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Inspiring STEM – Black History Month

October is Black History Month, and this year we want to highlight some of the most incredible Black minds in psychology and neuroscience – both past and present – who have expanded our understanding of how our amazing brains work, and used that knowledge to improve the lives of the people around them.

Dr Mamie Phipps Clark

Dr Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983) [1] was a pioneering African-American child psychologist who dedicated her career to reducing racism and inequality in schools.

She chose to study for her PhD at the prestigious Columbia University because she wanted to work with Professor Henry Garrett – a psychologist whose research was extremely racist, and tried to falsely claim that Black people were biologically inferior to white people – so that she could challenge his beliefs and prove him wrong. She ended up becoming the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from Columbia.

After graduating, Mamie and her husband founded the first organisation to provide mental health support for Black children. Her research into children’s racial identity led her to become an expert witness and campaigner for the desegregation of schools – allowing Black and white children to attend the same schools, equally.

Dr E. Kitch Childs

Clinical psychologist Dr E. Kitch Childs (1937­–1993) [2] had a brilliant mind from a young age, earning a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in her teens. She later became one of the first Black women to gain a PhD from the University of Chicago, in human development.

A strong believer in social justice, she dedicated her life to defending and supporting people who suffered from all kinds of oppression. Alongside studying for her PhD, she founded the Association for Women in Psychology and the University of Chicago’s Gay Liberation Front.

Childs used her knowledge of clinical psychology to campaign against the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and worked to support and strengthen oppressed communities. She also worked as a therapist in poor areas, charging as little as she could so that people didn’t need a lot of money to get mental health support.

Dr James Samuel Risien Russell

Born in British Guiana (now Guyana), Dr James Samuel Risien Russell (1863–1939) [3] was a neurologist who became one of the first Black medical consultants in Britain. He had to work harder than almost any other doctor at the time to overcome the racism of the Victorian era, and became a prominent and respected doctor, researcher, and professor.

James researched the nervous system, and how it might link to mental wellness. He ran a surgery where he treated people who struggled with mental health difficulties, and fought to reduce the stigma around mental illness. He believed that it was better to treat people with mental health issues with care and respect, rather than sending them to institutions, and campaigned to change the laws around mental illness.

Though James performed his research almost 100 years ago, his work was far ahead of its time, and many of his ideas are still used today.

Dr Ima M. Ebong

Originally from the Bahamas, Dr Ima M. Ebong [4] is an Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky, and has worked as a neurologist at numerous hospitals and universities in the UK and USA. In 2018, she became the first Black woman to be hired by the UK Department of Neurology, and has worked tirelessly to promote diversity and inclusion throughout her career, developing programs to help young BAME people become doctors.

Today, Ima is part of the American Academy of Neurology’s commission on Racism, Equity and Social Justice.

In an interview with the University of Kentucky in 2020, she said, “We need to stop coming up with reasons to categorise and separate ourselves from each other, and just start treating each other as different versions of a human being. This isn't something to shy away from. It's a part of who we are, and it's going to be part of the tools that we use to create a better, more equitable world.”

Dr Kaela S. Singleton

Cellular neuroscientist Dr Kaela S. Singleton earned her PhD from Georgetown University, developing our understanding of how neurons develop. Though she only achieved her PhD in 2020, her inspirational career is off to a flying start, with numerous fellowships, awards, and honours under her belt already.

As well as her research into cellular and developmental neurology, Kaela is a tireless campaigner for equality in science. She has founded two non-profit organisations: Solving for Science [5], which aims to change the culture within STEM fields to encourage collaboration, inclusion, and engagement, and Black in Neuro [6], a community that celebrates and empowers Black neuroscientists.

At Braintastic! we love smashing stereotypes – why not use these profiles of diverse scientists in a STEM careers session to encourage your students to consider careers in psychology and neuroscience?



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