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Connecting Students With Overlooked Scientists

Sarissyas project on left and Sarissya's photo on right

Physics & Astronomy professor Laura Parker introduced student Sarissya Puvanenthirakanthan to a history-making Nobel Laureate.

It was an introduction that left an impression on Sarissya. The third-year Life Sciences student showcased the scientific accomplishments of Dr. Abdus Salam for her major class assignment.

Dr. Salam was among the 81 overlooked, hidden and unappreciated scientists that students could research and report on in Laura's Astronomy 2B03 class. Laura compiled the list of international scientists with help from a head teaching assistant and Vanier Scholar Carmen Lee and instructional assistant Sara Cormier.

"The contributions of countless scientists have been undervalued and often overlooked because of geography, culture, language, bias and discrimination," says Laura. "Students were having conversations in their tutorials about equity, diversity and inclusion and this project showed the barriers that brilliant scientists have had to overcome."

The pandemic and Hidden Figures were Laura's inspirations for the Overlooked Scientists project. In previous years, students did partner presentations for their major assignment. "With 450 students in the class, presentations would be a logistical challenge on Zoom," says Laura. "So like many instructors, I decided to change the marking scheme and the syllabus to better match the virtual format."

Hidden Figures, a 2016 book and movie, told the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson - three Black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. All three mathematicians were included on the list of 81 overlooked scientists.

Students turned their research into two-page handouts that were posted online and shared with classmates in their tutorial section. Students were also assigned to review and evaluate three other handouts.

"Students were introduced to dozens of overlooked scientists and gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion in science," says Laura.

It's a lesson Sarissya learned in researching Dr. Salam. "I'd never heard of Dr. Salam before our Overlooked Scientists project. I did a quick Google search and was immediately impressed by all of his scientific accomplishments and wanted to learn more. Dr. Salam made history in 1979 when he became the first Pakistani and Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in science. Yet despite all of his achievements and contributions, Dr. Salam has been largely forgotten in the country where he was born because of his religious beliefs".

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