There’s a new generation of scientists using their platforms to encourage diversity in STEM fields but who also say being involved in science doesn’t mean you can’t also seek social justice.
Among the voices seeking change is Maynard Okereke, also known as the Hip Hop MD.
“Science and social justice and politics aren’t separated, they all tie in unison and they all have an impact on each other,” Okereke said in an interview with WKMG.
The character Hip Hop MD was created from Okereke’s love for music and science but also from growing up like most kids watching “Bill Nye The Science Guy.”
To Okereke, Nye’s passion for science was what made him realize being a “science nerd” is OK.
“As a nerd and science lover you’re like, ‘That is cool,’” Okereke said of watching Nye. “To see somebody that’s that passionate and can be their authentic true self.”
However, it’s not lost on Okereke that Nye’s show might not speak to everyone. Trade Nye’s signature bow tie for a pair of headphones, throw in comparisons to rap icons, mix in some epic fail videos, add Okereke’s passion for STEM and that’s where you’ll find his character Hip Hop MD. It’s “Bill Nye meets Worldstar,” the Hip Hop Science Instagram bio reads.
“I wanted to showcase that science is cool. You could talk about black holes and bio-mimicry in nature just as easily as you could talk about a new pair of Jordan’s or a new song that just came out or a new hip hop video,” Okereke said.
And Hip Hop MD does that, in his videos Okereke uses popular language while he explains complicated science.
In a recent post, he used a drag racing fail video to explain some common engineering forces, including drag and lift.
“Dale’s low profile whip turns into a high-profile aircraft,” Hip Hop MD quipped speaking over the video of a sports car as it lifts off the race track.
In another video, Hip Hop MD used the lyrics to “The Box” by Roddy Ricch to talk about the poisonous box fish.
A graduate from the University of Washington, Okereke had a successful early career in civil engineering but eventually, he moved to Los Angeles and made the leap into acting through STEM communication with his character, Hip Hop MD.
Now Okereke brings his passion for comedy, diversity, music, pop culture and STEM to all ages from kindergarten to 12th grade, as well as young professionals and corporate organizations.
The coronavirus pandemic put a damper on his lineup of in-person events but like everyone else this year, he’s adapted, moving those talks to Skype or Zoom and creating a backyard science series.
“I wanted to showcase things that you can do in your own backyard, right around your own living space that you can do safely and be able to still show your love for science and make new discoveries,” he said of the series. “I found a whole rare species of salamanders that are living in my backyard that I didn’t even know were there.”
Okereke also doesn’t shy away from discussing the giant gap in diversity in STEM, less than 5% of STEM leaders are black. By being an outspoken black voice in STEM, Okereke hopes to encourage more kids to pursue careers in science to improve that number.
With the recent protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in Minneapolis police custody, it’s hard not to look at the recent SpaceX launch of two NASA astronauts and think back to the achievements in space exploration during the 1960s Civil Rights movement when the nation was amid a period of civil unrest due to racial injustices.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk celebrates inside the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building after his company successfully launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to orbit on May 30, 2020. (Image: Greg Scott)
Less than a week after Floyd’s death, SpaceX became the first private company to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, returning human spaceflight to Florida’s coast for the first time since 2011. In the same week, protests had erupted all over the U.S. in response to the deaths of Floyd, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor killed by police in her Louisville home and 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery fatally shot by two white men while jogging in south Georgia.
“All these different things happen like within a period of a month,” Okereke said. “On top of this pandemic, where people are already feeling, you know, marginalized and restricted in so many different ways. And for me, that moment was so bittersweet because as a scientist, and as a space lover, it was such a monumental occasion for space travel.”
Taylor was killed March 13 and Arbery on Feb. 23. Only recently have charges been filed in Arbery’s slaying and charges were dropped against Taylor’s boyfriend, who fired at officers in self-defense.
“We've advanced so much technologically as a nation to be able to now have private companies sending people to outer space but at the same time we're still in the same space that we were in 50 years ago when it comes to us as a culture,” Okereke said.
Through his Hip Hop Science blog, YouTube channel and other social media platforms, Okereke has shared his thoughts on the issues that still exist in our culture.
Recently the Hip Hop MD joined a collective of black scientists known as Black AF In STEM. The group is made up of black scientists and communicators from all different fields.
The organization recently hosted the first ever Black Birders Week. The idea came about after a white woman called 911 on a black man birding in a New York City park.
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Please join us in participating in #BlackBirdersWeek from May 31 - June 5 on Instagram and Twitter 🦅. . . Recent events have shed light on the obstacles and potential dangers Black people face while enjoying outdoor recreation. Nature is meant to be enjoyed by everyone. . . During #BlackBirdersWeek, we are uplifting Black birders and nature enthusiasts to show that diversity in outdoor recreation exists. . . Often, the lack of participation of Black people is attributed to disinterest, when racism and systemic barriers are underlying factors. We need allies to actively fight against racism and help make the outdoors safe for all. . Thank you to @annagiftyo @bellzisbirding and @beaniejean_ for creating this poster! #BlackBirdersWeek #BlackAFinSTEM #BlackAndSTEM
The series included talks from different group members and virtual events allowing black birders to share their stories and experiences.
Okereke said because the group of black scientists is growing, they are working to uplift each other during this time and he’s found a great community of support to talk about science but also the racial injustices in this country.
“Everybody just promotes the love for science and the need to be able to showcase more of these voices out there, and diverse voices, not just people of color, but also encouraging women involvement into the science fields,” Okereke said.
The death of Floyd has reignited the conversation about race and justice and many voices in STEM including Okereke say these issues shouldn’t be separated from science.
The group Black AF In STEM has used that momentum from recent protests to highlight the lack of black leaders in higher education, laboratories and places of research as well as their experiences in the field. Something they hope continues beyond the news cycle.
“We need diversity in these fields. These are things that we’ve been talking about. And the only way that we’re going to be progressive is if we continue to talk about it right, not make it just a trending topic that’s just hot right now because of everything that’s going on,” Okereke said.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, the Hip Hop MD says it’s up to people of all backgrounds to “continue to uplift these voices, uplift people around us and be more supportive of these voices.”
To follow the Hip Hop Science blog and for more videos visit www.hiphopscienceshow.com.