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11 Feb 2019

Black Girl, White Coat: "Most people look at me like I don’t belong there." Featured

Neke Ibeh pronounced Neh-keh is a bioinformatician at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. She was born in Bulgaria to Nigerian parents, and migrated to Canada at an early age. Growing up Neke recalls her mother asking only one favour. “Do well in school and represent God in all you do.”

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Biology and a Masters degree in Bioinformatics, Neke is the definition of Black Girl Magic.

During her school and work career Neke has spent a lot of time battling stereotypes and breaking away from others expectations. She is usually the only black woman in the room. In her day to day role she applies information technology to medical and health research, to determine patterns and other details in medical research. Walking into a research lab, Neke says, "Most people look at me like I don’t belong there.”  She says it’s impossible to prepare for prejudice, it is something you have to experience and learn to deal with.

Addressing discrimination isn’t easy Neke describes; she's been afraid at times to stand up for herself in fear of being labeled the “Angry Black Woman.” Neke has been working as a bioinformatician for two years. and in that time has experienced co-workers not giving her credit for her work, assuming she is incapable of fulfilling her job responsibilities or downplaying her accomplishments.  

Neke says her experiences with discrimination have only made her stronger mentally and spiritually and has afforded her a mindset of “why not me?”

“Our ancestors endured so many hardships to afford the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted today. When I’m faced with challenging times, I ask myself “who am I, not to endure this?” and I remember the path that I’m paving for girls in the future.”

That unwavering work ethic and faith is something Neke says she inherited from her mother. She also credits her family with pulling her through difficult times. During Neke’s Master’s studies, she endured a tumultuous time with another student, who was determined to make her feel uncomfortable. In a white, male-dominated field of study Neke already felt isolated and misunderstood. Neke remembers feeling like she couldn’t get help from anyone and that no one would defend her. With her family’s support she learned to laugh at the bad and absurd situations she faced daily with this classmate.

“I laughed when he cut me off mid-sentence during a presentation. I laughed when he tried demeaning me in front of other classmates. I laughed all the way to graduation and was determined to never let him change the way I saw myself.”

As a bioinformatician, Neke shares her expert opinion on black women and healthcare in Canada. Through her research Neke has found that black women are affected by many diseases, but are the least proactive in fighting them. “The risk of developing ervical cancer for example, is significantly reduced with the HPV vaccine, but many black females are either not being offered the vaccine, not completing the full dosage or are ill-informed and opting out of taking it altogether.”

Neke says research data supports the fact that doctors in Canada are more likely to offer Black cancer patients chemotherapy over surgery, and are not explaining preventable measures to patients, which leads to higher mortality rates in the black community.  “We need more people of colour in the medical field, we need to have more of our own advocates.” Neke says Black women, in particular, are being diagnosed with cancer at a higher rate than their white counterparts; so it is of high importance to shift the demographics within the medical and science fields.

Neke intends on going back to school to complete her Ph.D and also wants to help marginalized youth in science and math and be part of the change she wants to see in this world. Neke wants Black women to know, “It’s okay to be upset with the status quo, to be angry at the stereotypes other cultures have of us, but put that emotion into something productive, and see how you’ll soar.”

Kezia Royer Burkett is a creative freelance writer with a degree in communications and multimedia from McMaster University. When she is not writing she is finding inspiration living life, raising her son and spending time with friends and family.

Read 1905 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 January 2020 04:00
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