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Founding the Canadian Black Scientists Network – An Interview with Dr. Loydie Jerome-Majewska

Written by Lorcan Archer, Explorance.

Reading Time: Less than 7 minutes.

Synopsis: As Black History Month 2022 concludes, we speak with Loydie Jerome-Majewska, Assoc. Prof in Department of Pediatrics at McGill University and co-founder of the Canadian Black Scientists Network. Dr. Jerome-Majewska discussed how to remove obstacles confronting Black STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) professionals in Canada, this year’s first-ever BE-STEMM conference, and how ongoing engagement with institutions is crucial.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Loydie Jerome-Majewska was raised in New York, and still very much considers herself a New Yorker.

Earning her PhD in that bustling city that was a formative experience for her as a young scientist. However, while carrying out her post-doctoral work, she became increasingly aware of a phenomenon as she progressed up the Higher Education ladder.

“My work was in developmental genetics”, recalls Dr. Jerome-Majewska, “But there were not many people who looked like me.”

With the support of lab supervisors and committee members, as well as friends and family nearby, she never doubted that she belonged in the lab. However, she was becoming all too aware of the ever-dwindling number of black classmates and colleagues around her.

“People were missing,” explained Dr Jerome-Majewska.

Witnessing a Steady Exit from STEMM

Slowly but surely, Dr. Jerome-Majewska’s Black classmates had fallen away. Some had dropped out during the pre-med program she undertook in high school, and more during her undergraduate program.

By the time she reached graduate school, there were only two Black scientists in the building completing PhD degrees.

“We would often be mistaken for each other,” relates Dr. Jerome-Majewska. “Guards would sometimes hassle us for being in the wrong building if we forgot our IDs.” These experiences would be all the more perplexing for a young scientist who often felt most at home in the lab.

What’s more, at that time, there was no feedback or assessment strategy in place at that time that recorded this daily reality, and the impact it was having on this budding professional.

“I don’t recall ever being approached or having a been given a chance to really say anything about it,” notes Dr. Jerome-Majewska.

“I think the thing that bothered me most about my journey was being part of a large number of initiatives to recruit Black students into the sciences, but being the ‘last one standing’ after seven or eight of us began the educational journey together”

“There was no opportunity to say anything,” notes Dr. Jerome-Majewska. “The reasoning that was given was – you’ve made a life decision and have to leave the field – but it didn’t have to be that way.”  

Dispelling a Myth

In 2020, having been established at McGill University in Montreal for many years, Dr. Jerome-Majewska and a team of motivated academics decided the time had come to take things to the next level.  

“For me, and many other Black scientists, 2020 was a key year,” she explains. “I had been partaking in other task forces and committees, but often in these conversations, there were only one or two of us. This had to change. That is why the network needed to be founded.”

That year saw the establishment of the Canadian Black Scientists Network. As Co-founder, Dr. Jerome-Majewska felt it was high time that a representative organization that could highlight the contributions of Black scientists in Canada.  

 “I would go to a scientific conference and see one or two Black scientists among hundreds of attendees.” She noted. “We’d hear things like, ‘You just can’t find them’.”

Dispelling this notion of excellent Black scientists as simply being very few in number is part of the network’s core mission.

Instead, the network seeks to “focus on dismantling the challenges, discrimination and barriers to inclusion in STEMM.”

“The one thing I would like to get rid of is this idea that there’s not enough Black people in STEMM because there’s a deficit. There is no deficit,” stresses Dr. Jerome-Majewska. “The Black students are just as capable. The issue lies in the systemic ways that we approach Black children.”

These systemic obstacles can appear early in the Higher Education journey for Black students. She presents a recent example of her own son, a straight ‘A’ student in science, being encouraged to focus on gym in CEGEP (post-high school junior college in Quebec) by a guidance professional. 

Improving the systemic structures that produce these kinds of obstacles requires the institutional capacity and willingness for continual reassessment. 

“If you are setting up a pathway system, always re-evaluate and adjust. Make sure that what you’re doing is meeting the goals, and you’re doing it on the right basis. One should re-evaluate and adjust interventions.”  

An Ambitious New Annual Conference

These concerns and efforts finally precipitated a major event in February 2022, with the holding of inaugural BE-STEMM conference – standing for Black Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine.

Offering a full four-day virtual program of keynotes, plenaries, a science fair, and cutting-edge research roundtables, the conference was a major success. Over 1500 registrants took part in what was a landmark event. “It was a real celebration of us finding each other,” recalls Dr Jerome-Majewska.

A key aspect to BE-STEMM is the recognition of research excellence, and this included prizegiving for those individuals who had made exceptional contributions in their fields.

“We gave out 23 awards,” reports Dr. Jerome-Majewska. “We had awards for rising stars for examples, evaluating on presentation, content, ability in presentation – and we had some amazing scientists. That was very meaningful for me.”

Underlining how Black excellence in STEMM is nothing new, the conference also worked to recognize those who have been supporting and encouraging young professionals for many years.

“We also gave out awards for community members who are doing work to help the Black community. There were also awards for mentoring. My colleague (at McMaster University), Dr. Juliet Daniel, has mentored many Black students over the past sixteen years. Many of these students have remained in science, which is a sign of successful mentoring.”

The Challenge of Ongoing Engagement

Engagement from Higher Education institutions around Canada with BE-STEMM was forthcoming, but with an initial push for recognition being required.

Dr. Jerome-Majewska points to the initial support and funding forthcoming from the National Research Council of Canada and Fonds de Recherche du Québec as being key, with universities coming on board as the promotion and media attention ramped up.

“Many universities did give us funds, and we had platinum sponsors and so on” said Dr. Jerome-Majewska. “What was interesting to me was that some universities that did not respond right away – they kind of hedged their bets and got engaged later on as things started to roll and we started to hear about it in the press.”

“However, it wasn’t the majority, and I take encouragement from that,” she notes.

As Black History Month 2022 comes to an end, she agrees that the challenge for institutions is to maintain focus on these issues throughout the year, and not just respond to where the noise is loudest for one month.

“Black History Month is a time to highlight that Black scientists have made seminal contributions. Some hidden, some valued more than others. But we’re making history twelve months a year.”

 

Learn more about the Canadian Black Scientists Network


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