What’s it like to be black and work in the Life Sciences sector?
October is Black History Month in the UK and February is African American History Month in the USA - the time to raise awareness of racial inequality and encourage people to dig deeper, look closer, and think bigger about this pervasive issue within society.
As a company spanning the Tech and Life Sciences sectors, with a UK Head Office and an office in Cambridge MA, we wanted to better understand what it means to be black and work within these spheres, areas that are both fundamentally progressive, yet still suffer from a lack of racial equality and diversity.
To this end we interviewed our Life Science Business Director Fane Mensah, PhD to learn more about his experience as a scientist and a global community leader within the Life Sciences.
Fane grew up in the Netherlands before completing an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Research at the Rotterdam University of Applied Research. From there he undertook a master’s degree in Infection and Immunity at Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, which included an Erasmus year working in a Biotech company in Madrid, Spain. Following his graduation, he undertook a PhD in Immunology at University College London.
He then joined Synthace in June 2019 as the Head of Community, where he founded and now leads the Computer-Aided Biology Community. The community exists at the intersection of biology and technology, with the aim of bringing together biologists, data and computer scientists from industry, policy start-ups, academia, vendors and the investment community.
What were your early experiences of a career in Life Sciences like?
Fane: My parents are originally from Ghana, but I was born in the Netherlands and grew up in a small village. I was probably one of the few black people in that village, but as a family we were part of the community, and people appreciated us for what we based our representation and achievements on, whether it was my sister breaking school records with sprinting, my dad doing really well at work or my mum being a familiar face at the local stores.
I think growing up in that environment was already a good preparation for what I could expect in academia, throughout my science career and life. That didn’t change when I decided to go to university.
Yes, I was one of the few people thinking about doing science, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people didn’t expect that of me, probably because…. Yes, you know.
Fane: Throughout my bachelor's, master's, and PhD I was always one of the few, and I think it has its pros and cons. I think the pro was definitely that I would stand out. So if I would, for example, achieve something, people would come out and look at me and say: "Oh, that's a black person that got into that certain talk or won a prize."
I think it was a great feeling for me because I felt like I'm the only black person. And I wanted to make sure that they had a good experience from that black person.
On the other hand, I think when you're young, when you're not really sure what you want to do in your future, role models are so, so important. And I think academia and the Life Sciences sector in its whole lack black role models. At least it lacked them for me because there were very few black professors, there were very few black postdocs, whether they're male or female.
So that made it a bit difficult to really picture my future, but I have to say over the years I have met some amazing people that did act as role models for me.
Is racial inequality in the Life Sciences sector improving?
Fane: I have to say we can do better. We can definitely do better. I think there has been progress, yes, because the conversation is now starting to really come out and people are talking about it.
I think if you went back 15 to 20 years, it would be interesting to see how other black people in the Life Sciences and Biotech spheres experienced being in those sectors compared to how I'm experiencing them now.
I have to say I'd love to see more black people in Life Sciences, and not just being there and doing work, but also being quite vocal and being visible.
Because as I said, we need role models. It's such an important thing that we could showcase all these different types of roles within Life Sciences. We need to showcase that there are black people doing clinical work, there are black people working on drug discovery, there are black people who are CTOs or CSOs at biotech companies, and so on. I think this is something that we really need to make sure to highlight and showcase.
Did you face any adversity as a black scientist and communicator?
Fane: I have to say I've been quite lucky. Throughout my career, I’ve always had people around me that were very, very supportive. And I think that really comes down to my personality and the fact that I'm quite open and I like to speak to people.
I also have to say that people went through fire for me as well. There are a lot of people that worked really hard to get me to certain places. I can give a great example of my master’s: I was doing my bachelor's degree at a group in Rotterdam and I was doing really, really well; and my supervisor said: "You know what Fane? I think you should really do a master's.” He really encouraged me to do the particular master’s degree I undertook. If it wasn’t for his encouragement, I might not have done it.
So he was really, really supportive in helping me basically build my first steps of a career in Life Sciences. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back, that was a white person who really helped me make those steps. And I really appreciate that.
The same thing goes for my PhD supervisor. She was so supportive as well. And she already knew that I was going to pursue a career in Life Sciences and Biotech (“the dark side”) and not academia. But she knew my personality and she was so supportive. So I have to say I've been quite fortunate that I've had really good people supporting me.
Fane: Of course, I’ve heard stories of people that go to conferences or events, and others don't expect them to be the person they are. For example, when you’re a CEO and people say: "Oh, a black person who's a CEO? That's strange." or "I didn't expect that." or "Are you here as a PhD student?", not knowing they’re successful people with important roles.
For me, smashing that unconscious bias is a motivation in itself because it's great to then tell them: "Well, no, I'm a doctor!” or “No, I have a PhD” or “Yes, I head up a scientific community."
I just want to make sure that people are aware of the fact that if they've got something that they really envision doing, it should not matter whether they're black, white, Asian, male, female, etc. By being themselves and making sure that they make the right connections, they can really help themselves pursue their career.
Is being seen as a role model something that you are trying to achieve through the Computer-Aided Biology Community as a positive driver of change?
Fane: Yes. It's quite funny because I did some research on Black History Month, and the first person that initiated it in the UK was also Ghanaian. It was Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian analyst, who had served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council (GLC) and created a collaboration to get it underway.
I read a piece about him, and he mentioned the fact that we need to change the way people think about black people. That was in 1987, and he was talking about slavery and stuff. But he was really saying that we need to show how black people are successful in various industries. And for me, that is exactly what I intend to do with the community.
Fane: “Community” is a big word. A community is something that brings people together, whether it's at the intersection of biology and technology or bringing males and females together or bringing people from different backgrounds, it's all about being a community. And that for me is so important.
I can give you a really good example. At our launch event for the Computer-Aided Biology Community someone came up to me and said: "Wow, I've never seen so many diverse people." Or he wanted to say: "I haven't seen so many black people come to these types of events before." And that got me thinking... Was it because I did a promo video advertising the event? Was it because I was being vocal and visible that we had such a diverse audience?
That made me realize that to be a role model, you need to be visible and you need to give others the opportunity to think: "Hey, there's a black person doing that. Maybe I will go to that event" or "Hey, there's a black person pursuing that career, perhaps I can try and do that master's or that PhD."
How can companies and individuals improve the visibility of black scientists in the Life Sciences sector?
Fane: I think there are two things that we need to be aware of.
Firstly, the world is changing due to advancements in technology. There are so many platforms now that can improve the visibility of black scientists. We've got Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, for example. There's so many Instagram pages of scientists now, basically showing whatever they're doing in the lab, which is a great promotion for Life Sciences on a platform that is accessible for everyone.
So technology definitely makes it much easier for people to understand what a certain life as a scientist or as an academic or whatever-sector-you're-in looks like.
Fane: The second really important point is to open the dialogue, take the time to speak with people about the situation. We’re living in 2020 so it’s not a taboo anymore. Try to understand where people come from, how hard they worked to get there, and also encourage them.
I’ve had great conversations with colleagues about this topic, and it’s in those conversations that they will understand the situation better based on the points raised above. There is so much diversity in what is possible for people to do nowadays.
I'd like to see more black people come out and be visible. It's good for your confidence, it's good to show to your network and your community that you are working and doing something really great. But most importantly, it's really good for the next generation.