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The only one in the room – why I set up BBSTEM

News and Views

The only one in the room – why I set up BBSTEM

News and Views

Kayisha Payne
Founder, BBSTEM, bbstem.co.uk


Kayisha Payne describes her experience as a black woman in STEM and how it led her to set up a non-profit organisation, BBSTEM, Black British Professionals in STEM.

I had a “random” encounter with a family friend. In February 2017, I met someone I consider to be a very successful young black chemical engineer. After the conversation I felt so inspired and privileged to hear of a young black man in the same career field, with a similar Caribbean upbringing, having “made it”. I felt so enthused, and I wanted to create a platform where these “accidental” meetings are made deliberate and intentional, a place where young black people feel comfortable to reach out for support and can be given it. It was after this that I launched BBSTEM, which stands for Black British Professionals in STEM.

BBSTEM is dedicated to introducing, inspiring and supporting black youth who would like to enter into rewarding STEM careers, an area where they are currently underrepresented. Our mission is to create a balanced representation of black people in STEM from education to industry. One way we aim to achieve this is by increasing commitment to diversity and inclusion within organisations by partnering with them to execute programmes, workshops, networking events and mentoring schemes that teach young black students about STEM opportunities. These efforts remove the element of chance from these encounters and foster attitudes that allow marginalised youth to aim higher when choosing their career paths.

Growing up, becoming a scientist was never something that came to mind. Was it because it didn’t seem like a “real job normal people do”? Was it too hard? Was it because there wasn’t anyone in my immediate family or social group that was in a scientific profession or industry? Or maybe because I’d never seen or heard of a black scientist? It could be all of the above. To think that I have received a Masters in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College London, contributed to the advancement of being able to model and simulate the thermodynamic behaviour of active pharmaceutical ingredients and bio-pharmaceutical products and am now a scientist at a global pharmaceutical organisation exceeds my expectations!

The nature of science and knowledge sharing is paramount for science to advance. For this reason, I, like many other scientists and engineers, attend numerous industry events, workshops and conferences, and I am constantly reminded by the stark lack of representation of black scientists. I have yet to attend a conference where there was a black speaker, or facilitator and I often find that I’m the only black person in the room. When attending events, should I even be thinking about race? It’s almost impossible. Race inevitably defines the experiences of who I am, how society identifies me and how society interacts with me. I can’t help but be distracted by these thoughts when I find that people shy away from interacting with me at the break or lunch hour. Is it because I’m younger than most, a woman, and black?

It’s important to motivate young people to see that embarking on a STEM career is an option, that it’s something that they can progress in and be successful in. Without obvious representation it might not seem possible. Aside from my own observations of lack of role models and visible representation, I read a publication by The Royal Academy of Engineering which stated that, “There are a number of programmes designed to support and encourage girls into STEM, but there are fewer supporting BAME students.” This statement was supported by statistics showing that the number of black UK students residing in the UK enrolled onto a STEM-related course was only 6%.

I wanted to use the small platform I have to create change. It’s a known fact we have a STEM skills shortage in the UK, which is costing us a substantial amount of money (Stem.org.uk, 2019). Diversity initiatives pop up all over the place, but do not address the needs of black people. How can we encourage and inspire younger generations to aspire to be something they cannot see themselves reflected in?

References

Stem.org.uk. (2019). Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn | STEM. [online] Available at: https://www.stem.org.uk/news-and-views/news/skills-shortage-costing-stem-sector-15bn [Accessed 24 May 2019]

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