Black women in research? Do they exist? Yes, we do.
By: Nana Henewaah Osei-Tutu
As a daughter to two Ghanaian immigrants, my fate had already been decided for me. Growing up, I knew both of my parents wanted me to become one thing: a doctor. Luckily for them, I had actually wanted to be a doctor and was really passionate about helping people through medicine. My mother was [and still is] a nurse, and with my strong math and science skills, I thought becoming a doctor would be an absolute piece of cake. It wasn’t until college quickly ran up behind me that I realized otherwise.
I knew most people on the pre-med track started off as biology, chemistry, or even physics majors, but I was completely unaware of how competitive the medical field actually was. I was not able to get into any of these courses freshman year and quickly realized that dream was over. Unwilling to stay an extra year at Rutgers University to finish these requirements, I frantically thought about my mathematical abilities and followed that path instead. And boy was I thrilled [and terrified] anticipating what these next four years would look like. Something I will always remember was a conversation I had with a chemist at a Women in S.T.E.M. seminar during my sophomore year. I had mentioned to her that I wanted to go into medicine but not down the traditional “biology-major-medical-school-doctor” route, and what she said next has stuck with me until this day. “Doctors are great, but they can only really help one person at a time in their practice. Researchers are great because they can help larger populations of people through theirs.” And it was then that I had decided.
“…I had become desensitized to the underrepresentation of Black women in many fields.”
Fast-forward to the end of my undergraduate career, and thankfully, I had made it out alive. With my statistics degree and a heart full of hope, I knew exactly what this brain of mine was set out to do. Research. I wanted to use my quantitative skills for research. And it was then that my dream of helping people in medicine was resurrected. In the year after graduating, I was blessed with the opportunities to do both research and patient care, and ultimately, felt that research was more my speed. With that, I went on to pursue a Master of Science in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (L.S.H.T.M.). Now, I know with everything that has been going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve definitely become accustomed to the word ‘epidemiology.’ You see the people on the frontlines conducting research and trying to understand the dynamics of COVID-19? Those are my people.
As a Black woman going into research, I was already hyper-aware that my demographic was not well represented in the field. However, this didn’t really hit me until my first few months at L.S.H.T.M. when I began asking myself, “Where are the Black women in research?” and “Where are the women that look like me?”. While I was hyper-aware, I had thought nothing of it because, in a way, I had become desensitized to the underrepresentation of Black women in many fields. For me and probably many other Black women scientists, it had become normal to not see many Black women in the general field of S.T.E.M. And now in rethinking how I felt, I realize how incredibly problematic this issue is. At the intersections of Black and woman as parts of my identity, I became nervous and even intimidated by my classmates. Combine that with my minimal prior experience before starting my Master’s, it almost felt as if it was a mistake for me to even be in the program that I was [rightfully] accepted in to. This is a common phenomenon known as “Imposter Syndrome,” and this affected my academics [and mental health] quite a bit throughout the postgraduate course.
Going to class every day and having mainly White male lecturers didn’t really help to ease my doubts at all. Funnily enough, the only Black female instructor I had in any one of my Epi courses that year ended up being my Master’s thesis supervisor. Working in the genomics unit with my supervisor was quite alienating because I was one of the few Master’s students working amongst Postdocs and PhD students. Additionally, I was the only Black American female student amongst a wholly White European cohort of researchers. It was the shared characteristics with my supervisor, of being Black African women, that helped to ease that “out-of-place” feeling, and what helped us grow close. Not only did we learn from one another that summer, but we bonded over something that we both loved to do. Research.
Something that did give me hope was the many women, and especially Black women students that I met in my year at the school. In every course I took, I would look around the classroom or lecture hall and see women from all backgrounds. Additionally, almost every MSc program had at least one woman of color and/or Black woman. I met many incredible women, all here with a purpose: to improve health practice, care, research, and policy in many areas of the world. And that was really amazing to me. As women and as ethnic minorities in research, we should not be competing with one another. It’s clear that we are heavily underrepresented in this field. Instead, we should collectively acknowledge this disparity and use it as motivation to collaborate with and support one another in the field. Together, we can drive great change in our own health. In the 2018-2019 cohort of MSc students, I got to know and befriend some of the most amazing women. It made me extremely happy and proud to be a part of a community of such brilliance and excellence. And many of these women have gone on to do incredible work in the field of public health, including myself.
“To be a Black woman working closely with Black men and women on the understudied issues that primarily affect us, makes me feel incredibly optimistic and fortunate.”
Being from one of the most unequal of countries of the developed world, I quickly recognized two things: one, how damaged, discriminatory, and quite frankly, sh*t the United States (U.S.) healthcare system is and two, how essential the field of social epidemiology (a cross between sociology and epidemiology) would be in understanding how to mitigate the inimical effects of the rigid social structures in this country, and how they influence the health of our populations. With that, a fire had been lit under me, and I was ready to take off into the world of social epidemiology. Coincidentally, a good friend of mine (Hi Cristeen!) had encouraged me to apply to a fellowship program that was being funded by the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.). After being accepted into a lab at the National Institutes of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases (N.I.D.D.K.), I felt everything falling into place. The excitement that I got knowing I was about to return home to conduct research at one of the biggest biomedical institutes in the U.S. and in the world had me thinking this was not real life. Like, ain’t no way!
Since starting at the N.I.H. up until now, I have grown much within myself and within my role as a Black woman in research. In our study, we work closely with African-born Black people and African immigrants living in the U.S. to identify improved screening methods for diabetes and heart disease. To be a Black woman working closely with Black men and women on the understudied issues that primarily affect us, makes me feel incredibly optimistic and fortunate. To go from nervous and intimidated in my Master’s program at L.S.H.T.M., to fortunate and optimistic in my current work at the N.I.H., is HUGE. This change of heart has encouraged me to work even harder to achieve my future goals.
My current fellowship has highlighted to me how salient my role as a Black woman researcher is, and how proximal the public health issue(s) I am researching affect me. My older brother, parents, and grandmother are African immigrants living in the U.S., with both my father and grandmother suffering from hypertension. In the US, Black people disproportionately suffer more from non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and other cardiovascular complications, as well as increased mortality from these conditions, as compared to White people and non-Black people of color. The disparities that exist in our (Black people) health are a direct translation of the disparities that exist in the people that are conducting the research and providing clinical care through practice to our populations. It’s disparities like these that have driven me to become a catalyst for change in our healthcare system(s). More Black women are needed in research. And even though I’m just one person, my contributions to the field as a Black woman will be recognized as such. I am already making plans to continue my education and earn my PhD, and with this, I want to become an influential, Black female researcher in epidemiology.
For the time being, I have found a research topic that I am genuinely interested in and a field that I am contributing to while being able to tie in my own life and personal experience. With everything I’ve accomplished until now, I feel grateful and thankful to have been in good health all this time, so I can continue to play my part in the field of public health. I am also thankful for all of the support I’ve received from my friends and family in my journey in conducting epidemiological research. My current dilemma and next major life decision will be on how I want to apply my knowledge in social epidemiology and how I am going to help to mitigate health disparities in my community. In the meantime, I am going to continue to proactively learn, apply myself, and share my experience(s) with others as a Black woman researcher.
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