As people of color die from COVID-19 at a disproportionately higher rate, the importance of Black scientists is more critical than ever. U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, acknowledged that Black Americans are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, due to health disparities and historic racism surrounding housing, education and employment.
Despite representing slightly under a third of the population in locations such as Chicago, Milwaukee and the state of Louisiana, Black Americans represent 70% of deaths from COVID-19.
Why focus on Black scientists fighting COVID-19? Because the younger generation can’t be what they can’t see. Representation is important in inspiring children who will someday become the medical professionals and scientists that help us battle diseases such as COVID-19.
Plus, diversity helps us reduce the marginalization of people of color, especially when it comes to medical care and health outcomes. Unconscious racial bias can result in unequal health outcomes, and this is more likely when medical professionals don’t understand the culture of the community they are based in.
Earlier this year, 100 Black scientists were featured in the journal Cell’s CrossTalk blog. Some of these featured Black scientists include individuals working on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. We feature four below:
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health. She is leading the effort to develop an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, which has moved into Phase 1 at record speed. Her prior research had focused on mRNA as a method to promote an immune response against virus, which may work for SARS-CoV-2.
Dr. Tomeka Suber is on the front lines as a pulmonologist and is an expert in acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Dr. Christopher Barnes is an HHMI Hanna Grays Fellow at California Institute of Technology. While he isn’t on the front lines, he is helping find a cure by crystallizing antibodies to fight against COVID-19. This research is needed as scientists race to develop a vaccine or cure.
Dr. Michael Johnson is a professor at the University of Arizona investigating if copper could be used to alter the binding of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. When the spike proteins (which give coronavirus its name), interact with our cells, the proteins require zinc. Copper could potentially block the virus from being able to access zinc and stop coronavirus from entering our cells or replicating once it is inside. Research is still in early stages on a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2. The scientists hope that copper, in conjunction with other treatments, will deliver a solid one-two punch to COVID-19.
We are all in this pandemic together, but some of us will be hit harder than others. We won’t be able to change this within the time of the pandemic, but as we move to diversify STEM fields, we must remember that representation and visibility can make all the difference to a young generation that is finishing their school year at home during a pandemic.
Many of these children will be inspired to help others as medical professionals and scientists. It is up to us to provide examples of excellence from people that look like them.