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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: A Personal Viewpoint


I am a physical chemist working in the research areas of clathrate hydrates, inclusion chemistry, and materials science. Since 1999, I have been working as a Visiting Fellow at the National Research Council of Canada in the Functional Materials Program. The writing of this article is an opportunity for me to talk about the path I've taken through science and to encourage aboriginal people to pursue science- and math-based careers. It is my belief that if aboriginal people wish to pursue their dreams and aspirations, they are attainable through hard work and determination.

I was raised in Lake Francis, Manitoba, and I attended a rural high school northwest of Winnipeg. Although I am of Métis descent, my upbringing is closer to that of typical farm kids that lived in the Interlake area. During my spare time in my teenage years, I spent a lot of time fishing, hunting, and trapping, and there were times when I dreamt of becoming a conservation officer. There were a few high school teachers who I looked up to, and my respect for them inspired me to consider further education at university. Although my family instilled the value of an education in me, no one in my family had ever gone beyond postsecondary school. I felt that the pursuit of a university education was a big decision. I was fortunate to have a job on a local dairy farm since the age of 15, so I began to save the money I earned in the event I chose to go to university. Looking back, I realize that I had some advantages that other aboriginal people didn't have. For example, we lived reasonably close to an urban center, so the possibility of getting a university degree was perhaps more realizable than compared to youth who live in isolated communities. On the other hand, I didn't have the luxuries that a lot of other middle class kids do. It may be hard to believe, but we did not have any plumbing in our home during the entire time we lived in Lake Francis.

After completion of high school, my family moved and I enrolled in a 4-year B.Sc. program at the University of Winnipeg. While I was fortunate to be able to live at home with my family during that time, I nevertheless had to assume the financial responsibility for my studies. There always seemed to be stresses involving financial, academic, and personal issues. I wasn't an "A" student and it was often necessary for me to input a fair amount of time and effort to see positive results. In retrospect, I think this is one reason why I felt motivated to try my best even when things weren't going smoothly. There were also very few aboriginal students pursuing science degrees at my home university. At times when I did not feel confident about my abilities, I questioned whether ethnicity played a role. Later on, I became aware that underrepresentation is attributable to many factors and cannot be related to intellectual abilities. The occurrence of underrepresentation of aboriginal people has not affected my decision to pursue a science degree, but there were times when I would have appreciated a colleague in a similar situation as myself to help smooth out the loneliness and the transition from high school to university. I am reminded of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi where he stated "no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive." I have found that it is important to seek help when I've needed it and invariably most people are willing to cooperate.

My inspiration to pursue graduate school in chemistry came from a new faculty member who was hired during the fourth year of my B.Sc. degree. Alaa S. Abd-El-Aziz originated from Cairo, Egypt, and he demonstrated to me that through hard work and perseverance it is possible to achieve one's goals. I felt we shared some common pathways because we were both relatively new to the system and close in age. I found that I enjoyed doing research during my honours project with him. Although my GPA was not that impressive, I applied to several schools in western Canada and accepted the opportunity to attend the University of Saskatchewan and work with Ron Verrall toward a Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry. I have never yet looked back. Throughout the course of my studies, he was a very supportive supervisor, mentor, and friend. I also had the good fortune of interacting with David Russell, who was a chemistry professor and chair of the graduate affairs committee. In the early days of graduate school, he provided me with a great deal of guidance and constructive criticism. Much of his guidance was for general academic issues, but he was quite intuitive and understanding about my personal feelings. On the surface, Dr. Russell may have seemed like a typical stately Englishman; however, he was a well-respected leader in the community in many issues ranging from politics to multifaith religion. He, too, served as a mentor and a role model throughout my graduate studies and significantly influenced my career decisions. The positive influence of Verrall and Russell was invaluable. I found that access to mentors and support networks are vital because it can mean the difference between success and failure at university. There exists some very good support and mentoring programs; however, it is important to realize that there are people outside of these formal channels who may also be willing to provide support if you are willing to look for it.

My experiences as a graduate student at Saskatchewan were wide-ranging and involved classroom lecturing, laboratory research, and academic course work. In addition, I participated in activities outside of the university. I took the opportunity to promote science and mathematics among indigenous students through my involvement in the Innovators in the Schools Program, summer science camps, and science fairs. I have received some positive feedback from several students. I was often told that I changed their perception of what science meant to them and that they felt encouraged to enroll in a science degree at university. Another positive point is that I have made a number of youth realize that I am not unlike them, and they can attain their goals with some perseverance and determination. Aboriginal youth today need the kind of guidance and strong positive influences that I was fortunate enough to have access to. While the issue of a low representation of aboriginals in science has not impacted negatively on my decision to pursue a science career, there still exists the possibility that a lack of role models and underrepresentation of aboriginal people in scientific fields could impact negatively on the decisions of future generations of aboriginal youth.

I believe that racial prejudices are not one of the reasons for the underrepresentation of aboriginals in science today. The cultural diversity that exists in many scientific professions exemplifies this statement. Scientists are often appraised on the basis of the quality of their work and ideas and not by their cultural identity. A willingness to learn, grow, and contribute are highly valued scientific qualities. There are opportunities for aboriginal people in science and there seems to be an increasing awareness that science-based careers are important in the aboriginal community. Environmental issues, resource management, and the continual evolution of technology are all issues that aboriginal communities will need to address in the future and, consequently, there will always be a demand for well-trained aboriginal scientists and engineers. If I were to give advice to others who wish to pursue scientific careers, I would encourage them to do so and pursue what interests them to the best of their abilities.