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Finding heroes

Thinking about underrepresented scientists and cultural contributions to science

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

A creative assignment in a chemistry class got students learning about how scientific concepts are viewed by other cultures, or how scientists from other cultures contribute to scientific knowledge.

Chemistry 1051 students were asked to present a biography of an Indigenous; person of colour; a woman, trans or non-conforming or non-binary scientist; or how a science concept is relevant in their culture or another culture.

Charles Henry Turner

A slide from Evan Williams’ presentation on Charles Henry Turner.
Photo: Submitted

“I was very interested in the assignment as it offered a creative manner in which to learn about scientists from underrepresented groups and their contributions,” said Evan Williams, a first-year biochemistry student from the Goulds, N.L. “I was humbled by the information I learned during my research.”

He created a PowerPoint on Charles Henry Turner, one of the first African-American researchers in animal behaviour.

“He was the first scientist to discover that insects respond to auditory cues, as well as the cognitive decisions they make based on those interactions,” he said. “His lack of recognition and awards was shocking. My presentation was a tribute to work that was not properly honoured during his lifetime.”

Eunice Foote

First-year student Kaitlyn Rowsell was pleased to get to use her creative side.

She made a YouTube video on Eunice Foote, an early climate change pioneer whom she had never heard about prior to her research.


“That emphasized the need to start talking about these forgotten and ignored scientists,” she said. “By doing research, and talking with fellow students about their projects, I learned about so many. It encouraged me to look into current injustices and ways to support scientists from underrepresented groups, especially women.”

Ms. Rowsell says that Eunice Foote’s story is “remarkable” and that her work in climate science is relevant today. She says the fact that her contributions were not recognized until 150 years later didn’t “sit right” with her.

Hedy Lamarr

Madison LaSaga is a first-year student from Stephenville, N.L., hoping to major in psychology.

She says the assignment required students to immerse themselves in the lives of underrepresented and underrated scientists and it encouraged them to truly understand the depth of these injustices.

Her YouTube video featured Hedy Lamarr.

“I’ve always found stories of intelligent women being discriminated against for their talents, or overlooked entirely, particularly heartbreaking,” she said. “Hedy Lamarr gained inspiration for her inventions when she was fascist Fritz Mendl’s “trophy wife” and would be present for his conversations with weapons manufacturers – conversations she was assumed to never understand. Despite this, the technology she developed would go on to be used by the military.”

A page from Quazi Mohammad Abrar Nafis' booklet on Dawn Pratt.
A page from Quazi Mohammad Abrar Nafis’ booklet on Dawn Pratt.
Photo: Submitted

Dawn Pratt

Ryan Miller is a fourth-year student from Inverness, N.S., who has worked as a correctional officer and case worker in Nunavut.

“Because of my experience working with a primarily Indigenous and vulnerable population, I sought out information on the roles of Indigenous people within STEM,” he said.

He chose to focus on Dawn Pratt, a chemist and educational consultant from Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.

“She seamlessly integrates parts of Indigenous culture into STEM workshops and courses, making it easier for Indigenous people to sympathize with the material, ultimately making it more accessible,” said Mr. Miller. “This approach is something everyone within STEM should seek to do.”

Quazi Mohammad Abrar Nafis also featured Pratt.

The Bangladeshi student is currently in his second year and says the assignment helped him realize science has often favoured and featured the socially privileged.

“As a student of gender studies and the founder of a non-profit feminist organization in Bangladesh, I have always had a strong inclination towards letting youth know about strong female figures who are either underrepresented on unrepresented,” he said.

“The most beautiful part about Dawn Pratt’s contribution is that she incorporates the knowledge and essence of practices in chemistry from her community. She never had a First Nations or Indigenous role model growing up. This teaches us that sometimes, when we cannot find a hero we can look up to, we have to become that hero ourselves.”


Tarek Abdalla and Aya Almutoory did a joint PowerPoint looking at the cultural use of henna.

Ms. Almutoory is originally from Iraq. The first-year biology student says the project was a fun opportunity to learn.

Aya Almutoory, Tarek Abdalla and “Mama Tarek” with henna’d hands.
Photo: Submitted

“We chose to focus on henna as it is a representation of beauty in our culture and we wanted to show its diversity,” she said. “I often read comments on whether others using henna is considered cultural appropriation. I want to clarify it isn’t! Henna is a symbol of beauty and happiness and can be enjoyed by anyone.”

Mr. Abdalla is also a first-year biology student. Originally from Egypt, he says the project allowed him to be creative while completing work towards his chemistry grade.

“We believe spreading the word about henna and its complexities is a great way to share our personal culture and childhood to others in a unique and fun way,” he said. “Henna is often thought of as being for women only, but can be used on everyone and still look fabulous!”

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