Stephani Page didn’t mean to become Twitter-famous. The Ph.D. candidate biologist at UNC Chapel Hill simply wanted to get something off her chest. Page, 32, is a black woman working in academic science, a field (like so many) that still has disproportionately few people like her. And though she’s done her part to try to change that—by pursuing a career in science herself, and by weighing in on topics like race and mentoring in science—she still found herself craving a sense of community now. So she took to Twitter.
A little over two weeks ago, she devised a hashtag, #BLACKandSTEM. (“STEM” means involved in science, tech, engineering, or math. “BLACK” means, well, black.) People use hashtags in a variety of ways, be it to categorize a post or to offer ironic commentary on the content of a tweet. But Page’s faint, wild hope was that her hashtag might just become something of a community.
On February 13 at 12:33 p.m., Page tweeted: “‘Role’ call. #BLACKandSTEM what do you do?” She had few followers—even today, she has under 1,000—and the tweet received one retweet.
Yet that was enough to start a small Twitter movement. People began piping up. “Phd Human and Statistical Genetics #blackandstem,” tweeted @shelinasr. “PhD in CE/EngE #blackandSTEM,” chimed in @GodsNaturalDiva. “#BLACKandSTEM Electrical Engineering degrees (BS,MS), former EE adjunct prof, now a Systems Engineer at Cisco,” added @AkilahRakel. A dentist chimed in, then a NASA employee, then an expert on African indigenous astronomy. It was the simplest of gestures: tweeting who you were. “It was just like, 'I’m here,'” says Page. But it was suddenly enough to make her—and many others—feel a lot less alone as an African American in science.
“When you give people a chance to say, ‘Here I am, and here’s what I do’—it might be someone in that situation 500 miles away in Canada or Seattle or Detroit or Florida—you break down all of that distance,” she recalls. Critical mass could be made visible—online. It felt electric.
Page has tweeted out a #BLACKandSTEM question each subsequent Thursday. On the 20th, it was, “#BLACKandSTEM list your UG and grad institutions. What influenced your choice in schools and majors?” A week later, she asked, “Was there ever a specific occurrence of STEMEd being made inaccessible to you or someone you knew? #BLACKandSTEM.” The responses snowballed. And soon, even a White House-affiliated handle tweeted using the hashtag. “When I initially saw it, I closed my Twitter app, went off and did something, and then it hit me and I came back and looked at it again.” To date, about 1,400 tweets with the hashtag have been sent.
Page is still trying to figure out what exactly the virality of her hashtag might mean, or how it might be leveraged in the long term. Already, though, she says it’s a resource for journalists and science educators who have been looking for ways to connect with African Americans in STEM career paths. “So maybe there’s an educator in Nashville who wants to bring more black and Hispanic scientists who are women into the classroom to talk to the kids. #BLACKandSTEM can make them see, 'Oh wow, there’s this person at Vanderbilt. I can reach out.'" Page says she's seen people meet and interact as a result of the hashtag, and that a few mentorship relationships have already been born of it.
“Twitter has a way of taking a small idea and amplifying the transmission of it,” says Page, who is still getting used to her newfound role as moderator of a discussion on blacks in science and tech. “I’m a real behind-the-scenes kind of person,” she says, conforming to at least one stereotype of the shy scientist. But she’s glad to be taking on this new role of convening a virtual space, and encouraging people to not be digital wallflowers. “What I’m seeing with #BLACKandSTEM is that it’s already a community. We already want it to be a community.”
[Image: Flickr user R.nial Bradshaw]