Alt text: A portrait of Udodiri Okwandu, a Black woman with curly black hair. Udodiri has her arms folded across her chest and is smiling brightly. She is wearing gold hoop earrings and a white blouse that appears to be textured with ripple-like lines that run up and down the blouse. Next to Udodiri is the RDEISE logo, a circle of hands of different skin tones holding each other. Udodiri’s folded arms and the RDEISE logo almost seem to mirror each other.

How the History of STEM "Rhymes": A Conversation with Udodiri Okwandu

The Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Science (RDEISE) project is live! The first cluster, “Racism as a Public Health Crisis,” began rolling out this September. Find pathways “How Can We Begin to Understand Race?,” “What are Health Disparities and What Causes Them?,” and “How Can We Begin to Understand Human Genetic Diversity?” in the LabXchange library. Additional pathways will be released in the coming months.

Doctoral candidate and Presidential Scholar at Harvard University, Udodiri Okwandu is a research and content development consultant for the RDEISE project. Her research in the Department of the History of Science explores the intersection of race, gender, and medicine and cultural understandings of health and disease. 

Drawing on both her academic expertise and her lived experience, Udodiri worked closely with the broader RDEISE team, particularly on the forthcoming pathways, “Racism and the History of Science” and “The Dangers of Racialized Medicine.” Together, they designed curricula on topics such as the historical formation of race, the history of scientific and medical racism, health disparities, and evidence-based strategies that educators can use to promote the success of Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and low-income students.

We talked to Udodiri about her research, her role in RDEISE, and her insights on the intersections between race, history, and science.

What does your role in RDEISE entail? 

As a RDEISE research and content development consultant at LabXchange, I worked on both clusters, “Racism as a Public Health Crisis” and “Inclusive and Antiracist Teaching Strategies.” I was closely partnered with learning designers to translate the written content into engaging and impactful digital assets, such as infographics, animated videos, and interactive timelines.

I particularly enjoyed working on the pathways “Racism and the History of Science” and “The Dangers of Racialized Medicine” because they allowed me to really leverage my expertise and training as a historian of race and medicine. I love translating academic research—which can often feel jargony and inaccessible—to make it more accessible for public audiences. 

I was thrilled by the opportunity to demonstrate the connections between contemporary racial health inequities and health inequity in the history of racism in medicine and science. Overall, this experience reinforced my passion for creating inclusive and equitable educational resources that resonate with a diverse audience and have the capacity to inspire social change.

Alt text: A quotation from RDEISE Research and Content Development Consultant Udodiri Okwandu reads: “I love translating academic research—which can often feel jargony and inaccessible—to make it more legible for public audiences.” An illustration shows several Black people and other people of color wearing masks over their mouths and noses and surrounded by viruses.

Tell us more about your research in relation to psychiatry, postpartum depression, and race. What are you hoping to contribute to the field with this research?

My project investigates how racial science and racialized constructions of motherhood have informed the evolving classification, diagnosis, and treatment of maternal mental illnesses (i.e., mental disorders associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period) in the US from the late 19th to mid-20th century. 

Since the 19th century, maternal mental illnesses have offered both a defense and explanation for women who have transgressed the boundaries of ideal motherhood—whether by exhibiting emotional or mental instability, neglecting themselves, their children, or home, or engaging in violence or self-harm. While maternal mental illnesses have conventionally been seen as gender-based and not tied to race, I argue that medical understandings have privileged white female sufferers and reinforced the pathologization of Black motherhood.

More specifically, I demonstrate how medical constructions of maternal mental illness have been both informed by and (re)produced the American sociocultural ideal of a mother who is white, middle class, and domestic. The ultimate goal of my project is to demonstrate how historical constructs of maternal mental illness continue to pose barriers for non-white and low-income mothers—especially Black women—within medical, legal, and social systems today.

Do you think that an understanding of history can empower students in STEM and, if so, how?

Understanding history provides a means to contextualize scientific discoveries, innovations, advancements and—critically—the ways in which STEM has reinforced systemic injustice. For example, it equips students to identify and address biases in research and innovation, which promotes equity. It also exposes students to ethical dilemmas that have emerged in their respective fields. Examining such instances helps students recognize the ethical dimensions of their work and encourages responsible and socially conscious scientific practices.

Second, examining history can foster empathy and a deeper understanding of the broader societal implications of scientific work. This encourages students to approach problem-solving with an inclusive mindset and to consider diverse perspectives and potential impacts on various communities. It promotes more responsible and ethical decision-making.

Finally, history provides students with the opportunity to examine and understand the contributions of scientists from diverse racial backgrounds whose work is often overlooked. This encourages students to appreciate the importance of diversity and inclusion for the advancement of STEM. It can also provide a source of inspiration and confidence for underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities. 

Alt text: A quotation from RDEISE Research and Content Development Consultant Udodiri Okwandu reads: “[E]xamining history can foster empathy and a deeper understanding of the broader societal implications of scientific work. This encourages students to approach problem-solving with an inclusive mindset and to consider diverse perspectives and potential impacts on various communities. It promotes more responsible and ethical decision-making.” There is an illustration of a doctor and a Black woman patient. The patient is sitting on the doctor's examination bed, looking unhappy.

You have mentioned reflecting on the saying: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and how contemporary racial health disparities are direct relics of the historical development of American medicine. Could you speak more to this and share an example of what you mean?

The saying “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” underscores the idea that understanding historical patterns and lessons can provide insights into contemporary events. It suggests that while historical events may not precisely replicate, there are recurring patterns, themes, or similarities between different events or situations across time. This allows observers to draw connections between past and present, facilitating a deeper understanding of the complexities of human behavior and societal patterns.

An example from the history of medicine exemplifies this idea: The term "Mississippi Appendectomies" refers to a pattern of forced sterilizations performed disproportionately on African American women, particularly in the southern US, during the mid-20th century. Women, often poor and Black, were subjected to sterilization without their knowledge or informed consent, perpetuating a eugenic agenda that sought to control the reproductive capabilities of marginalized communities.

While the era of explicit eugenic policies has passed, discussions around reproductive justice and health-care disparities continue to echo the historical patterns. For example, in 2020 a whistleblower reported that a number of female detainees were forcibly sterilized in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers—a blatant form of medical abuse that recalls America’s legacy of forced sterilizations. In addition, countless reports have detailed how forced or coercive sterilizations continue to take place in some American prisons. 

Such instances demonstrate that reproductive violations continue to be used as a means to control populations that are deemed transgressive, deviant, or undesirable. Furthermore, coercive practices, inadequate access to comprehensive reproductive health care, and disparities in maternal health outcomes highlight how historical patterns of control over reproductive rights still influence contemporary healthcare systems.

Alt text: A quotation from RDEISE Research and Content Development Consultant Udodiri Okwandu reads: “[H]istory provides students with the opportunity to examine and understand the contributions of scientists from diverse racial backgrounds—whose work is often overlooked. This [...] can also provide a source of inspiration and confidence for underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities.” There is an illustration of a young Black woman with very short curly hair wearing a lab coat.

In what ways do you think historically marginalized communities resist damaging narratives in science and medicine?

Unfortunately, historically marginalized communities face significant challenges and barriers in science and medicine including, but not limited to, stereotypes and bias, limited access to resources, cultural insensitivity, and barriers to career advancement. I feel quite strongly that it should not be the responsibility of the historically marginalized to fix broken systems—those with power and privilege should leverage their position to make spaces inclusive, equitable, and safe for all. However, I applaud and celebrate how historically marginalized communities resist damaging narratives and science and medicine. 

For example, community advocacy and education initiatives serve to amplify accurate and empowering stories within their communities and advocate for more inclusive and equitable representation in scientific and medical discourse. They also have the potential to counteract stereotypes and challenge perceptions. I am deeply impressed by the use of social media, film, literature, and other forms of storytelling to reshape public perceptions and expose injustices in science and medicine. In addition, historically marginalized communities continue to increase their representation in fields that have historically been (and continue to be) hostile to their identities and backgrounds.

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Sources and further reading

Written by
LabXchange RDEISE team

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