Black History Month 2022: who has inspired you?

Black History Month 2022: who has inspired you?

Posted on October 12, 2022   by Microbiology Society

The UK’s Black History Month takes place every October. Back in 2020, we looked at some of the achievements of black microbiologists, including Professor Ruth Ella Moore, Dr Alan Powell Goffe, Professor William Augustus Hinton and Dr Faith Uwadiae. This year, to celebrate the newly formed Members Panel, we asked panel member, Dr Aliyah Debbonaire, to tell us about a black scientist from history who has inspired her, for what reasons and the impact they have had on her life.


iStock/Vitalii Abakumov

Person smiling at camera
© Aliyah Debbonaire

There are numerous scientists to choose from when writing a profile on inspirational people for Black History Month, but given my background, career and personal health, I felt I had to choose Dr Percy Lavon Julian.

I was never formally taught about Dr Julian’s work, but discovered him on a Twitter thread about inspirational scientists, realising gradually quite how much his work had influenced my life. His research contributed to the production of many life-saving medications, without which I would not be here. Briefly, he pioneered processes to chemically synthesise useful compounds from plants on a large scale. His work influenced the mass production of birth control pills and corticosteroids.

Steroids, in particular, have changed my life, having been diagnosed with asthma, eczema and food allergies as a child. Every morning, I begin my day by taking inhalers that may not be so readily available without his work and without which I would not be able to live the life I do now. Family members who have been diagnosed with cancer have had their treatment symptoms eased with steroid use. To combat my daughter’s eczema, we use hydrocortisone cream.

Exploiting naturally produced compounds in this way is called bioprospecting which formed the first five years of my career in microbiology. During my PhD, I identified novel antimicrobial compounds from microbes in extreme environments, in this case, the cryosphere. Stories like Dr Julian’s served as an inspiration throughout the project, not to mention the use of inhalers greatly helped me to collect environmental samples from rather cold (obviously) glaciers!

Dr Julian’s life story is a fascinating read; I would encourage others to look into the many barriers he faced in science, as well as personal controversies and the almost serendipitous nature of the discovery of small crystals in experiments that turned out to be invaluable in steroid production. Histories like these highlight the truly interdisciplinary nature of scientific research. Some scientists may identify novel compounds, others may work tirelessly to optimise their mass production, or in this case, make more readily available intermediates used in mass scale production.

I would also encourage anyone who has taken any of the numerous medications influenced by his research to consider the history of their production. How many other minority scientists may have been involved in their discovery, development and proliferation? Were they mentioned throughout your education? Could you raise their profile? In an area of science so focussed on examining the diversity of chemical compounds, is there anything you can do to increase the diversity of scientists where you work?

Find out more about the Members Panel Aliyah is part of and their aim to provide a platform for our members from underrepresented groups. If you would like to contribute content for an awareness day, week or month, read more about how to get involved.

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