Michelle Obama once said, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.”
Today is the first day of February, Black History Month. To honor the many Black and African American scientists who have made important contributions to history, we’re highlighting 25 trailblazers who significantly impacted the fields of science and technology.
Agriculture & Environment
Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, a Nigerian agricultural economist, won the 2017 World Food Prize for leading a major policy change that has helped millions of African farmers and improved nutrition across the continent. He was elected as the President of the African Development Bank in 2015 and re-elected for a second term in 2020, making him the first Nigerian to hold the post.
George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor (and the namesake of the BIO Impact Award for Innovators in Agricultural, Environmental, and Industrial Biotechnology). He was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, which he famously put to use developing food, medical, and industrial products made from peanuts. He also pioneered new soil techniques like crop rotation and fertilization.
Dr. Deirdra Chester is the Acting Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she leads collaboration activities for science programs that support scientific excellence, innovation, and capacity to achieve USDA’s mission. Dr. Chester is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Mary C. Egan Award by The American Public Health Association Food and Nutrition Section and Circle of Excellence Alumni Award by Florida State University’s College of Human Science.
Lisa Jackson was the first Black Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator from 2009-2013. She focused on environmental justice and ensuring all communities enjoy clean air, clean water, and job growth. Jackson is now the vice president for environment, policy, and social initiatives for Apple Inc.
Dr. Percy Julian overcame racial discrimination to pioneer the synthesis of plant chemicals to make medicines—including the chemical synthesis and industrial-scale production of progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone, which led to medical breakthroughs like steroids and birth control pills.
Patience Koku is a Nigerian fashion entrepreneur turned farmer—and an advocate for providing farmers with access to new technologies, like genetically modified crops to help resist pests while reducing pesticide use. She is the recipient of the 2019 Kleckner Award from the Global Farmer Network and 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Farmer of the year.
Michael S. Regan was sworn in as the 16th Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March 2021, becoming the first Black man and second person of color to lead the agency. Previously, he was the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), securing under his leadership the largest coal ash clean-up in United States history. Before that, Regan served as Associate Vice President of U.S. Climate and Energy and Southeast Regional Director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-GA-13) was the first Black Chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and current Ranking Member. Since 2002, he’s served as U.S. Congressman for Georgia’s 13th District, which covers six counties in metro Atlanta. He’s long been focused on equity and racial justice in agriculture.
Dr. Tony Coles is CEO and Chair of the Board of Directors at Cerevel Therapeutics, which seeks to develop novel therapies for neuroscience diseases, including Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. Coles is a founding investor and the chairman of Yumanity Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on transforming drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases. In 2021, Dr. Coles was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett co-developed the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine with her team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when she was just 34. The immunologist has garnered several prestigious awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Next Gen Award, the Salzman Memorial Award in Virology, and Time magazine’s Heroes of the Year. She is now an Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Jackie Grant is a Principal at Abingworth, a life science venture that invests in biotech startups. Finding no fellow Black women as decision makers at top biotech venture firms, she was impassioned to put investment power in the hands of underrepresented racial minorities. With a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford School of Medicine and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jackie has over 15 years of life sciences experience, including science, research, business development, and venture investing.
Dr. Yvonne Greenstreet is the CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals—one of six women worldwide heading a pharmaceutical company worth over $5 billion. She’s a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a member of the Discovery Council of Harvard Medical School.
As President and CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT), Dr. Ted Love led the company as it developed the first FDA-approved drug targeting the underlying cause of sickle cell disease rather than just its symptoms. The company was recently acquired by Pfizer.
Paul Mola co-founded Roswell Biotechnologies in 2014. As a team of veterans in genomic sequencing, Roswell seeks to radically transform the way we live by digitizing biology. Mola brings more than 20 years of leadership and executive experience in the life science industry, and guided by his knowledge and vision, the Roswell team set out to transform health. Their mission is to produce devices that can be informed with dynamic knowledge—the first molecular electronics chip—moving testing from labs into the hands of individuals.
Jen Nwankwo holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics from Tufts University School of Medicine. Described as a “phenomenal talent,” she co-founded 1910 Genetics Inc. where she is also the CEO. 1910 Genetics integrates AI, computation, and biological automation to accelerate the design of small molecule and protein therapeutics.
Chemistry, Engineering, & Physics
Otis Boykin earned his first patent in 1959 for creating the wire precision resistor, which precisely regulates the amount of resistance of electrical currents and can be customized for certain purposes. This novel discovery led to the invention of the pacemaker. Throughout his career, he earned more than 25 patents, many of which are still used in everyday devices like smartphones and televisions.
Dr. Edward Bouchet was the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from any American university when he earned his doctorate in physics from Yale in 1876. In addition, he was the sixth person in the Western Hemisphere to earn a doctorate in physics.
Dr. Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in chemistry. She was a lifelong advocate for increasing opportunities to enroll minority students in medical schools and graduate programs in the sciences. In honor of her father, a scholarship fund for African American Queens College science students was established in 1988.
Alice Ball discovered, at age 23, how to safely inject chaulmoogra oil to use as a treatment for Hansen’s Disease (a.k.a. leprosy). Until the discovery of antibiotics, this was the only effective treatment for this stigmatized and lethal disease.
Sigourney Bell and Henry Henderson III started #BlackInCancer in 2020, one of the #BlackInX movements, to highlight and support Black cancer researchers. Sigourney Bell is a Ph.D. student in oncology at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute at the University of Cambridge.
Henry Henderson III is a cancer biologist, a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, and a health-promotion advocate.
#BlackInCancer, in collaboration with the Emerald Foundation, a private biomedical research foundation, has given away more than $400,000 in funding for Black scientists.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn an M.D. in the United States during a time when most medical schools barred attendance from African American men and women. Crumpler was also one of the first Black medical authors in the country.
Dr. Charles R. Drew is known for his pioneering work to develop blood banks and fight racial discrimination in blood donation. He led the first American Red Cross blood bank for the U.S. military even though he himself, as a Black man, was prohibited from donating.
Dr. Catherine Namugga Kibirige developed a new, more sensitive assay test to detect more of the various HIV subtypes and variants. Dr. Kibirige’s test sensitively quantifies diverse strains of HIV to advance vaccine and cure research. This will help the most in need in Africa and aid in HIV research globally.
Henrietta Lacks passed away from cervical cancer at 31, but some of her cells lived on. Her story, and her “HeLa” cells, tell us a lot about the promise of medical innovation and the pitfalls of not centering patients and their families in research and care.
Julie Makani is a Tanzanian medical researcher highly celebrated for her work with sickle cell disease. Makani is a co-founder of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania and has dedicated two decades of her life to developing and improving treatments for the disease. In addition to winning the Royal Society Pfizer Award in 2011, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2019, recognizing her work in influencing health policy in Africa to improve access to testing and medicines for the entire population.
Dr. Elizabeth Odilile Ofili is a nationally and internationally recognized clinician-scientist focused on cardiovascular disparities and women’s health. In 2000, she was named the first female president of the Association of Black Cardiologists. She led the initiative to implement the landmark African American Heart Failure Trial (AHEFT), the findings of which led to a change in practice guidelines for the treatment of heart failure in African Americans.
Professor George Warimwe is a principal investigator at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust in Kilifi, Kenya, recognized for his research into viral infections transmitted between humans and animals. He won the prestigious Royal Society Africa Prize in 2021, awarded to researchers and science communicators who “play a critical role in expanding our understanding of the world around us.” While working for the Jenner Institute, Warimwe initiated a One Health vaccine program in which vaccines against Rift Valley Fever and other zoonotic disease indications are co-developed for deployment in humans and the respective animal hosts of infection. Some of his work on COVID-19 serology in Kenya has helped inform the nation’s pandemic response.
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel into space in 1992. When she left NASA in 1993, Jemison founded a technology research company and later formed a nonprofit educational foundation. She now heads a team researching interstellar travel. She has also established the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which helps children to develop “personal excellence,” as well as taking professorships at Dartmouth College and Cornell University.