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Q&A: Black scientist Antentor Hinton Jr. talks role of Juneteenth in STEM, need for diversity in field

Q&A: Black scientist Antentor Hinton Jr. talks role of Juneteenth in STEM, need for diversity in field


In celebration of Juneteenth, CBS News national correspondent Jericka Duncan will host a special marathon of BET’s “America In Black” series which features prominent Black voices including Michael B. Jordan, LL Cool J, Taraji P. Henson and more. Stream it on the free CBS News app starting at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, June 19.

When Antentor Hinton Jr., was growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, he didn’t know he could become a scientist. 

In his sophomore year of college he got a phone call in 2007 that would change his life – and his career trajectory – forever. 

His best childhood friend, Cameron Underwood — a football star and popular student who had taken Hinton, a self-proclaimed “nerd,” under his wing during challenging school years — had died suddenly in his sleep. Underwood, who was just 18, “was extremely healthy,” and played football in college, said Hinton. Underwood died from neuroblastoma, a tumor that maladapted, said Hinton.

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Afterward, Hinton said, “I wanted to do research to be able to design drugs that really could help.”

The next step was finding a community of researchers and mentors that could help him succeed — a challenge in a field where just 9% of the STEM field — science, technology, engineering and math — is Black. He was mentored by Dr. E. Dale Abel, an endocrinologist who showed him that a Black man “could head his own division and be excellent.” Hinson went on to get his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Baylor College of Medicine.

Now an assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University, in addition to his research, Hinton focuses on raising awareness around diversity in science. In March, Hinton, along with 51 other Black scientists, wrote an article in Cell, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, on the role of Juneteenth in the science field and the barriers and challenges Black scientists face. 

He spoke with CBS News about struggles faced by Black scientists, including lack of recognition for awards and disparities in funding rates, and the history of racism in science and research.

Dr. Hinton, an assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University.
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Vanderbilt University


CBS NEWS: Is focusing on diversity issues in science important for the field?

HINTON: Yes, because now scientists don’t include ethnicity as a factor in their research. So we may be studying heart disease, where we’re focused on, let’s say, dilated cardiomyopathy, but we’re focusing usually on individuals from European backgrounds. People from Latin or Asian or Black backgrounds aren’t as much included as much so there really isn’t a clear picture of the national picture. 

And so a lot of repositories, even like Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease, Black individuals are often not recruited and studied. And so that is something that limits our ability to really focus on and look at the differences and the similarities between ethnicities and how certain medicines benefit one ethnicity, maybe more than another.

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CBS NEWS: How does having Black scientists change that?

HINTON: Incorporating Black scientists, especially if it’s around their individual communities would be highly important. It may lead to a lot of clinical benefits if we actually are including people from different backgrounds. There have been studies that if a black doctor is administering health care to black individuals, the likelihood of living goes up in those areas.

And so the discussion around this has to be brought to the forefront. 

CBS NEWS: As noted in the Cell article, since Juneteenth, the Black community historically has had a mistrustful – and complicated – relationship with the medical and scientific communities. How did that happen?

HINTON: There’s a history around various different types of medicine using Black bodies without permission, or forced permission, if you will, to be able to do certain studies. Gynecology, for example, most gynecological literature was based on when slaves were subjected to different types of studies. 

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Black bodies are often not in pictures in medical textbooks, so we don’t even know how maybe a disease presents itself on Black skin or different types of skin in general compared to European skin, or lighter skin. And so just small issues like that raise distrust in the community and because of this certain diseases may go undiagnosed. 

If it continues to happen people become not interested in signing up for studies, or they’re not interested in advocating for better health, because they don’t know who to trust.

CBS NEWS: What needs to be done?

HINTON: We’re not recruiting Black participants for scientific studies from the community, because we don’t know how to. And a lot of times, we’re not using churches, barbershops, or beauty shops to actually recruit participants. There’s been some more evidence recently that hospitals are working with community leaders. We need to be able to have the Black community listened to and be open to how to do that.

We also need to show that Black scientists do exist and that we are doing excellent things. So that was the idea behind the article, and then also to celebrate how far we’ve come since Juneteenth.  And where we hope to go in the future based on some of the recommendations in the article.

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CBS NEWS: What does the future hold?

HINTON:  It’s highly important to bring to attention Black investigators studying diseases that affect Black communities and similar communities. Also because we think differently, sometimes based upon our experiences, and diversity and innovation go hand in hand. I mean, it’s the same context for women in general, when they’re thinking and they’re added to a group, the outcomes of the group are much richer. And so that’s why it’s so important to have different voices heard, because then science may be approached in a thoughtful but different way.

Published: 2023-06-19 12:00:08

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