Breaking Barriers for Black Scientists

By Tina Adamopoulos

About six months into her first year of university, Maydianne Andrade had her sights on a career in higher education. Thanks to an inspiring lecture from a biology professor, Andrade realized she could dive into the research she loved and share it with future students.

“I don’t know what it was, but in that lecture, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I thought, ‘I can do that!’ That same professor became my research mentor and was important in the development of my feeling of belonging in science,” says Andrade, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC).

As an evolutionary biologist, Andrade’s research gives insight into the mating behaviour of black widow spiders, particularly how males invest their lives in a single mating. She is currently studying plasticity and how male, black widows shift their development to adapt to changing environments and events, like rapid climate change.

When Andrade is not in her lab, she builds safe spaces to initiate local and national conversations about equity and inclusion in STEM. One of those initiatives is the Canadian Black Scientists Network, a national organization started by higher-education professionals last summer. With more than 200 members, its mission is to eliminate barriers for Black scientists through advocacy, mentorship and data collection.

The organization was also a response to rising acts of anti-Black racism and violence in the United States, and takes a critical lens to address systemic racism in Canadian institutions.

“Conversations have been going on for a while about the invisibility of Black scientists in Canada and elsewhere. The George Floyd murder was not new to those who are Black, but it was the extreme end of a continuum of challenges Black people face in various fields,” says Andrade, who is also president of the Network.

“Many of us decided that it was time to enact change because change was not happening very quickly.”

A 2017 study by York University highlighted Black students in the Toronto District School Board are streamed out of academic-level courses disproportionately. It found that 53 percent of Black students were in those courses compared to 81 percent of caucasian and 80 percent of other racialized students.

In addition, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research study that explored grant success of CIHR funding programs during 2018 and 2019 found that people who identify as visible minorities were less likely than others to receive a grant.

The Canadian Black Scientists Network recently teamed up with Statistics Canada to begin systematic data collection to identify where barriers and challenges exist across various fields, specifically in the early flow of people into STEM.

“We came together as a national coalition to make ourselves visible and to ensure we have political power to discuss our needs and challenges with policymakers, granting agencies and institutions,” Andrade says.

Throughout her 21-year career, Andrade has mentored countless students and supported the University of Toronto community as UTSC’s vice-dean, faculty affairs and equity. Andrade co-chairs the Toronto Initiative for Diversity & Excellence (TIDE), a coalition of 15 faculty members at the University of Toronto who teamed up to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion. In the last two years, TIDE has held 50 engagements with faculty, staff and librarians.

“We saw the need to act as knowledge translators for our colleagues about the data on representation, bias and inclusion and on best practices for action and how that relates to the Canadian academic context,” Andrade says.

With input from TIDE researchers, Andrade has composed online unconscious bias training modules to discuss how stereotypes lead to discrimination and what systemic changes are required to rebuild working and learning environments. The project will launch nationally in the next six months.

Alongside research efforts, the Network will hold a national virtual conference, Black Excellence in STEM & Medicine (BE-STEMM), next year. The conference will highlight the innovative work of Black scientists across various fields, host a career fair and offer leadership panels to discuss how the industry for Black professionals can be improved.

For Andrade, having conversations about equity and diversity is the first step to initiate concrete change and promote inclusion – conversations she has with her students every day.

“I want to see people encouraged to pursue their abilities, regardless of their identity. I don’t think that is happening right now,” she concludes.

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