Transcript

Judy Woodruff: More than half the children in American schools are students of color, but their teachers are overwhelmingly white.

In tonight's Brief But Spectacular, we hear from an African-American biomedical engineer on why it is so important to see ourselves in front of the classroom.

Dr. Elizabeth Wayne: I had this really powerful experience when I was a graduate student.

I was attending one of my first major conferences. There was a black woman who was a speaker. And at the end of the session, I actually stood up, and I said: "I have attended two Ivy League institutions. I have studied physics and engineering. And this is the first time I have ever been in a room where the speaker was a black woman."

And I let it soak in to the thousands of people standing behind me. Until that moment, I had never realized that I had never had someone who looked like me, teaching me.

I have always thought that seeing is believing. I wanted to build optical instruments to be able to see into the body. And that's why I decided to do biomedical engineering. And I actually did build microscopes to image how cancer spreads through the body.

I started to see the role of the immune cells in that process, and thinking of how I can use those immune cells to target the cancer cells in a way more effective way than just inserting drugs directly into the bloodstream.

Immune cells travel through our body. They have their own specialized networks. They go to places of disease. My thought here is, if they are already going to places of disease, why not add an extra passenger? Why not add a drug and attach it to the immune cells, and then let them do what they normally do?

I thought, this can be used, not just for cancer, but it can be used for other diseases as well. When we first made this discovery, we were very excited. We had over 700 articles from our first publication on this work.

I would get e-mails from people. And they would say, I have never seen a black woman in a lab coat being pictured as having contributed to a major discovery.

I would have my little cousins when they saw me say, I want to write about you for Black History Month.

When I am most personable, my students are also able to open up and talk about themselves. And I am contributing to a generation of not only people who might be scientists, but also people who will go out into the world and take on many different disciplines.

And I'm encouraging them to also be their whole selves in their fields. And so I find that to be very powerful, challenging, but also powerful.

I'm Dr. Elizabeth Wayne, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the power of images in science and life.

Judy Woodruff: And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.