Maydianne Andrade

Researchers seek to improve representation with Canadian Black Scientists Network

Originally published in U of T News by Yanan Wang

Maydianne Andrade, a professor at U of T Scarborough, is one of several leading researchers at universities across Canada who came together last summer to form the STEM-focused Canadian Black Scientists Network (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

For years, the University of Toronto’s Maydianne Andrade shied away from the idea of being a role model.

The professor of evolutionary biology at U of T Scarborough considers herself a “typical scientist” – one who is not particularly social, head down and immersed in her work. In fact, Andrade says she paid little attention to the issue of Black representation in academia despite a career riddled with moments where she was the sole Black person in a seminar or research lab.

Her outlook changed gradually over time, but really crystallized after attending U of T’s first student-run Black Graduation celebration in 2017. That’s when a Black neuroscience major approached Andrade in tears.

“She said she had never seen a Black professor or teacher before, and that seeing me at U of T Scarborough, despite her experiences in first-year, was one of the reasons she stayed in the program,” says Andrade, who is a Canada Research Chair in Integrative Behavioural Ecology and leads a lab that studies the mating behaviours of spiders.

“She said she always felt like she stood out, like she was ‘other’ – like she just didn’t belong there. She told me that she had wanted to talk to me for four years.

“You kind of have to accept that representation is important when you hear something like that.”

Motivated by a shared desire to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields more equitable for future generations of Black students, Andrade and other Black scientists at universities across Canada came together last summer to form the Canadian Black Scientists Network. The organization, which now boasts 120 members, seeks to remove barriers facing Black academics in STEM through mentorship, connection, data collection and political advocacy.

The network is currently planning the first annual national conference for Black Excellence in STEM & Medicine (BE-STEMM), to be hosted virtually at U of T this November. The network is applying for grants and partnerships through Canada’s federal research funding agencies to fund the conference and the organization’s continued growth.

The Canadian Black Scientists Network is also developing a partnership with Statistics Canada to compile and analyze data on the proportion of Black students in STEM at every stage of education, from high school onwards.

Andrade says taking a data-based approach is one way to refute scepticism surrounding the existence of racial discrimination within educational institutions.

“We are academics and we want to evaluate the evidence,” she says. “Really until last year, I would say most of our colleagues didn’t believe us. The George Floyd reckoning changed what people are willing to hear and believe to be true.”

Some studies have already been done on the issue. A 2017 York University study, for instance, found that Black secondary school students within the Toronto District School Board were discouraged from taking the most academically rigorous courses. And since most university STEM programs require the completion of certain high school courses, students in “applied” streams are often not eligible for these programs.

Data from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, meanwhile, found that people who identified as visible minorities had far lower grant application success rates than non-minority counterparts.

The conference will include a summit on how to share insights with Black youth and support the flow of Black youth into STEM fields. The network is also developing a mentorship program for young people at the start of their academic careers.

In Andrade’s case, she says she always loved science and was particularly fascinated by biology and the notion of underlying structures and rules that could help us understand the world. She also credits the influence of a professor who taught an introduction to biology class she took as an undergraduate. At the time, she was planning on going to medical school.

The professor got her hooked on the idea of doing research and teaching subjects herself.

“About six months into that first-year course, I suddenly realized I could do what my professor was doing,” Andrade says. “It was an ‘aha’ moment that I still remember. Hairs on the back of my neck stood up, butterflies of excitement in my stomach.”