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NOBCChE's Gateway To Science

Black chemists and chemical engineers meet in St. Louis for annual conference

by Alicia J. Chambers
June 8, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 23

Credit: Anthony Dent
Lane (standing, center) celebrates his induction into the NOBCChE family with Wilson (standing, fifth from left), McCrary (standing, seventh from left), and other members of the executive board.
Credit: Anthony Dent
Lane (standing, center) celebrates his induction into the NOBCChE family with Wilson (standing, fifth from left), McCrary (standing, seventh from left), and other members of the executive board.

WITH A GAPING HOLE where his two front teeth used to be, John-Paul flashed a vivid smile, his way of boasting about the baby teeth he is losing. A moment later, he dashed behind a chair and caught a giggle in the palm of his hand. Malinda cast a knowing maternal look at her five-year-old—she's seen this boast before. They were in St. Louis at the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual meeting with Bobby— Bobby L. Wilson, that is. He was keeping a watchful eye on his grandson while making conversation with his fellow NOBCChE conference attendees. He moved through the crowd with an ease that is markedly southern and entirely confident. In this setting, he is legendary. His impact is far-reaching. He's been coming to NOBCChE gatherings for a long time—and his family comes with him.

Three generations of Wilsons, and, depending on John-Paul's future career choices, perhaps three generations of scientists.

A chemist and environmental toxicologist at Texas Southern University (TSU), Houston, Wilson is chair of NOBCChE's executive committee. An elder of the organization, he has been a member for more than 30 years and has shepherded many into science—including his daughter, Malinda Wilson Gilmore, a chemistry professor at Alabama A&M University whom he taught as an undergraduate. Perhaps his grandson will be next to embrace science. "It's a joy just to have John-Paul here," Wilson declared. "It's his third meeting."

But Wilson sees the conference as much more than an annual gathering of scientists and students. "I am very pleased with NOBCChE's ability to promote the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields and to have been able to watch people develop in NOBCChE and go further in other organizations," Wilson told C&EN. He credits his own success as acting president of TSU to the experience he gained in his leadership roles within the organization.

NOBCChE held its 36th annual conference on April 13–17 in St. Louis. Chemists, chemical engineers, educators, students, and supporters of the organization met to share the latest research, to network, and to acknowledge achievements and reward hard work. This year's theme, "NOBCChE '09—The Perfect Gateway to STEM," was chosen to support the organization's mission "to build an eminent community of scientists and engineers by increasing the number of minorities" in STEM fields.

Despite the current economic crisis and an industry hard-hit by job layoffs and plant closings, meeting organizers decided it was in the best interest of the organization and its members to continue with the conference this year. "We needed to hold the annual conference as a beacon of hope during these stormy times," said NOBC ChE President Victor R. McCrary, business area executive for science and technology for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md. "While we anticipated that attendance would be somewhat diminished, we were not discouraged, because for many, NOB CChE is the best and last hope of staying connected and feeling empowered as a person of color in science and technology," he said.

AT THE GENERAL business session, McCrary reminded attendees that there are great opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers in energy, health care, and other fields both at home and abroad. To that end, he remarked, NOBCChE is building relationships with colleges and universities, as well as government, industry, and nonprofit organizations.

For example, last year, the organization formed a groundbreaking educational partnership with the University of Maryland's department of chemistry and biochemistry. As part of a strategic educational initiative, UMD committed to recruiting and supporting minority graduate students and pledged to give $15,000 to NOBCChE over three years. In turn, the organization agreed to provide the university with membership benefits and to direct prospective students to the university's chemistry department.

This year, NOBCChE made a similar agreement with Washington University in St. Louis. On behalf of the university, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton pledged to also support the organization. The partnership "allows NO BCChE to help the university recruit more students of color in STEM disciplines," McCrary said.

Credit: Jim McWilliams Photography
John-Paul proudly displays his NOBCChE T-shirt.
Credit: Jim McWilliams Photography
John-Paul proudly displays his NOBCChE T-shirt.

This year's meeting marked the second year of the Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) initiative, in which chemistry and chemical engineering departments of HBCUs discuss cooperative efforts with government, industry, and other universities to better serve the needs of their students. One such effort involved negotiating an agreement with the Drug Enforcement Administration in which the agency will donate surplus equipment to HBCUs, a partnership that will allow universities to acquire high-end equipment.

Reelected this year for a second two-year term as president, McCrary promised to continue his efforts to broaden the impact and reach of the organization. When first elected in 2007, he stated that by the end of his term he wanted "to see NOBCChE as an international organization" (C&EN Online Latest News, July 3, 2007), and he has begun to fulfill that pledge. The organization took its first step beyond national borders when it signed a memorandum of understanding this year with the Nigerian Society of Chemical Engineers. "We are currently planning international NOBCChE chapters," McCrary added.

Such agreements, he explained, will make it possible for organization members to interact with more-diverse groups.

During the course of the conference week in St. Louis, attendees gave more than 100 technical papers, attended professional development workshops, and celebrated their peers by presenting graduate fellowships and professional awards (see page 65).

Richard Davis, physicist and head of the mass section at the International Bureau of Weights & Measures, in Sèvres, France, was honored by being selected to give the Henry Hill Lecture, sponsored by the American Chemical Society Northeastern Section and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry department. He addressed the recent "rumors" that the kilogram standard, now embodied in the form of a platinum-iridium cylinder, is losing mass (C&EN, May 26, 2008, page 43).

Also honored was Soni O. Oyekan, a reforming and isomerization technologist at Marathon Oil. He received the Percy L. Julian Award, which is given for significant contributions in pure and/or applied research in science or engineering and is considered the most prestigious honor presented at the NOBCChE meeting. Oyekan's research career spans more than 30 years and has primarily centered on petroleum refining and catalysis.

At the meeting, more than 40 industrial and academic representatives participated in a free one-day career fair open to the public and conference attendees. A health symposium sponsored by Eli Lilly & Co., also open to the public, focused on diabetes in the black community.

TRUE TO ITS STEM theme, the conference was capped with the National Science Fair & Science Bowl Competition for more than 100 middle and high school students from across the country.

Kericka Stagg, a 12th grader from the Southwest Region, took first place in the fair's senior division (grades 10 to 12) with her project, "Introducing Ruthenium Atoms to Allopurinol." Eighth-grader Tabassum Mohibi from the Midwest Region took home the top prize for the junior division (grades seven to nine) for her project, "Take a Breath: The Effects of Second-Hand Smoking on Total Lung Capacity in Middle School Students."

In the science bowl, Timbuktu School's Team Obama, from Baton Rouge, La., captured the top prize in the junior division, and Preuss School of the University of California, San Diego, won the first-place award in the senior division.

All science fair participants received an ACS backpack filled with society novelties. The society also awarded each member of the first-, second-, and third-place science bowl teams with U.S. Savings Bonds worth $500, $250, and $125, respectively. First-, second-, and third-place science fair winners took home $100, $75, and $50, respectively.

In an address at the awards luncheon, ACS President Thomas H. Lane told students that "life is a journey full of promise and opportunity—opportunity for each of you to use your special skills in making a difference in someone's life." He encouraged both students and teachers to develop a taste for learning that will serve them for a lifetime and challenged students "to develop your intellectual palate" in order to become "the learners, inventors, engineers, and scientists that this world needs to address the global challenges that we face as a society."

By the end of the conference, it was apparent that John-Paul had made a few friends and had attracted many fans. Conference attendees smiled as he said his goodbyes and prepared to leave. And when asked whether he will someday be a chemist, he shook his head "no" and eagerly told C&EN that he'd like to be a neurosurgeon instead. Time will tell.

The 2010 NOBCChE national conference will be held on March 29–April 3 in Atlanta.



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