AP Biology investigates race science with journalist Angela Saini

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Lucas Glickman, Staff Writer

Scientific journalist Angela Saini visited Upper Division Dean of Faculty and science teacher Dr. Matthew Wallenfang’s AP Biology class to discuss her book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” on January 12.

Over the summer, Wallenfang searched for resources that discussed the intersection of race and biology. He stumbled upon “Superior,” which explains how race is a social construct and not rooted one — a common misconception, he said. “One excellent aspect of her book is that it isn’t just neutral reporting, but she brings a lot of personal reflection to what she is talking about,” Wallenfang said.

“What resonated with me the most was the connection between the themes that she discusses and race science in the present day,” Ericka Familia (12) said. “Science regarding race can never be objective is because it is always influenced by internalized biases, historical implications, and our political climate,” she said.

Prior to her talk, Wallenfang requested that all of his students submit between two and five different questions they had for Saini, he said. A week beforehand, Wallenfang emailed Saini to ask her if she wanted to see the questions beforehand — but she said that she’d prefer to answer them on the fly.

“As somebody watching today, she speaks so fluently, it almost seems like her answers were prepared answers, even though she had no idea what questions were going to be asked,” Wallenfang said.

During her visit, Saini asked the class what lessons they took away from her book. Yotam Hahn (12) said he aspires to be a scientist as he believes that the profession can save humanity from itself. However, “Superior” showed him that science could be equally as threatening to society. Scientists have the responsibility to stop misnomers, he said.

While reading “Superior,” Aidan McAndrew (12) said he realized that race is always separated from science, but the development of race in culture has always been, in part, dependent on the misuse of science.

In exploring the historical and social context of race science, the book demonstrates that science is not always impartial, Ahaana Shrivastava (12) said. Shrivastava said understanding the racist beliefs held by famous scientists demonstrates the importance of viewing their work from a different perspective, as race science has been manipulating science from behind the scenes. 

Students also had the opportunity to ask Saini questions about her book. Familia asked Saini which topic she would choose to delve into if she had the option to add a chapter into her book. 

Saini said she would expand on the chapter of medicine. At the start of the pandemic, she heard that there were higher mortality rates for Black Americans and Asian doctors; many prominent physicians speculated that a genetic difference between ethnicities was leading certain groups to be more susceptible to the virus.

However, after the murder of Geroge Floyd over the summer, there was a political shift in society, she said. There is a strong connection between scientific research and politics, as despite the fact that there was no new scientific data, the physicians who stopped speculating about a genetic difference between races.

Afterwards, Shreya asked how the increase in the number of people of color and women joining STEM fields may affect the concept of race science. Specifically, Shreya was interested in learning how scientists who are conscious of the history behind their topic may contribute to their fields. This brought Saini, who was educated in the United Kingdom, to the topic of education. She critiqued the United Kingdom education system in which specialization occurs at a very young age; it results in scientists who have little exposure to the social sciences, she said. 

Before the discussion, the class engaged in full-period presentations on each chapter of Saini’s book “Superior.” The presentations included a short summary of the chapter followed by an analysis of the topics discussed, Shrivastava said. 

Wallenfang and Science Department Chair Dr. Lisa Rosenblum, who teaches Biology 2A/B, both intend to use “Superior” in their classes next year, Wallenfang said.