This Black History Month, we reached out to a nationally recognized voice in advancing diversity and inclusion in STEM. He’s also a leader at NIH’s National Institute on Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).
Manu Platt, Ph.D., is Director of NIBIB’s Center for Biomedical Engineering Technology Acceleration (BETA Center) and NIBIB’S Associate Director, Scientific Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Before joining NIH, he was a professor and Associate Chair of Graduate Studies in the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University.
Philosophical and engaging with a hearty laugh, Dr. Platt has a lot to say about increasing scientific innovation, the idea that all people can contribute, what surprised him about NIH, and the power of being a Black scientist.
Innovation and Expectations—And a Bit of Grace
To increase scientific innovation, Dr. Platt said, “I think we must give a chance to people who have been historically excluded and apply the benefit of the doubt to those that usually do not get that bit of grace. This frees them from thinking that they represent any and all people from their specific demographic group and feeling that the weight of the world is on them and if they mess up, no one else will ever come through.”
Dr. Platt pairs opportunity with expectations—particularly as a way of showing respect. He explained, “When expectations drop, were never established, or not believed that they could be reached, then it’s easy to write someone off and not give them the feedback or the training to help them reach their goals.”
For Dr. Platt, expectations need to apply to everyone—regardless of appearance.
“To be clear, I understand being a professional, but first impressions and biases may prejudice our view on a person,” he said. “We must let people be themselves. Regardless of how we look and present—whether we have a biological characteristic with which we were born or modifications to our appearance—we can all have ideas and viewpoints to help reach a scientific goal.”
He added, “Using brain space to try to conform takes away energy that could be applied to innovative scientific solutions.”
We Can All Contribute
To further innovation, Dr. Platt said that he works to make everyone feel like they are an equal contributor to thoughts and ideas.
In his labs, Dr. Platt said, “Everyone on the team needs to pay attention when someone shares their ideas and their obstacles, because we are all capable of seeing a problem from a unique perspective that might be the method that solves the problem.”
To encourage this level of engagement, Dr. Platt emphasizes respect for scientific discourse. “Disagreement is not arguing or being rude but a necessary part of how we discover new knowledge,” he said. “When working with Black high school students in Atlanta, they would ask an ‘outside question’ or suggest a new way of looking at a problem or running an experiment because they were not bogged down in dogma and the scientific literature like the rest of us were. That fresh perspective led to numerous insights.”
Another example of the importance of listening to fresh perspectives comes from when Dr. Platt studied HIV and cardiovascular disease with an investigator at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. When it didn’t make sense to him that patients weren’t taking their antiretroviral therapy (ART) since HIV without therapy was a death sentence, the local investigator had valuable insight.
“She told me that patients get pill fatigue when they begin feeling better after the ARTs start working, and, of course, the risk is that a patient might generate drug resistant viral strains,” he explained. “This was more of a problem in low-income countries without access to treatment options available in the U.S., so they would hope to counsel patients on continuing their ART even though they felt better.”
Surprised at NIH
Since joining NIH a year ago, Dr. Platt said that NIH exceeded his expectations in some ways.
On the positive side, he’s been impressed by the staff—both scientific and nonscientific. “There’s more enthusiasm than I would have predicted, particularly for those who I’ve met, around my mission of developing the Center for Biomedical Engineering Technology Acceleration,” he said. “There’s a sense of interest and camaraderie that’s refreshing.”
On the need for improvement, Dr. Platt said, “The numbers of Black investigators are less than the percentages of Black STEM professors in the broader professoriate. I thought it couldn’t get lower than two percent! There’s work to be done by us all because there are some amazing perks that come with being an intramural researcher at NIH.”
Power in Being a Black Scientist
In addition, Dr. Platt said, “There are many situations when being a Black scientist can be a privilege and powerful.”
He said this has been especially important recently. “Since COVID-19, we as Black scientists must ‘out’ ourselves as scientists,” he said. “When we saw Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted and then averse to taking the vaccine, it was imperative for us Black biomedical scientists to explain the technology and address misinformation that didn’t come from a place where people were uneducated, but from a place of cultural history.”
He also shared his experiences as a Black scientist working with the global scientific community.
Working in South Africa and Ethiopia, Dr. Platt found that, “There is a different level of respect and camaraderie when working with these scientists in that I look more like them than others may have had, yet I still had to build trust and demonstrate that I am not looking to take advantage.”
Here in the U.S., Dr. Platt said there have been times that “I might even get greater participation, ideas, and access than would have been afforded someone who was not Black.”
Celebrating This Month
What advice does Dr. Platt have for celebrating Black History Month?
“It sounds cliché, but we should celebrate Black History every day or as much as the opportunity presents itself,” he said.
For people looking for something specific to do, Dr. Platt suggests reading about Black leaders.
“The shared struggles in their stories make it harder to discard their achievements with a statement of ‘but they are different from other Black people,’” he said. “Black people are not a monolith, but shared experiences that we have in this country in higher education, corporate America, and the upper echelons are still crosscutting as we make progress and move toward more equity for all.”