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Dean’s blog: Lasting and future influence

Black History Month

The theme of this year’s Black History Month is African Americans’ influence on the arts in the US. As the dean of George Mason University’s College of Science, I can’t help but think about African Americans’ influence among the sciences. 

Over the past few years, we have shared illuminating documentaries and stories of such influence including Hidden Figures, the story of Katherine Johnson’s role in putting American astronauts into space, helping our country land on the moon. A few years ago, our Advanced Biomedical Science Program (GeorgeSquared) provided a screening of the film “Black Men in White Coats,” a documentary that explored why at that time, only two percent of American doctors are black men and what that means for society. We also offered the on-campus screening of a documentary called Coded Bias, a story released in 2020 inspired by Joy Buolamwini, a researcher whose MIT Media Lab project uncovered findings leading her to explore racial bias in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically within facial recognition algorithms and their use in day-to-day life. Buolamwini's efforts, including subsequent research and policy advocacy, inspire intellectual curiosity and action. Watch the trailer.

Our collaboration with Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) also offered a screening and discussion of the documentary film Woman In Motion, the story of Nichelle Nichols an actress often recognized for her role as Lieutenant Uhura on the television series, Star Trek, and her contribution to broadening the workforce within America's space program. 

Throughout the month of February and beyond, #MasonNation is hosting various events and sharing a collection of contemporary stories across the spectrum of Mason’s scholarly and artistic community.  

And on the evening of February 26, the College of Science STEM Accelerator, Women Leaders in STEM, and CVPA's Visiting Filmmakers Series are pleased to collaborate on a free screening and discussion of the feature film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the Johnson Center Cinema on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. The film shares the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Roanoke, Virginia whose cells were used without her consent to create the first immortal human cell line. Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (played by Oprah Winfrey), the film chronicles her search, along with journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne), to learn about the mother she never knew and understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks' cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. 

You can learn more about this free, open to the public event and register on Mason 360 to attend. (Notes: Guests can be registered on the night of the screening. This film contains a few strong swear words and brief but disturbing depictions of childhood physical and sexual abuse).

We are also so very fortunate to live near our nation’s capital and have the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I encourage you to carve out time in your busy schedules either during this month or sometime this spring to visit their exhibits and programming to build your understanding and appreciation for the cultural influence and, as the museum’s website notes, “learn about the artists who used their crafts to uplift the race, speak truth to power and inspire a nation.” 

Members of our faculty and various student organizations celebrate our diversity and build and strengthen our community by sharing their stories to broaden our collective understanding and further our scientific impact. 

As I’ve noted in prior blogs commemorating Black History Month, this annual observance originating in the United States, is officially recognized by governments in the United States and Canada, and more recently has been observed in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

This year’s presidential proclamation notes Amelia Boynton’s thoughts, “You can never know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”  It further notes that America is a great nation because we choose to learn the good, the bad, and the full truth of the history of our country — histories and truths that we must preserve and protect for the next generation.  This National Black History Month, our Mason Science community celebrates the vast contributions of Black Americans to our country; we proudly recognize that Black history is American history and that Black culture, stories, and triumphs are at the core of who we are as a nation.