For GSE PhD student Raven Baxter, aka Raven the Science Maven, the pandemic’s disruptions have made room for audiences to listen to her effervescent, and serious, message about diversifying the sciences. Lately, people have been tuning in, sometimes by the thousands, to her YouTube rap songs, tweets and, this fall, a TEDx Talk.
Her work got attention in March with the debut of her “Wipe it Down!” music video, which she made from home in a few days. It quickly went viral. “Don’t pass the sickness, just stay up in your house and mind ya business,” she sang while dancing in periodic table leggings.
The video, complete with a bubble bath scene, played on TV news shows from New York to Honolulu: “This scientist has got the moves,” said one cheerful Hawaii News Now reporter.
In the months that followed, Baxter kept up the pace, producing more creative work. This summer when she launched an album of science rap songs she’d been working on—“The Protocol”—it sold 2,000 copies.
After she wrote on Twitter about her concept for “Nerdy Jobs,” similar to Hulu’s “Dirty Jobs,” but with focus on STEM careers, some of her nearly 32,000 followers retweeted it. Before long, she was talking on the phone with science author and CrashCourse creator Hank Green. By the time they hung up, he’d offered to fund the pilot. After that PBS got in touch to suggest collaborating on the show. “That’s pretty much my dream come true,” Baxter said. “I really believe in speaking things into existence.”
In September, Baxter gave a TEDx Talk for Great Mills, Md., “You Don’t Look Like a Scientist,” explaining how she got interested in working as a “science communicator.” Focusing on how to make the sciences more welcoming and diverse came from her own experiences with discrimination and her love of science—from space camp as a kid to career work as a cancer researcher and college professor.
Now, her work toward change is embedded in her dissertation research, which is nearing completion. She surveyed 50 Black women, some in STEM careers, some not, about the impact of watching “Big Ole Geeks,” a rap song video celebration of Black women scientists who wear lab coats and dance with test tubes as Baxter sings, “You mess with me your knowledge increases/I’m legit, look me up, read my thesis.”
After watching, those with non-STEM jobs told her that seeing that kind of popular culture representation of Black scientists might have persuaded them to choose science and stop thinking that only white men are scientists. That was, Baxter said in her TED Talk, “one of the most exciting findings of my research.”
Ahead: More work to show people, like the biology majors she once advised as a professor, that when it comes to science, there are options besides being a physician.
“I never was happy with pigeonholing myself into one area.”
Baxter’s developing work in science and social justice included an appearance on UB President Satish Tripathi’s new Zoom interview show Take 5. When he asked about her ambition to diversify science professions, she explained African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are only 6 percent of the STEM workforce. “I think your goal … is really a noble one,” Tripathi told her.
Baxter made Fortune magazine’s 2020 edition of its “40 under 40” list of emerging leaders this fall. The story and a companion video highlighted Baxter in the healthcare category: As Fortune put it, she is dedicated to “developing a next generation of talent that looked more like her and the rest of the country.”
The story above is a feature on our Pandemics 2020 timeline: