Science & Technology

Spotlight on Black scientists at McGill and beyond

Despite the important equity work done by various organizations, Black people continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields and academia. In honour of Black History Month, The McGill Tribune spoke to five up-and-coming Black researchers in a variety of scientific disciplines. 

Dr. Myrna Lashley

Dr. Myrna Lashley is an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry and an adjunct researcher at the Lady Davis Institute. For more than 30 years, she has advocated for Black Canadians through equity and inclusivity work.  

After coming to Canada from Barbados, Lashley faced overt racism in Canadian academia and experienced loneliness from being the only Black person in her department.

“I came to realize that I was not alone; my feelings were real and realistic and that I had a duty to do what I could to help others,” Lashley wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “However, those issues are overlaid with a thick layer of societal pain and pressure which are what we now refer to as ‘determinants of health’.” 

Throughout her career, Lashley has focussed on the intersections of racism and mental health, leading her to consulting work at multiple levels of government. In 2017, she authored a report exposing the extent of racial profiling in Quebec’s police force. 

Lashley believes that universities should rework their hiring policies and course offerings to represent BIPOC not only on paper but also in practice.

“In addition, professors need to be trained to understand that in some classes they are continuing to teach authors who may have had and practiced racist ideologies,” Lashley wrote. “Not examining that truth could lead to BIPOC students feeling further dehumanized and ostracized.”

Peter Soroye

Peter Soroye is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa who is focussing his research on conservation biology. Last year, his work on the drastic impact of climate change on bumblebee populations was published in Science, one of the highest-impact research journals in the world. 

As a child, Soroye was fascinated by the natural world. This early interest, coupled with the current climate crisis, inspired his career choice. 

“As I got older, I realized that we were destroying the world around us and making species disappear,” Soroye said in an interview with the Tribune. “I thought if I want to see all of this [nature], I have to help keep it around.”

Soroye is passionate about encouraging young BIPOC to participate in STEM fields through initiatives he has helped to develop, such as the CSEE BIPOC Library. This project hopes to improve BIPOC representation in science classrooms across the country. 

“[Me] and Professor Steven Heard created the idea of these grants that would help shine a light on researchers from historically excluded communities that are doing really brilliant ecology and evolutionary research,” Soroye said. 

As president of UOttawa’s Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA), Soroye has co-authored a Graduate Student’s Guidebook to help students navigate their graduate school journeys. Often, first-generation students are not provided with sufficient resources to juggle the emotional, financial, and academic costs of pursuing a graduate education.

“[At] every step, from my way through undergrad to now, friends and colleagues who are Black or people of colour leave the program,” Soroye said. “It’s [as if] they’re being pushed out.” 

Dr. Emily Choy 

Emily Choy is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and Environment and Climate Change Canada working in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. In November 2020, she received the prestigious $20,000 L’Oréal Canada For Women in Science Research Excellence Fellowship. 

Choy has dreamed of being a zoologist since she was a child. Her love of nature and animals inspired her to pursue conservation efforts and to combat climate change.

“I spent most of my childhood at my grandparents’ cottage on Canal Lake in Bolsover, Ontario, where I spent hours catching fish, frogs, [and] snakes, and feeding chipmunks, red squirrels, white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees,” Choy wrote in an email to the Tribune

Choy is currently researching the impact of climate change on Arctic marine animals and how prey dynamics might affect the behaviour of predators. Her work has involved frequent travel, such as trips to study ecosystems on Devon Island and thick-billed murres on Coats Island in Nunavut. 

Choy has also been to the Northwest Territories, where she studied beluga whales. However, her proudest achievement is her partnership with Inuvialuit communities as part of a beluga health community-based monitoring program.

Choy is passionate about STEM outreach and education, believing that anything can be achieved with perseverance. 

“You just have to push forward and pursue what you are passionate about,” Choy wrote. “Don’t get discouraged and remember, there is a lot of failure in science, but the only real failure is giving up.” 

Dr. Kevin Hewitt 

Kevin Hewitt is a professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of Physics & Atmospheric Science. 

Initially, he studied biology at the University of Toronto because his mother, whom he credits for his success, wished for him to become a medical doctor. However, he switched paths after he discovered his love for physics. 

In his molecular lab at Dalhousie, Hewitt studies biomedical applications for Raman spectroscopy, a light scattering technique that allows qualitative and quantitative analysis of molecules. One such application under development at the Hewitt lab is a technology for the fast and inexpensive detection of liver fat content.

“These results will guide transplant surgeons in deciding whether the liver is safe to use for transplantation, leading to fewer discarded livers, shorter waitlists for liver transplantation and better quality of life for many individuals with end-stage liver disease,” Hewitt wrote.

Hewitt has also been involved in many STEM outreach programs, founding the Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, a STEM outreach program for junior high to university African Nova Scotian students. He advises youth hoping to pursue STEM fields to seek out organizations such as the Canadian Black Scientists Network and connect with others who share similar interests.  

“Form your own group to provide support for one another to reduce that sense of isolation,” Hewitt wrote. “Get involved in your community; it will give back to you many times over what you put in and provide you that support that will lift you up to achieve your goals.”

Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson

Dr. Anita Brown-Johnson is the newly appointed chief of family medicine at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), as well as an assistant professor of family medicine in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. 

Brown-Johnson was raised by her grandmother in Jamaica before continuing her studies in Montreal. A high school teacher sparked her interest in pursuing medicine as a career. 

“I was sensitized at an early age to many complex challenges faced by the elderly,” Brown-Johnson wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This bird’s eye view, coupled with a passion for mathematics and the sciences, inspired my early curiosity in the healthcare field.”

In 2020, Brown-Johnson was the recipient of the Woman of Merit award for her achievements in the field of geriatric medicine and humanitarian work. Her new leadership role has allowed her to oversee clinical and teaching activities, and implement Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) initiatives at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. 

As a physician and researcher, she prioritizes efficient care transitions, which seek to reduce the time spent by patients in transition-care units and the number of readmissions to the hospital. 

Brown-Johnson emphasizes the importance of seeking out mentorship and believing in one’s abilities when striving towards success. 

“Do not be discouraged if at first you do not succeed,” Brown-Johnson wrote. “Perseverance is key. Take time to discover your true passion. Believe in your abilities and never give up. I hope that my journey will help to convince young people from historically under-represented communities that anything is possible with commitment and hard work.”

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