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NOBCChE 2021: Another virtual year

The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers focuses on its legacy of resilience

by Marsha-Ann Watson
October 17, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 38


For a second year, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) held its annual conference virtually because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting, which was held Sept. 16–18, focused on resilience in the context of both the current pandemic and the challenges that scientists of color have faced over the course of NOBCChE’s nearly 50-year history.

A screenshot from Malika Jeffries-El's Percy Julian lecture given during the 2021 NOBCChE conference.
Credit: NOBCChE
Malika Jeffries-EL was the featured speaker at the Percy Julian Lecture.

NOBCChE—pronounced “no-buh-shay”—was founded in 1972 to advance the careers of Black chemists and chemical engineers. That goal was front and center at this year’s meeting. Events were particularly focused on careers in chemistry.

A screen shot of Sharon Walker speaking during the Winifred Burks-Houck lecture.
Credit: NOBCChE
Sharon Walker discussed water contamination during the Winifred Burks-Houck Lecture.

Meeting chairs Danielle Watt and Lloyd Munjanja built anticipation before the meeting with nearly a week’s worth of events. These included a Twitter science communication competition with cash prizes for best tweets, conversations with representatives of the US National Science Foundation, and sessions on career development.

The conference officially kicked off the day before the main meeting with an opening session that featured music and dance provided by the Tiyumba African Drum & Dance Company. Dancers encouraged attendees to get out of their chairs with a brief choreographed routine.

During the opening session, Renã Robinson, NOBCChE’s president and a chemistry professor at Vanderbilt University, welcomed attendees with a message focused on the conference’s theme, “Legacy of Resilience.” “We are here to stay,” she said. She explained how NOBCChE could ensure its continued resilience by strengthening its networks, building solid infrastructure, and raising the bar on financial goals to increase its endowment fund.

Although the pandemic was the impetus for the virtual format, some of the conference attendees seemed to have adjusted well to the challenges brought about by COVID-19. Edward Addai, an undergraduate at the Ohio State University and a first-time NOBCChE attendee, volunteered at the university’s virtual booth during the academic expo. Addai, a chemical engineering student, wore a mask like his fellow students in the background and took the COVID-19 changes in stride, saying he was far more focused on the opportunities available at the conference. “I’m kind of excited about it,” he said about the NOBCChE conference.

His excitement was matched by fellow attendee Joy Rutherford. “So far my experience at the virtual NOBCChE Conference has been amazing,” Rutherford, a fifth-year PhD student at the Ohio State University, said in an email. At the Ohio State virtual booth, Rutherford discussed some benefits of the virtual format: “I like how they split up the industry and academic expo,” she said. At the industry expo, 24 companies had booths where company representatives offered details on open positions and advice on how to apply. The academic expo featured 41 academic institutions and provided prospective graduate students information about their programs.

“What I enjoy most about NOBCChE is the community,” Rutherford said. “PhD programs are hard enough, and navigating these spaces as a black woman can be even more daunting.” She said her NOBCChE connections have helped her get through graduate school. She is now in the final year of her PhD program, and one of her goals for this year’s conference was connecting with employers, particularly in the cosmetics industry. In a one-on-one session with representatives of Estée Lauder, she learned about the application and interview process.

Other attendees hoped to fulfill similar goals and visited the expo booths to talk with company representatives about job and internship opportunities.

JaNise Jackson, a NOBCChE member who recently earned her PhD from Clark Atlanta University, has been attending the annual meeting since she was an undergraduate. This year, she wanted to expand her network. “After over a year of the pandemic, it’s been hard meeting new people,” Jackson said. Attending the conference, albeit virtually, allowed her to talk with scientists at the various industry booths. “I am in the process of applying to jobs, so this was a great opportunity to meet the people who work at the places I am applying to,” she said. “Though I do miss in-person conferences, I am happy that we were able to have an amazing virtual experience,” she added.

While some attendees were focused on their careers, some undergraduate students were considering further education. The academic expo allowed them to meet with representatives of chemistry and chemical engineering graduate programs. Michael Schwartz from the University of Wisconsin–Madison offered general advice to prospective graduate students. “In grad school, your textbook isn’t going to help you,” he said, because you’ll be working on things no one has ever done before; finding the answers is up to you. Schwartz encouraged students to interview the various universities’ programs and ask hard questions about resources. Because a grad program may take 5 years, “you don’t want to spend it being miserable,” he advised.

During the Winifred Burks-Houck Lecture, Sharon Walker, dean of the College of Engineering at Drexel University, talked about eliminating contamination in water sources. She has been particularly motivated by the ongoing drought conditions in California and the potential for using treated wastewater for farm irrigation. At the end of her speech, Walker encouraged her audience to be like Burks-Houck—an environmental chemist and former president of NOBCChE—and mentor others.

William Jackson, a founding member of NOBCChE, recounted the organization’s beginnings during his State of NOBCChE address. Almost 50 years ago, when the organization began, only 2% of PhDs were being awarded to African Americans in math and physical sciences, Jackson said. “We’ve doubled that number,” he said, but “it’s not good enough.” NOBCChE has advocated for more support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but they need more, he said. Black people represent 13% of the US population. “I’d prefer to see an overrepresentation of African Americans in math and the physical sciences,” he said. He encouraged chemical companies to engage with local communities to diversify their organizations.

Isaiah Speight, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, could easily represent Jackson’s vision for Black people in science. A regular NOBCChE attendee, Speight studied at a historically Black college as an undergraduate and, until recently, has been the NOBCChE national student representative on the executive board. Speight responded to questions from chapter members about increasing chapter participation during the State of NOBCChE. He encouraged members to become involved with the American Chemical Society and its Bridge Program, which aims to increase the participation of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students in the chemical sciences. He also suggested planning local events to keep members engaged. His personal goal for this year was to build his network as he transitions to a new role as the western regional chair of NOBCChE. The virtual format “has definitely made it hard,” he said, “because I enjoy seeing my NOBCChE family in person.”

For chemists and engineers already fully engaged in their careers, NOBCChE also provided opportunities to discuss the challenges faced by underrepresented groups in the chemical sciences. Rigoberto Hernandez, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Alveda J. Williams, corporate director of inclusion at Dow, spoke during an event on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hernandez spoke primarily about academia but highlighted a correlation between corporate financial success and diversity as evidence that pursuing diversity in ability, culture, gender, religion, and sexual identities is vital to building successful and equitable organizations. He highlighted Lego’s introduction of female scientist Lego figures that proved more popular than the company expected. When scientists are shown as being diverse, we move one step closer to overcoming the barriers to equity and inclusion, he said. In her talk, Williams spoke on inclusive leadership and Dow’s efforts to be more diverse.

In a panel on dealing with microaggressions, Munjanja, associate director of graduate diversity and program climate in the Chemistry Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Carrie O. Graham, an adult-learning consultant, discussed the challenges of being the only Brown face in the room. Munjanja noted that talking to people within the Black community is empowering and important to building confidence, whereas being surrounded by all-White peers can sometimes create self-doubt. In response to Munjanja, Graham advised attendees to acknowledge and remember their own value, calling it “one of the most powerful things you can do.”

During the Percy Julian Lecture, featured speaker Malika Jeffries-EL, one of C&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers and a member of C&EN’s advisory board, mentioned some of her own experiences as a Black woman who was often one of few in the room. “It was statistically unlikely that I would succeed,” she said. Jeffries-EL grew up in the projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But she was a curious child whose parents encouraged education. Her grad school years were challenging, however. Winning a travel grant to an ACS conference and attending NOBCChE conferences were affirming, confidence-building experiences that helped her persevere with her research, she said. Now, as the associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, she said one of her biggest challenges is people who are recalcitrant to change, enamored of the status quo and a system that works for them but not for many others. She wants colleges to improve admission processes and focus on recruiting students from underrepresented groups to join science programs and to support them so they stay in those programs.

Like many of NOBCChE’s regular conference attendees, Jeffries-EL was deeply disappointed that the conference was virtual. Of her usual NOBCChE experience, she echoed many regular attendees: “It’s like a conference meets a Black family reunion.” The familial atmosphere of the conference was mentioned by other attendees, including Speight and Rutherford. NOBCChE conference attendees might be able to reconnect with that feeling next year. In-person events have been planned for the future. The 2022 annual conference is slated to be held in person in Orlando, Florida. A 50th anniversary celebration is tentatively scheduled for 2023 in New Orleans.


This story was updated on Oct. 20, 2021, to correct the year for NOBCChE’s 50th anniversary celebration. It is tentatively scheduled for 2023, not 2022.


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