By James Dacey
What does it mean to be a scientist from an ethnic minority background? Is it harder to get career breaks and to reach the top of a field? Can your background actually be a source of inspiration? Is it even useful to anyone to be discussing these questions?
These are among the issues touched upon in a new series of video interviews with 10 British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. The interviews were conducted by researchers at the British Library as part of a larger audio history project commissioned by the Royal Society called Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. You can watch all 10 interviews on the Royal Society website.
I particularly enjoyed the interview with Sanjeev Gupta (see video below), a geoscientist who was born in Agra, India, before moving to London when he was 5 years old. Today he is a professor of earth science at Imperial College London and is part of the science team for NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover project. Gupta talks about how he wanted to study geology because he loved to problem-solve but couldn’t see himself confined to an office or a lab. (Having opted for a split physics/geology degree myself, I can completely relate to this.)
There is also a lovely moment at the end of the Gupta’s interview where he talks about his mixed feelings about being asked to take part in this project. “I was kind of mildly annoyed when I got this invitation from the Royal Society,” he says. “But actually in the end I decided it was a good thing to do because it would show people from under-privileged ethnic backgrounds that they could enter science and succeed in science.”
Physical scientists are well represented among the interviewees, who also include the space scientist and TV presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock. The presenter of The Sky at Night was born in London in 1968 after her family had immigrated to the UK from Nigeria. In this video interview, Aderin-Pocock talks candidly about growing up in London in the 1970s as a “lost Nigerian” – not really fitting into either British or Nigerian communities. Her passion to become a scientist was driven by a strong desire to go to space and her love of 1970s space-based TV. “There were wonderful programmes like Star Trek where people from lots of different countries were all battling the aliens, and I really fancied that,” she says.
One of the interviews touches on the more sinister side of growing up in a society as a person from an ethic minority. Saiful Islam, a physical chemist at the University of Bath, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, spoke about how he was attacked a couple of times by fascist skinheads in London in the late 1970s. Islam speaks about the privilege he feels to have pursued a career in the academic environment, a place he has always found to be supportive and free from racial prejudice.
The videos were produced in connection with significantly more detailed oral histories, ranging from 6 to 10.5 hours per interviewee, which you can listen to on the British Library Sounds website. You can also read the final report of the project Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science (PDF).