When PhD student Sigourney Bell turned to Twitter to connect with other Black scientists, she could never have guessed that this would be the beginning of a journey that would see her co-founding an organisation that champions Black excellence in cancer research and medicine.
It wasn’t until I began my own PhD that I met another Black woman with a PhD, despite working for three pharmaceutical companies before I joined Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.
I think representation made a bigger difference to my journey than I first realised. The only Black teacher I had during primary and secondary school was my biology teacher. Seeing her in that space, along with her encouragement, meant that I could see myself as a biologist too.
Everyone knows about George Floyd and the unrest during the summer of 2020, but they might not have heard about Christian Cooper. During that summer he was birdwatching in Central Park and was accused of something he didn’t do. Black people in the bird watching and ornithology communities began talking about how, in certain areas, they felt unsafe, just doing what they loved.
These conversations grew – Black people in science, technology, engineering, medicine and other fields, particularly in academia, talked about not feeling a sense of belonging. This was the beginning of the Black in... movement – networks to connect Black people working in the same field.
Around this time, I’d also been trying to find a community. I turned to Twitter and connected with Black scientists around the world working in cancer research. One of the scientists was Henry Henderson who was a postdoc at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee and through connecting with him via a DM, Black in Cancer emerged – with a mission to promote the visibility of Black scientists working in medicine and cancer research.
We also wanted people in the Black community to be informed and empowered when making decisions about their own health care. We do this through the Cancer Awareness Project. This involves patients, clinicians and researchers speaking to the public about cancer.
Our other main initiative is mentorship. Through the Black in Cancer Pipeline Programme, 15 UK students and 15 US students have received nine months of mentorship with senior cancer researchers from both industry and academia and are now on a fully paid eight-week lab placement.
We’ve been working to increase the pipeline from undergraduate study right through to tenured positions. We’ve given out three postdoctoral awards (each worth $75,000 (~£64,000) a year for three years increasing to $100,000 (~£85,000) if researchers transition to a faculty position) and a Distinguished Investigator Award ($100,000 (~£85,000) a year for three years).