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Black Panther: Inclusion in STEM graces the big screen

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17 October 2018

Kristin Finch, associate dean for diversity and inclusion with undergraduates.
Kristin Finch, associate dean for diversity and inclusion with undergraduates.
If you stop and think about movies portraying prominent scientists and engineers, some of the first films that are likely to come to your mind include Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, Star Trek, and maybe even the Austin Powers trilogy. However, there is one (maybe not so) glaring commonality between all these films: The lead scientists are all portrayed by white men. If this doesn’t seem strange to you, you may not be in the minority. The media have conditioned us to believe that top scientists and engineers are of a singular ethnic and gender makeup, and they have made few intentional efforts to bring inclusivity to cinema.

So what is the harm in that? To all the young girls, as well as African-American, Latinx, and Native American children interested in science, there is an obvious void of role models on the big screen and a general lack of affirmation that being a scientist is a viable career path for them. This lack of representation and inclusion has detrimental effects on both underrepresented communities and the overall scientific community. But this narrative is beginning to change with the release, earlier this year, of Black Panther.

With over $1 billion in gross sales, Black Panther has proven to be a box-office success. But why would one discuss a Disney lm in Penn State’s Science Journal? Because, in the lm, scientific discoveries play a critical role in the development and prosperity of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, providing beautiful examples of how inclusion within the STEM and medical fields can result in the growth and affluence of a nation.

Shuri. A scientist. A woman. A role model.

Although T’Challa (the Black Panther) is the protagonist and lead character, his sister, Shuri, steals the show. Her character represents more than just a strong black woman who uses science and technology to save her home nation; she represents a role model for all people, both young and old, who have never seen someone like them and with similar passions and responsibilities depicted in mainstream media. Whether it is through employing the phenomenon of potential energy to create the Black Panther suit to ward off violent attacks or building a state-of-the-art spaceship to ght invading enemies, her character breaks all stereotypes beyond her ethnicity and gender. She shows that scientists do not have to be proud card-carrying, pocket-protecting nerds, but can be beautiful and creative problem solvers. Additionally, like Shuri, real-life scientists are individuals who take pride in the fact that their impact on society can also in uence political decision-making in their countries.

But redefining the image of scientists in the media is only the beginning, and Black Panther is already having a tangible impact on underserved communities of color. Disney has recently announced its plans to make a $1 million donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to expand STEM outreach initiatives, including the launch of a STEM Center of Innovation in Oakland, California. It is no coincidence that this proposed center mirrors the fictional center opened at the end of this thrilling movie (sorry for the spoiler!). This is a concrete example of how inclusion in the media not only provides a role model for the young girl who inspires to be a scientist like Shuri but also can promote more-systematic changes that ultimately lead to long-lasting effects on an entire community.

Science diversity and inclusion at Penn State

Undergraduate students in the lab.
Undergraduate students in the lab.
So how do we, the Eberly College of Science, continue to build upon this world-wide platform of inclusion in STEM that Black Panther has outlined? We must be intentional about valuing the perspectives of all scientists within the college, and the actions of our students are often the barometer of the college’s climate. This year, both the undergraduate and graduate student populations started new organizations to be recognized by the student affairs office: an undergraduate chapter of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChe) and a graduate chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). It is important that, as a college, we support these student organizations and others, that we listen to their needs, nourish their ideas, and provide them with the resources they need to become the Shuris in their labs and classrooms. Additionally, we must continue to provide support and mentorship to young faculty members as they venture down the tenure pathway, so that the systemic structures of assumed knowledge are no more. We must train all faculty members to have fair and unbiased faculty searches in order to enhance each department with the most diverse talent who will implement creative solutions to our world’s problems. Lastly, we have to continue to examine the climate of our college and challenge ourselves with the notion that inclusion is not the responsibility of a single of office but the responsibility of all.

 

Kristin Finch, associate dean for diversity and inclusion