph.D. to a Black person; the student, Michael Fant, also earned an M.D. from Vanderbilt. “I was the first Black biomedical Ph.D. and the first Black M.D./Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt. I was also among the first seven students to enter the M.D. program,” Fant said. At the time, there was no structure in place to help Black students thrive and succeed. “We had to create our own supportive environment on the fly,” referring to himself and the other Black medical school classmates. “It was not an institutionalized process.”

This recognition of our past, of course, must be coupled with the knowledge that we continue to benefit from work that exploited Black people, directly and indirectly. For instance, take Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Unbeknownst to Lacks, a White male scientist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital took her tissue, grew her cells in vitro, and shared them with colleagues for widespread use in biomedical research. Since then, these cells, known as HeLa cells, have been instrumental to research in cancer, immunology, in vitro fertilization, and even COVID-19. This is true even within the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Basic Sciences: 40 of the 71 queried primary faculty have used HeLa cells in their labs.

Thanks in part to countless hours of effort by Black people and their allies, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the disparity in opportunities and the contributions of Black people to the progress of science and this country. Recent examples within STEM are the ‘Black In X’ movements that have taken over social media, including Black In Microbiology, Black In Immunology, Black In Chemistry, Black In Neuro, and more. These social media movements seek to bring visibility to, elevate, and celebrate Black researchers and Black excellence within their respective fields during a designated week, and beyond.

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