Issue Date: November 5, 2012
Joining The NOBCChE Family
When Edikan Archibong moved to the U.S. at the age of 12, she was in dire straits.
The air in Nigeria, where she grew up, was thick with pollution, and it was exacerbating her already severe case of chronic asthma. By the time she made her way across the Atlantic, Archibong was frail and had seen the inside of a hospital too many times, a few of the visits to treat life-threatening anaphylactic attacks.
“As a last resort, my doctors suggested to my parents that I relocate,” according to Archibong. A trial period in the U.S., where the air was cleaner, led to some improvements in her condition, so Archibong and her parents decided that she should relocate to the U.S. more permanently.
Just before entering high school, she left behind her family, her country, and everything she knew to settle in Tallahassee, Fla., with an aunt.
One of the things that has made Archibong’s transition easier is the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Through NOBCChE (pronounced no-buh-shay), Archibong, now 29 and healthy, has built an extended family of science colleagues, mentors, and role models in the U.S.
She’s assembled this network, in large part, by attending every one of the organization’s national conferences since 2007, including the 39th meeting, which was held on Sept. 25–28 in Washington, D.C. The gatherings offer attendees the chance to meet other minority scientists during workshops, research symposia, poster sessions, and a career fair. They also have the chance to watch competitions such as the science bowl for middle and high school students.
“NOBCChE’s very family-oriented, very close-knit,” said Archibong, a second-year graduate student at the University of South Florida (USF). “You can call anybody in the organization if you need something, and no one is afraid to give out their cell phone number.”
At no time was this truer than in 2009, when Archibong met chemical engineer Soni O. Oyekan. The scientist, who works at Marathon Oil and is well-known for his work in petroleum refining and catalysis, had stopped by her research poster to chat. Also originally from Nigeria, Oyekan was there that year to receive NOBCChE’s top honor, the Percy L. Julian Award, given in remembrance of a famed chemist who was the first African American to lead a research group at a major corporation.
Ever since that first encounter, mentor and mentee have kept in touch. She calls him regularly for advice, not only for herself but also for her younger sister, a 21-year-old aspiring chemical engineer. “That somebody in industry with all these patents came to see my little poster—that’s something that NOBCChE offers,” Archibong said.
Oyekan and Archibong reunited at this year’s meeting, which the oil scientist attended along with other past Julian Award winners to receive medals commemorating their achievements. Since 1975, NOBCChE has given 33 of the prizes to scientists and engineers who have made significant contributions to society through their research. Many of the winners attended the lunchtime ceremony in Washington, where Julian’s great-nephew, Percy L. Julian II, was on hand to award the medals.
“These men and women went the extra mile,” said NOBCChE President Victor R. McCrary during the ceremony. Earning the respect of your colleagues is important, he added, challenging the student attendees: “I expect to see you up here in the future.”
The newest addition to the Julian Award legacy is this year’s winner, Carlton M. Truesdale, a research fellow at Corning who was recognized for nearly 30 years of work with optical fibers and couplers. After receiving his medal to mark the 2012 prize, Truesdale gave the keynote address, “Let There Be Light,” during which he detailed his career path and research.
Although fiber optics is outside her area of expertise, Archibong, along with many of the 1,500-plus meeting attendees, took in Truesdale’s lecture. “I’m always interested in learning,” she told C&EN afterward. One of the reasons she said she attends NOBCChE national meetings is to meet and listen to all sorts of inspiring speakers. “Even if certain information is not directly beneficial to me, I know I’ll meet at least five people down the line who it might help,” she explained. “I can say, ‘Hey, I heard about that,’ or, ‘Hey, I know this person, go look them up.’ It makes me feel good to help further others’ careers with my suggestions.”
As for her own career, Archibong has her sights set on doing science that will protect people worldwide. “National security doesn’t just benefit the U.S.,” she told C&EN at the NOBCChE meeting. “It benefits the whole world.” If the national security here is “top notch,” she added, the technology will trickle down to help everyone.
Archibong caught the national security bug while completing her master’s degree studies at Florida A&M University. It was then that she worked with chemist Nelly Mateeva and interned with the Department of Homeland Security to develop sensor matrices for detecting toxins in food.
Now at USF, Archibong is continuing to carve a path toward defense work in a government lab by manufacturing blood-analysis sensors with Ph.D. adviser Anna Pyayt. This research will give her a complete set of tools, she explained, to invent and produce future devices to monitor the U.S. food and water supply.
Because of her interest in government research, Archibong said she was excited by the Henry A. Hill Lecture delivered at this year’s NOBCChE meeting. Roderic Pettigrew, the first director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging & Bioengineering (NIBIB), gave the address, which accompanies a prize that honors the first African American president of the American Chemical Society.
During his talk, Pettigrew gave an overview of innovative science being funded by NIBIB to improve health care around the globe. Among the projects he discussed are a bedside nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer for detecting molecular markers of disease and a portable fiber-optic microscope to be used in HIV clinics for immediate outpatient diagnosis and therapy.
But Archibong doesn’t want to work in a lab forever. “I eventually want to help make decisions and contribute ideas that I think would help science and technology,” perhaps at a policy level, she said. For this reason, a few other events during NOBCChE 2012 interested her. This year, for the first time, a distinguished group of scientists from Africa flew to the U.S. to present their research and participate in a panel discussion about opportunities for collaboration between NOBCChE and African scientific communities.
The researchers talked about topics as diverse as counterfeit antimalarial drugs and the lack of energy infrastructure in Africa. The sharing of ideas between the African scientists and NOBCChE members continued long into the evening at a reception held at the Nigerian Embassy, in Washington.
In that international setting, Archibong and Oyekan caught up with one another, took in the Nigerian artwork lining the walls, and traded stories.
“It makes my parents happy to know that even though they aren’t here,” Archibong said, “I have people who care about me and keep track of my progress. I don’t know of any other conference that caters to the needs of students or helps them build relationships like this.”
Next year’s NOBCChE national meeting will be held on Oct. 1–4 in Indianapolis.
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