Black Academic Success in Sciences: A Conversation

Panelists discuss academic aspirations and what success means to them

PHOTO: Alfons Morales / Unsplash

Written by: Charlene Aviles, Peak Associate 

SFU health sciences recently hosted Black Academic Success in Sciences: A Conversation where Black professors and students detailed their journey and resilience in the field. 

Moderated by Dr. Henrietta Ezegbe, the event featured SFU health science associate professors Dr. Angela Kaida and Dr. Ralph Pantophlet, and students Tsion Gebremedhen, Nafoni Modi, and Gisele Umviligihozo.

At the start of the panel, Dr. Kaida discussed her motivation to pursue health sciences. Reflecting on her family’s experience of HIV in East Africa, she chose to specialize in sexual and reproductive health.

Recounting the pushback she received for pursuing her ambitions, she said, “As you come against people who don’t have the same experiences, or perspectives, or lived experiences as you, the fact that it’s not important to them does not mean it’s not important.” 

Dr. Panthophlet focused on medical microbiology and later opened the Pantophlet Laboratory at SFU, which specializes in research on vaccines. He said, “Not everything works. You do get rejected. And the thing over time that has kept me going is a belief in science — [to believe] you have a good idea and pursue it, but also be critical enough to say when it’s not working.” 

Modi also spoke to her experiences — due to her upbringing in South Sudan, she aims to help her community by “creating efficient, tangible programs, for specific demographics to work with their health inequities.” 

In preparation for her future career path, she currently works as a program coordinator in programs that address domestic abuse, resiliency, and mental health. 

“Don’t let your failures hold you back from continuing on, because I think it’s especially important — especially for Black students — to hear because we often lack support systems in the university setting when we’re trying to navigate it,” she said. 

Gebremedhen elaborated on her aspirations to facilitate global health’s transition away from imposing Western knowledge. She said because global health is “not empowering those local communities and building their capacity, she aims to partner and learn from locals to implement sustainable approaches to health.  

“What I want to do in global health is change [the West-centric] narrative. We need to embrace local expertise. We need to work with local communities, local institutions and organizations, and actually learn from them, because there’s so much that we can learn from them.”

The panel also explored what success meant to each speaker. “I think being successful is being able to achieve your goals on a regular basis and being able to move forward — not to be stuck in one thing,” Umviligiho said. 

For Gebremedhen, the pursuit of academic success also builds up the community because it entails a combination of transferrable, analytical skills, and mentorship opportunities for others. 

“Part of being successful is being able to leave that legacy and being able to help promote other people — your colleagues, your friends, anybody who comes afterwards — to be able to be just as successful or even more successful,” she concluded.

The full event can be found on YouTube