Dr Nazar Miheisi is a teaching fellow at King’s College in the Mathematics Department, currently doing research in the field of Analysis (specifically, Operator theory and Complex function theory). Naz, as he likes to be called, is a black researcher in an environment where most of his colleagues and peers are rarely from any ethnic minorities. Naz, who has several academic publications and completed his PhD thesis on convolution operators and function algebras, shared his experiences with us; from the time he was just a kid in a state school in Wembley, to his Engineering degree at King’s College and his academic career.
The role of school teachers in terms of ethnic minorities is highly relevant. As Naz says, “None of my science or maths teachers were black, but they all encouraged me to do mathematical subjects.“ A teacher who inspires black students into becoming mathematicians, physicists or engineers doesn’t have to be black, but they do need to have a passion for what they are teaching and to inspire students on the beauty of their subject. Naz was interested in many branches of science, and remembers that his teachers were trying to persuade him to be a Physicist or a Chemist: “Usually what happens is that if you are good at Chemistry, your teacher tries to convince to do Chemistry, the Physics teacher encourages you to do Physics and the Maths teacher encourages you to do Maths!” and so Naz remembers how – “I have been lucky, since I have actively been encouraged to do maths”.
Naz went on and study Electrical Engineering at King’s College and for his postgraduate, “I was looking for some Physics and for some Quantum Mechanics, and I realised that I didn’t really understand Quantum Mechanics. So, I thought I would learn some mathematics to try to understand it, but then the maths was more interesting than the physics and so I decided to go there!“
Naz moved on, and worked as a teacher for a couple of years. During this period he saw “the differences between students that go on and progress and students that don’t”. It seems that the lack of minorities in the higher levels of academia might be rooted in a much earlier stage of education. “Although there could be a funding issue for postgraduate studies, it seems to me that on each level of progression there is a filter, and in almost all of those cases you see a drop-off from black people. At my undergraduate, nearly half of my colleagues were from an ethnic background, but then it wasn’t as diverse when I went to do my PhD, where the proportion of people from an ethnic background drops. The higher of you go, the less diverse it becomes and that is the issue with ethnic minorities.” Indeed, black people are underrepresented at higher levels of Academia and occupy scarce positions in the top roles.
There is not a quick and easy fix to increasing diversity in STEM, and one of the most important goals is to actually work out whether there is a systematic reason for the lack of minorities in science. “You cannot put all ethnic minorities in the same group. There are some ethnic minorities, such as people from India, who usually excel in Mathematics and science and do the best of all students. However you rarely see any black people, particularly from the Caribbean, since in general they drop any maths after their GCSE’s. Although the same could be applied to white working class … you rarely see white working class people that go on to do maths or A-levels and so any systematic bias that can clearly be identified when you select a group, whether it be white working class, women or black students, are less represented than they should be, needs to be urgently fixed.”
Naz talks about his future, and says that “with any luck, I will still be here in academia, although it is a very difficult business, I hope I will be able to stay and do a lot of teaching as well”.
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