Suspend reality as screenwriter Felicity Evans invites you to imagine a select group of Black, Asian and minority ethnic scientists from history and today discussing the lack of representation in science

A cartoon of scientists from different eras at a party

Source: © Dunni Mustapha c/o Illo Agency

What would scientists Jabir ibn Hayyan, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Saint Elmo Brady, Marie Daly and Daniel Hale Williams (from left to right) discuss over nibbles?

Scene 1 – The main room

A neat Middle Eastern man – scrupulously turned out in a sea-blue galabiyya – is putting the finishing touches to a buffet table groaning with mezze.

This is Jabir ibn Hayyan (died c 806). He’s often called the father of modern chemistry – and he’s an absolute whizz at mixing party dips. Because that’s what this is – or will be when all the guests have turned up. A party!

JABIR (tasting party dip with bread stick): Hmm, without doubt more fresh organic matter is called for. And in this case that can only mean —

Jabir takes some green herb and snips a generous amount onto the dip.

JABIR (CONT’D): — Coriander. No such thing as too much coriander …

Dr Saint Elmo Brady (1884–1966) – a dapper African-American man in a charcoal three-piece suit – saunters in.

SAINT ELMO: Well, for those who like it, sure!

Jabir looks up and smiles. He emerges from behind the table, hand eagerly outstretched.

JABIR: Dr Brady! You made it! All the way from the early 20th century!

The two men shake hands warmly, but Jabir is clearly preoccupied.

JABIR (CONT’D): Although now I’m worried about the amount of coriander I added to the hummus.

SAINT ELMO: It’s just, to anyone especially sensitive to aldehydes, coriander can taste like soap.

JABIR: Soap!

SAINT ELMO: Carboxylic acids are my thing, so …

Saint Elmo gives a modest shrug – he’s not one to boast.

Jabir pushes his hummus dish to one side, despondent.

JABIR: Garlic mayonnaise it is then.

Saint Elmo grabs a falafel and dips it in the mayonnaise before taking a bite. His face lights up.

SAINT ELMO: Mmm, this is really good! Did you make it yourself?

JABIR: But of course! The successful emulsification of egg yolk and oil is always satisfying.

SAINT ELMO: Agreed.

The two men eagerly scoop more garlic mayonnaise onto their falafels and stuff it blissfully into their mouths.

MARIE: Egg yolks?

Standing in the doorway is an African-American woman with a twinkle in her eye – Dr Marie Daly (1921–2003).

MARIE (CONT’D): Then I’m hoping that none of your guests have high blood cholesterol!

JABIR (mid-bite; exasperated): Seriously?

SAINT ELMO: Marie! It’s been way too long!

Saint Elmo steps forward and kisses Marie on both cheeks.

Marie turns to Jabir and holds out her hand. He shakes it.

MARIE: Dr Marie Maynard Daly, sir. I’m something of an authority on the deleterious effects of cholesterol on the human body.

JABIR: Cholesterol?

MARIE: Found in certain types of fatty foods – and it can be very bad for you if you’re predisposed. So, watch out before you serve up too much of that mayonnaise!

Jabir sighs, and pushes the mayonnaise away. Saint Elmo rubs a spot on his tie.

SAINT ELMO (ruefully): It’s not great if you get it on your clothes, either.

MARIE: That’s gonna need a boil wash.

JABIR: Ha!

Jabir snaps his fingers, inspired.

JABIR (CONT’D): And a good helping of soap!

Scene 2 – The main room, some time later

The party is in full swing. Jabir taps the side of his elegant tea glass with a spoon to get everyone’s attention.

JABIR: Ladies and gentlemen, as the host of this evening’s inaugural gathering of ‘Leading Figures in Science Throughout the Ages’, I’d like to thank you all for attending.

There is a polite smattering of applause.

JABIR (CONT’D): Some of you have made quite the journey.

I’d like to extend a particularly warm welcomes to Dr Daniel Hale Williams – the first cardiologist to perform a repair of the pericardium – joining us all the way from 1893!

Another round of applause – Daniel bows, a little shyly.

JABIR (CONT’D): But now, I give the floor over to one of our most esteemed members – Dr Quarraisha Abdool Karim, known for her pioneering research into the effect of antiretrovirals on HIV. She joins us from 2007.

Enthusiastic applause, and some cheers.

JABIR (CONT’D): Dr Abdool Karim has prepared a presentation for us, entitled ‘Science Pioneers Through the Ages: Our Legacies and Heritage’.

Quarraisha stands, looking a little awkward. The audience hushes with eager anticipation.

QUARRAISHA (takes speech from her pocket): Um … our ‘legacies and heritage’.

There’s a pause as Quarraisha looks at the very small piece of paper in her hand.

SAINT ELMO (sotto voce, to Marie): I thought it would be a lot bigger than that …

Quarraisha sighs and puts the paper down on the table. She takes off her glasses and rubs the bridge of her nose.

QUARRAISHA: I’ll be honest with you. Our ‘legacy and heritage’ is very much a work in progress. I’m still out there in 2021 – and it remains mostly white guys filling the space. Taking the limelight, getting all the credit – being the poster boys.

A strong murmur of consternation.

MARIE: What? In the 21st century?

Daniel shakes his head.

DANIEL: That’s very disappointing.

QUARRAISHA (continuing): Some of the women of colour who pioneered 20th century computer engineering don’t even come up in a Google search!

JABIR: Oh now, that’s just rude.

QUARRAISHA: The result being, as I’m sure you can imagine, that fewer children of colour, especially girls, feel like science, technology, engineering and maths is for them. They don’t see themselves represented, so they hang back – and then they choose other options.

MARIE (tutting): The lives lost. The talent wasted!

QUARRAISHA: However, I’m delighted to say there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In 2021, Education in Chemistry is continuing the conversation on decolonising the curriculum, to show just how many there are of us – African heritage, Arabic, Asian, non-English speakers – in the ‘Science Pioneers Through the Ages’ community.

The room breaks out into applause.

QUARRAISHA (CONT’D): People who had to face down the ignorant opinions of others, and fight tooth and nail for a place at the table before they even got onto the crucial business of inventing, discovering, leading and innovating!

Cheers now, and cutlery tapped enthusiastically on glasses.

SAINT ELMO: If you can relate to someone, you’re far more likely to be inspired by them. That’s just a fact.

QUARRAISHA: Indeed it is, Dr Brady. Obviously, the project’s success will be dependent on how many teachers and educators take on the challenge to tell our stories – to say to their kids, loud and clear, that science is for everyone!

MARIE: Yes! The more who learn, the more will benefit – the whole world over.

QUARRAISHA: I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. But I think 2022 might just be the year that – with the help of Decolonising the curriculum – we begin to shift the dial on this.

As they say over at Nasa – watch this space …