Equity and Representation in STEM Education (Part 1) - The Labster Podcast, Episode 14
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, I'm April. And you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster, we're guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you. With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April [00:00:43] America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities were founded in the United States soon after emancipation to educate black citizens who were not permitted to enroll and the predominantly white institutions of higher education. For more than the last one hundred fifty years, HBCUs have played an important role in the education of black Americans, and they continue to shape the broader story of equity and access to education in the United States. This is part one of a special episode where SJ will speak with two people who have had firsthand experience with teaching and learning at a leading HBCU: Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. We're joined by Cord Carter, who taught chemistry and managed the chemistry lab at Fisk, for the last year and a half, and Brianna Brown, one of Cord's students who later joined his lab as a research assistant. We can't wait to get started, so welcome to the podcast, Cord and Brianna.
Cord Carter [00:01:44] Thank you April, for inviting us today.
SJ [00:01:48] I've been looking forward to talking with you both for so long. When April suggested that we had the two of you to bring on an opportunity to really get some insight from the student perspective and share those stories. I just got really excited. So I've really been looking forward to talking with you both. I just want to preface I'm in North-East England. I'm a white English woman and I am entirely not embedded in any of the stories around US culture or history. And one of the things that we're going to be talking about today is kind of like the history of historically Black universities and colleges and especially Fisk, being that you've both had such brilliant experiences there. And I just I'm so interested to hear your stories and kind of amplify your voices. And I want to learn all about like your experiences, too. So I just kind of want to share that I am a very curious voice here, and I'm really looking forward to learning about how you see things and what your experiences have been. Cord!
Cord Carter [00:02:46] Yes.
SJ [00:02:47] You earned your bachelor's degree at a public university in Oklahoma, correct?
Cord Carter [00:02:51] That's correct.
SJ [00:02:52] Awesome. So when you were ready to get your master's and it's in chemistry. Yes? You chose to attend a historically black university called Jackson State, and that's in Mississippi. So I was wondering, as a kind of graduate of color, how was your experience at Jackson State different?
Cord Carter [00:03:10] I love to share this story because I think a lot of people don't know how I ended up being at Jackson state. So like you mentioned, SJ, I did attend a public, white institution called Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma. And I was - when I looked at my classroom, I was the only African-American to receive my bachelor's in chemistry at the time because most of my classmates were predominantly white and they were going to medical school or dental.
Cord Carter [00:03:41] And so I was in the process of applying for graduate programs. I applied to Oklahoma State University and the University of North Texas. I heard about Jackson State, but I never considered an HBCU because of my educational background. I went to predominantly white institutions. And so when I went to a national chemistry meeting in Dallas, Texas, the American Chemical Society, I saw the recruiter and a graduate student from Jackson State, and they would tell me the story, the history about the HBCU. And I was just so excited about what they were sharing with me. And so I decided to apply. And I actually, a week after the conference, I end of traveling with my father and my youngest brother, we went to visit Jackson State and meeting the chair and the current graduate students, and it just got me so excited and fired up to be around other scientists that looked like me, that were excited about chemistry. And so it just made me decide to say, you know what, I'm going to Jackson State University. So I committed and they provided me a bridge to a doctorate fellowship. And so most definitely that experience was a unique experience because we got the opportunity to travel to Belize for two weeks and this study abroad research with the University of Belize in Belmopan, which was very cool, to just get a different perspective.
SJ [00:05:14] Oh, what a perk!
ter [00:05:18] You know, like I'd never been out of a country before. So it was pretty cool to see a different perspective of a different culture and seeing how they appreciate their their life experiences as well as science. And so it got me more excited to be more diverse and learn about other cultures. And so when I came back, I went to to a summer internship in Indianapolis and got the opportunity to work with a college professor who was African-American. And she was the one that gave me a life lesson. And I'll never forget my first encounter where Dr. Lisa Jones, who now is at the University of Maryland, she told me, 'don't ever forget who you are and where you come from'. She said, 'don't let your title forget who you are as a person and forget where you came from'. So I think going to HBCU as a student and also working at Fisk gave me a better perspective, better appreciation of Black culture and learning the history of African-American achievers in STEM.
SJ [00:06:26] That's so cool. I guess we don't always have visibility on stories and voices of color within especially within chemistry, especially within chemistry. So it's so important that you're involved in kind of I think you are being one yourself, right?
Cord Carter [00:06:42] Yes.
SJ [00:06:42] I love it. Are you the first in your family to go to university? Did your parents go to university?
Cord Carter [00:06:49] So my mother and her sisters went to college. My father was actually in the military. He was in the Army. So I'm actually the first of eleven to go to college to and geta bachelor's.
SJ [00:07:06] Wow.
Cord Carter [00:07:06] So it was an emotional moment when I got my bachelors, because both my mother and my father was at my graduation and I couldn't contain my emotions because seeing a father that never went to college and have a mother that was not in STEM and got her bachelor's in criminal justice, it was a surreal moment for the three of us. So.
SJ [00:07:29] That's lovely.
Cord Carter [00:07:29] I still have a picture of that graduation on my Facebook page because I didn't want to forget that moment.
SJ [00:07:38] I must admit, I still do too. My parents didn't go to university either and it was my mom and my my grandma that came to my graduation ceremony. And they were both just, oh, wow, look at the ceremony. Was it was I hear you. It was a real emotional moment, but I'd never experienced that. It was a first for all of us, and I just loved that day. It was so special, so cool to hear. So did you know that science is what you wanted to do?
Cord Carter [00:08:06] A funny story, actually, science was not the existence at the time. In my mind. I actually was wanting to be a mathematician. I loved math.
SJ [00:08:19] I suppose chemistry is probably the most maths you can do.
Cord Carter [00:08:28] So math was like it just came to me because at the time my Aunt Sharon, she was in college at the time. And so seeing her doing math, all the business math all the time, and doing accounting and financing was really fascinating just to see the complexity of the math. And so I remember one my birthdays, my mother, I'm a person that they accept anything as long as it's from the heart. So my mother actually bought me a science magazine at a very young age. And getting to see the science and seeing the how people discover new ideas and answering scientific questions really draw me. So I was like, you know, science sounds pretty cool. I love math, but I love science too.
Cord Carter [00:09:16] So when I got into high school, I took AP biology and it was all about memorization and I didn't like it. So when I took AP chemistry, Mr. Ricky Aufer was a college professor and a high school teacher at the same time and seeing his excitement for chemistry, and just showing us a different ways to solve chemical problems in society really got me more excited to do chemistry. So that's how I ended up pursuing chemistry - because Mr. Ricky Alfred, at Hayward High School.
SJ [00:09:52] I had one of those teachers. She was called Miss Emory. Shout out to Miss Emory at Mont Weymouth Comprehensive. She was amazing. And also one of like the only women in the science faculty team too. She was fanstastic, and let us do a lot of really brilliant experiments with potassium and, yes, wonderful times were had. How about you, Brianna? Did you know science was where you wanted to be when you applied? Or is this something that's kind of come to you as you're going through your education?
Brianna Brown [00:10:19] My passion for science? Well, it started off more as I knew I wanted to be in the medical field as a young girl. Like my grandmother, she wasn't very ill, but used to just love to help her out. And there was a time where she had to have a full hysterectomy and she needed someone to watch, you know, help her get out the bed and things of that nature. So I spent like one summer in elementary school helping her out, making sure she was doing breathing treatment, because during her surgery when her lungs collapsed, unfortunately. So I would stay on top of meds, make sure she did her therapy, and I was only in elementary school and I loved every bit of it. So I knew that I wanted to go into the medical field. But as my education furthered and I got into high school, I was like, oh, this is so cool. Anatomy-Phys. Oh, my goodness. So it just grew from there.
SJ [00:11:08] That's amazing. And you're in your third year now, is that right?
Brianna Brown [00:11:13] Yes.
SJ [00:11:14] And what's your major again?
Brianna Brown [00:11:16] I am a biochemistry and molecular biology major.
SJ [00:11:20] That's fantastic. And tell us a little bit about what you're hoping to do, what your aspirations with your degree.
Brianna Brown [00:11:25] My aspirations is to go to medical school and I will become an OBGYN. One, I'm very interested in women's health, specifically African-American women. I want to work more with the pregnant women and the difficult cases. And it's sad to know that due to the color of your skin that your voice is overlooked. You know what I'm saying? And I'm looking to go into the medical field, into women's health with the theme of equality. You hear what I'm saying? So that if you look like me, you come to me, you will get full top tier service, whether you're caucasian or any other race or ethnicity, you will get the same service. And I feel like that should be the theme of the whole medical field, honestly.
Cord Carter [00:12:13] Absolutely.
SJ [00:12:14] It really is. And this is a bit of a sensitive topic, but I feel like I want to bring right to it because it's such an important part of medical history and that sometimes the most visible stories in science that are associated with Black voices, they come from the research subject as opposed to the scientists or the medical professionals themselves. And the main thing I'm thinking about is the story of Henrietta Lacks. Are you familiar with that?
Cord Carter [00:12:37] Yes.
Brianna Brown [00:12:37] I am.
SJ [00:12:37] And this idea that we had an absolutely fantastic and amazing woman, an African-American woman who tragically died as a result of cervical cancer. And this story about how that cervical cancer tumor was cultured and grown and made its way into science labs all over the world without consent is probably one of the most controversial sciences in the health sciences that I can think of around consent.
SJ [00:13:02] But those tumor cells are at the center of hundreds of lifesaving discoveries. And we don't always hear the stories of the people of color that might actually be working with those cells later. You know, I want to hear the stories of the people that are making the discoveries, not this. I also want to know and learn from the stories of those people like Henriette Lacks. But it's so encouraging and wonderful to hear that you want to play an active part in that and you want to make sure that there is like equity within the health care service, that you shouldn't have different treatment just because of the color of your skin. Do you think there are things that we can do better or that people or institutions can do better to amplify voices like your own within the sciences or within the medical field?
Cord Carter [00:13:49] I would say I think the problem is, what I've noticed is they only fix the symptoms of the problem, not the root of the problem. Because like we solve - one of my hobbies is do mechanical work on my own cars. And so when you go to a mechanic, most times a mechanic only will fix the symptoms, but not the root of the problem. So they'll thing about the symptoms is you just keep coming back until they get what they want from you. But if you find the root of the problem, then they don't have no more service with you because they fix the main problem.
Cord Carter [00:14:31] And I think that's what we've seen in today's society, is everybody wants to fix the symptom of the problem, but not fix the root of the problem and not want to touch it because it's so deep and so deep-cut .To solve the problem is not to look at the skin. And I think that's the biggest problem because there's actually a Bible verse where it says the Lord doesn't look at the outward, but he looks inward. And so I think that's where our eyes the sole focus on is the outward experience, and judging a book by its cover, and thinking about the past.
Cord Carter [00:15:12] The past is the past for a reason. I think if we don't dwell on the past, we shouldn't say oh the past is who defines me. But I think the past should help us, should encourage us and motivate and inspire us to want to change that past to be become a better future all races and ethnicities. So I think that's where we all have to understand each other's history, understand the background to the point where we learn to love one another and be kind to one another so we can continue to work together as a team to solve these social injustices, environmental injustice and public health issues in today's society.
SJ [00:16:00] Thank you for sharing that with us. Absolutely. I know history is a really important part of Fisk University. For example, Fisk was the first HBCUs to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. I think it was also the first HBCU to be approved by the Association of American Universities. So. Oh, and Fisk is a national historic landmark too, isn't it? So it's always going to be there. It will always be there. John Lewis was a student at Fisk?
Cord Carter [00:16:30] Yes, that's right.
SJ [00:16:31] The civil rights leader. Do you have other stories you can tell me? Little facts?
Cord Carter [00:16:37] And I was saying another history about Fisk, we produced the first African-American to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. His name being Dr. Saint Elmo Brady. If you come to our univeresity, you'll see a landmark says Saint Elmo Brady, and you will see the other HBCUs such as Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi; Then you have Tuskegee University in Alabama; and then you have Howard University in Washington, DC. So he actually started the first graduate program in chemistry in these HBCUs. And as well, he got his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where his boss and a boss from Harvard University were debating between this scientific question and he discovered that his finding was actually, his boss was correct. And the Harvard guy was incorrect. So to see somebody from Louisville, Kentucky, and coming to Fisk University, of all places to, you know, to show how intelligent he was against a person from Harvard, was very fascinating. And he actually is my role model, how I was excited for chemistry as well, just knowing his story and how he got to where he is. So I thought I was pretty cool.
April [00:18:05] Well, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you, Cord Carter and Brianna Brown, for sharing your personal stories with us about teaching and learning science at Fisk University in Nashville. You'll be able to hear part two of this interview in our next episode. We hope you enjoyed listening, and we invite you to send us your feedback at Labster Dotcom slash feedback. Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast until next time. Keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.