Computer scientist sitting at a desk working on his computer

Thriving as a black scientist

By Dr Nira Chamberlain CSci

My name is Dr Nira Chamberlain a Mathematical Modeller and a Chartered Scientist. In 2014 the Science Council named me as one of the UK’s Leading Practising Scientists. In making this list, I was one of only two black scientists; the other being Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. As part of Black History Month I wish to express a need for all of us to state that “science is for everybody”.

This year, while talking at a Black History event, The Black Makers, one of the delegates challenged me with the following question:

“Do you agree with me that this society does not have the environment for black scientists to emerge, survive and to thrive?”

With statistics such as:

Black [Physics] academics account for only 0.2% of professors and 0.4% of researchers despite making up 3.3% of the total population.

Source: Campaign for Science and Engineering

The easiest answers are to either to say “yes” and do nothing or say “no, things are improving” and then ignore the issues at hand. However when people and organisations take personal and corporate responsibility to the argument that “science is for everybody”, this is when you do create an environment for black scientists to emerge, survive and to thrive.

Being motivated to succeed from an early age

When I was 15, my school teacher told me I could be a boxer, but never a mathematician. On hearing this, my parents took responsibility by saying to me, “You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician!” I embraced what my parents said to me and pursued a successful career as a professional mathematical modeller.

Finding career support

The Science Council has been very supportive of me becoming and sustaining my Chartered Scientist status. Nine years ago, a delegate challenged my suitability of chairing a mathematics conference because of the colour of my skin; I asked him to look through his personal copy of Chartered Scientist – The forefront of science. Not only was I quoted in the brochure, I was one of twelve Chartered Scientists profiled. The Science Council had taken responsibility to show that black scientists do belong in the scientific community.

The pinnacle of my career came in 2015 when I became the first black mathematician to be referenced by the Who’s Who since its establishment in 1849. There are only about 30 British mathematicians in the Who’s Who. I achieved this feat through hard work and determination as well as the support of professional organisations such as the Science Council and the Institute of Mathematics and its Application.

Inspiring others to follow

However, my responsibility to create an environment for black scientists to emerge, survive and to thrive has not ceased. I now undertake a number of talks at schools, education and community establishments to talk about my journey. My mission can be summed up by Professor Rosina Mamokgethi Setati-Phakeng, the first black South African female to get a PhD in Mathematical Education:

“Being the first is not something to be proud about, it is a calling to ensure you are not the last.”

Professor Rosina Mamokgethi Setati-Phakeng