Diversity has always been an issue in STEM. Although a 2018 Pew report found that women make up half of the U.S. workforce in STEM occupations, it also found that their presence varies widely across occupational clusters and education levels. Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in STEM, per the report, representing only 9% and 7% of the STEM workforce, respectively. Raven Baxter, also known as “Raven the Science Maven,” knows this well. She is a molecular biologist and science communicator working to shatter barriers and dismantle stereotypes that plague the world of STEM and beyond.
Baxter, a 27-year-old based in New York, says that she doesn’t believe that there are enough systems in place to protect diversity in STEM and maintain it. She also pointed out that STEM also has problems with stereotypes and culture. Baxter experienced all of this herself firsthand when working as a professional scientist. At one job, Baxter said that a coworker told her that she was the token Black person at the office. Baxter was disturbed; she felt that her coworkers were dismissing her qualifications. She eventually left that job.
“I felt like people were often telling me and signalling to me that they didn’t feel like I belonged in the space largely because of what I look like as a Black woman,” Baxter told Gizmodo. “And so, I really felt like I wanted to try something different in science.”
In fact, Baxter created her own space filled with projects she’s passionate about. As a science communicator, Baxter uses her Raven the Science Maven platform to educate students and professionals in STEM using rap videos and pop culture references. She also loves teaching and is currently finishing her doctorate in science education at the University of Buffalo. When she’s not doing that, she’s managing her Smarty Pants clothing line, a science-inspired collection that aims to make “brains and beauty shine.” In 2020, she was chosen as one of Fortune’s “40 under 40.”
Over the years, Baxter has remained true to her motto: “Be your unapologetic self.” It’s something she works to transmit to followers and people interested in STEM.
“[J]ust coming in the space unapologetically is OK, it’s welcome, and we need more of that,” Baxter said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gizmodo: Can you tell me a bit about how you got interested in science? Was this born out of a childhood passion or was it something that interested you in school?
Raven Baxter: I have always loved science. I get this question a lot. But I always say I popped out of the womb as a scientist. I can’t imagine a time where I’ve never been curious about the world around me and really using anything that I had to answer questions, whether it was a book at the library or something on the internet. I would be digging in the dirt looking at worms, I would be trying to identify different cloud shapes and weather patterns. I eventually went to space camp where I learned a lot about spaceflight and conducting space missions, but I also learned that I was afraid of heights.
Gizmodo: I was reading your profile on Fortune’s “40 under 40,” and something that stuck out to me was your experience in the workforce, how you said you were the only Black person at your office and how this made you feel like you didn’t belong there. Can you tell me about that experience?
RB: I had an amazing experience as a student. I’m really fortunate. Even though I am a part of a minoritized group and a lot of people around me who were supporting me didn’t look like me, I still had the support and the friendships, and I did very well coming out of school. I was studying science the whole time, so I’m thinking [that] when I actually am an actual scientist, [when that’s] my career and I’m working in a job as a professional, I thought my experience would be the same, but it was the total opposite.
I really have never felt so alone in my entire life, working as a professional scientist. I’m a very social person, you can see that now through my engagement online, and I’m the exact same way in real life. But even with my friendly personality, I’m always willing to learn about other people and engage, people really weren’t reciprocating that. I always truly felt like an outsider and there was an actual instance where my coworker told me that I was the token Black person at my job. And she didn’t see anything wrong with that. She said it to my face and she kind of laughed and walked away and I’m like, “What the hell?” I’ve worked so hard for this and people here feel so comfortable totally dismissing my qualifications and the fact that I’d earned the position. They truly do feel like I am an “other” and I feel like I’m being treated as such.
That’s what made me feel like I didn’t belong. I knew I deserved to be there, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in a toxic workplace. That’s really what it was. And I eventually left.
Gizmodo: I don’t know if you’ve spoken about this to other scientists, but would you say that your experience is similar to the experiences of other minority groups in STEM?
RB: Absolutely, from a very wide spectrum across marginalised populations. I was speaking to a group, I do plenty of speaking engagements, and I’ll never forget that I was speaking at a conference where most of the scientists were Hispanic and there were men breaking down and crying at my story because they could relate. They really signalled to me that it was important to share the message. It was just important for me to remember to continue telling my story and that even though I’m a part of one group, there are so many people in different groups that can relate and are impacted by the same things I’m impacted by.
Gizmodo: You mentioned that you did leave that workplace. Would you say that you were inspired by your experience there to start doing the work that you’re doing now?
RB: I did feel inspired because I’m a very self-confident person. I know that I work really hard and I know that because I work hard and I’m honest and I’m respectful that I deserve good things and I don’t deserve to be treated the way that I was being treated, and I knew that I wasn’t alone.
We have so many initiatives encouraging kids to go into STEM, go into STEM, but I feel like we’re ripping them off when we do that because the culture’s not ready for these amazing kids to come in and survive without all of these battle wounds. We have so much work to do. I feel like it’s truly an injustice for us to keep pushing all these kids into STEM but not do heavy work on repairing the culture to make sure it’s conducive to diversity and new talent.
Gizmodo: I noticed that you have a lot of things going on. You have your clothing line, music, the STEMbassy web series, and the Black in Science Communication initiative. Can you tell me a bit about those and what inspired you to start them?
RB: [A]s I started developing a platform and as I started understanding what the needs were in the science community, I took it upon myself to see what was already being done and then what still needed to be done to close the gaps and create a more inclusive community for people in STEM as a whole.
I started at the beginning of the pandemic. In early February, I started STEMBassy. I started this cause I knew that we would be home. Nobody was believing me, but I was like, “Let me just start this talk show and see who’s interested in having a weekly thing where we get together and have a public conversation about how topics and current events in STEM.” Let’s just create a table for people to sit at with us and engage with some fun people in STEM.
It started out as just me hosting and bringing on one other person who I identified in the space as very interesting. Usually these would be people that are tied to social causes and are also doing cool things in STEM. It eventually transitioned to me co-hosting with four other very cool and amazingly talented women in STEM. We had a very fun first season. We just started our season three.
And then there is Black in Science Communication that I started. It was started in a chain of events. It’s a part of the Black in X movement, [which] was initiated by the Central Park bird watching incident between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper. In September, I initiated Black in Science Communication as a retreat. I worked with a group of people here who said, “You know what? We’re going to create a week-long retreat for Black people in the science communication community.” [We’re going] to go to workshops about best practices and science communication, how to build community in STEM and skills, such as how to build Wikipedia pages, how to do science improv. It was a very successful week. We gave away $US5,000 ($6,489) in funding from mini grants to fund different science communication projects, we did giveaways and prizes. It was very fun. We are continuing.
Gizmodo: Tell us about your clothing line, Smarty Pants.
RB: I’m actually a fashion model. I don’t like saying that cause it sounds super pretentious but ever since I was in high school, I’ve been doing modelling. I’ve walked in fashion week. I love clothes. I learned to love clothes and because I’m very self-expressive, I often wear my expressions through my clothing and I noticed that when I did that, when I decided to go against the grain [with] my fashion choices, like wearing sparkly shoes to work or wearing the sequined shirt, people would be like, “Oh wow, I wouldn’t think a scientist would wear that.” And I was like, “Well why not? Cause I am a scientist. Why wouldn’t a scientist wear rhinestone boots? Why not?”
It became very obvious to me that we still have some barriers to crush as far as science and fashion goes, which kind of seems dumb but it’s true. People really do judge you by your clothes, but my objective is to not make it a thing, to allow scientists to have clothing options that truly reflect their personalities. Smarty Pants is a clothing line that provides clothes that embrace your brains and your beauty and [works to] redefining the image of brilliance from the inside out. You’ll see a lot of sparkly things on the website. You’ll see a lot of graphic T-shirts that are funny. Some of them are a little bit sassy. My best-selling shirt says, “This is what a scientist looks like.” It says a lot about my customers.
Gizmodo: Now let’s talk about the last thing on our list: your science raps. I enjoyed them very much and I’m eager to learn more about what inspired you to make science music.
RB: I am a trained pianist. That’s where my music journey started back when I was six years old. But I didn’t get into rapping and like hip hop or any of that until I was in high school. [It’s a] pretty funny story. I was making my own music and I was like kind of known for that a little bit. But there was this bully, I actually had a bully. It turns out that they wanted to like fight me or something and that is so out of my realm of possibilities. I’ve never fought anybody. But I’m not a punk, right? So I was like, I’m going to win this, but I’m not going to fight them, I’m just going to make a song. I already had beats that I had made, I just needed to find lyrics.
I wrote a song. It was a diss track, meaning that I was dissing this person on the song, and I gave it to my friend. My friend was like, “This song is amazing, you need to put this on MySpace.” I was like, “Well I don’t know how to do that and I don’t want to do that. I just wanted you to listen to [it].” They ended up putting it on MySpace. Eventually it got around to the person that was bullying me and they were like, “Well dang, I don’t wanna fight anymore.”
That was like the first time I had written anything or really just kind of realised any of the power of my voice and that you could communicate strong messages through music that can actually impact your life in different ways and impact other people’s decisions. That stayed in the back of head until I became a science communicator and a science professional. I was like, “Well dang, I have all this important stuff to say about science. Let me put it in a song.”
The first music video that I put out was called, “Big Ol Geeks.” The Big Ol Geeks music video was really the first music video where Black women were being unapologetically Black in a rap music video about science. What I mean by that is I didn’t really hold back on rap culture in the music video. We were dancing around fast cars in club wear, we were at the night club, we were having a good time, smiling, dancing, being super confident, feeling sexy even. We were also in the laboratory wearing our personal protective equipment, our PPE. But the lyrics were all extremely scientific and extremely technical. If you follow along with the stereotype, when you see us, you wouldn’t have thought that I would be rapping about what I was rapping about, but I was because that’s my area of expertise and it ended up inspiring a lot of people.
Gizmodo: You mentioned that one of your goals is breaking these barriers in science. Can you talk more about the goals you have overall with all of your work?
RB: That’s a big question. It’s really hard for me say. I think that at the end of the day, if I inspire people to really advocate for their right to be who they are and not have to apologise for being themselves, that is my number one goal, especially for people in STEM. It’s really a two-way street. We face barriers when other people tell us “no” and deny us opportunities, but we also sometimes create barriers for ourselves when we tell ourselves no because we’re too afraid to come as we are and to try to trust that we belong in certain spaces and really understand that we bring value to the table when we express our diversity and just who we are as people individually. I try to break down the barriers both ways by empowering people to use their voices and also by being an example and creating a precedent for certain people to say, “Oh I’ve never seen something like this before. Let me rethink what my perception of this is.”
Gizmodo: Something that’s really stood out to me from all your work and projects, from your music to your clothes, is how accessible and fun it is. Is that something that’s important to you, making sure your work is accessible?
RB: Absolutely. There’s just so many barriers to learning science, like even the journals. You have to pay to get access to the journals and the articles that scientists write when they publish their research in journals. It’s not cheap. Even at the very fundamental level, it’s hard for people to get access to the latest of what scientists are talking about.
Also, a lot of us are coming from different educational backgrounds. I can’t always trust that my entire audience is going to understand what I’m saying because not everybody is the same, we’re all coming from different spaces. It’s just so important for me to be as approachable and for my content to be as accessible as possible because of the barriers that already exist. I just don’t ever want it to seem like science is hard to understand or access or grasp because we can really do a better job of making it accessible and I just do anything that I can to do so. And I can always do better. I’m learning every day how to make my work more accessible too.
Gizmodo: What do you hope that your fans and followers can learn from your work?
RB: I think that being curious is probably the most important thing about science. Asking questions even if you think the questions are weird or trying to solve a problem even if it’s a problem that you think may not matter to anyone, that’s all still science and it’s all so worthwhile. I really enjoy talking about silly things on my social media channels and relating them back to science because there’s science everywhere, whether we’re talking about a rap lyric that’s referencing something that’s kind of scientific and I can like loop it in and teach [my audience] something very interesting or something that’s happening in the media. There’s science all around.
Asking questions and being curious and not being afraid to sound stupid or I don’t know, just coming in the space unapologetically is OK, it’s welcome, and we need more of that. I’m hoping that if anything, people just learn from me what it looks like to be your unapologetic self in science. Although it does look different for everyone, I just want to provide an example of what it can look like.
Gizmodo: What are your plans for the future long-term?
RB: Oh, long-term? I want to take over the world! I’m kidding. I’m hoping to move out to California. That’s a long-term goal of mine. I would like to continue building communities in STEM. I eventually would like to do more work in the K-12 space. I would love to actually be the Secretary of Education for the United States and that was kind of like a brief campaign that my followers were really rallying around me for, especially during election time, and that gained quite a bit of steam. I was very proud to have all that support because a lot of people were cosigning my desire to be the Secretary of Education. I do have a lot of ideas on how to progress education in the United States, not just for K-12 but as a whole, for even adults. It’s a lofty goal, but I believe that anything is possible so I’m just going to put it out there.
Gizmodo: Let’s say you had to imagine what STEM is like 20 years from now. How do you imagine it? How do you hope it’ll look like?
RB: I would love to see, of course, a proportionate representation of groups at all levels. Population within STEM really should be a reflection of the U.S. population as a whole. We should never look at an executive board and see only white men. Our country is not only white men.
At the most recent speaking engagement I did, I had a meeting after my engagement with the executive team of the company. These are people that are at the top making decisions, the CEO, the CFO, the CTO, all the C-suite people. All white men. And they’re asking about diversity and what we can do better and I’m like, “Look at this Zoom conversation right now. This is one of the issues. Not to say that you all haven’t earned your way here, I’m sure that each and every one of you has a reason that you’re here, that you merit it, but if you’re truly dedicated to diversity you will need to address eventually, hopefully now, why you don’t have any diversity at your C-level.”
Things like that. Making sure that we have more women in management positions. When I worked as a corporate scientist, we had plenty of women doing work, but not managing. Almost every scientist at my level was a woman. It was actually weird to see a male scientist at my level, but the managers, the people in the senior positions, the senior scientists, were rarely women. That is obviously a problem because that’s not equal representation. It should be half and half at the very least. Making sure women have more senior positions in STEM is also what it should look like in the future. Equality around the board. I’m all about equality and equity.