Issue Date: May 9, 2011
Making Connections At NOBCChE
Where Tsehai A. J. Grell comes from, black-sand beaches, jagged mountains, and a famous boiling lake dominate the landscape, and 75 °F weather is considered chilly. Rather than going to the mall or to the movies—which don’t exist on the island paradise—the 21-year-old and her friends might entertain themselves by picnicking next to a river or hiking to a waterfall and jumping off.
So the steamy temperatures of Houston, where Grell recently attended the 38th annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), made her feel like she was back in her native Caribbean country, the Commonwealth of Dominica.
But what Dominica has in natural beauty, Grell told C&EN at the meeting, it lacks in scientific research and industry. That’s why she came to the U.S. a year ago—and to the NOBCChE (pronounced no-buh-shay) meeting late last month.
“What I want to do in terms of research, the Caribbean does not offer,” said Grell, who is now in her junior year at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. “When people back home think of science, they think of medicine.” That’s where the career opportunities are, the undergrad said, adding that Dominica is known for ecotourism rather than manufacturing.
Grell, a tall young woman with curly hair, a broad smile, and a lilting French Creole-based accent, has a bent for chemistry, something she developed under the guidance of a teacher in Dominica she says she “loved to death.” She’s now struggling to decide on one area of the central science, possibly physical chemistry, to pursue in graduate school. “There are so many things that you can do” here in the U.S., Grell said. “How do you choose just one?”
She hopes that attending this year’s NOBCChE meeting—her first—will help her figure it out. The conference, which offers attendees résumé writing, mock interview, and financial planning workshops as well as a career fair, is a desired destination for students. “All my friends at Morgan State went to NOBCChE last year,” Grell said. “They came back with all these stories, so I couldn’t wait for my opportunity.”
In addition to the career workshops, this year’s NOBCChE meeting, which had about 1,000 registrants, included the usual technical sessions, poster presentation, and science fair and bowl for middle and high school students. It also featured several prominent African American scientists speaking about their research and career paths.
For instance, Warren M. Washington, a renowned climate-change scientist who received a National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2010 and who was one of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winners, gave the Henry A. Hill Lecture in Houston. During the talk, a major event at the meeting that honors the first black president of the American Chemical Society, Washington discussed work he said gets people “hot under the collar”: how both natural and anthropogenic phenomena affect Earth’s climate. He encouraged the students in the audience to improve the public’s understanding of science and to challenge themselves, even if it means doing controversial research.
“It’s very inspiring, being a black chemist, to see people who have achieved,” Grell said of Washington and the other NOBCChE speakers. “It gives you role models.”
For Alecia M. McCall, a grad student at Louisiana State University (LSU), at least one of this year’s lecturers was already a role model. Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman to go into space, spoke at the meeting during the Winifred Burks-Houck Women’s Professional Leadership Symposium. Seeing the astronaut on television as a little girl in Jefferson City, Mo., McCall told C&EN she had thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool; I want to be just like her.” And now, she said, “I actually got to hear her speak.”
NOBCChE meetings are old hat for 26-year-old McCall, an impeccably dressed, petite, assertive young woman who was in Houston for her third conference with the organization. She keeps coming back because she never knows whom she might see.
McCall immediately recognized Bridgette Shannon, a representative from Corning who spoke at the meeting’s welcome luncheon. “I saw her and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the woman from Essence magazine,’ ” McCall said. Shannon, a development scientist in Corning’s environmental technologies development business, was featured along with other African American professional females in an article about “power players” in last month’s issue.
Texas Democratic U.S. congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a power player in her own right, also spoke during the NOBCChE welcome luncheon. With a booming voice and a commanding presence, she advised the students to patent their work early and often and to be “warriors on the ground,” fighting for science and education in the U.S.
But McCall didn’t go to the NOBCChE meeting just for the lectures. She gave a presentation on research that she is carrying out with adviser M. Graça H. Vicente at LSU to develop fluorescence-based in vivo imaging agents for colorectal cancer. In addition, while at the meeting, she hoped to leverage connections from meetings past and to forge new connections to secure a postdoctoral fellowship.
Expecting to graduate with a Ph.D. by the end of 2011, McCall, armed with professional-looking business cards bearing a molecular structure on the front and a list of her laboratory specialties on the back, came to Houston on a mission. She handed out the cards at a number of booths during the NOBCChE Career Fair, collecting information from Dow Chemical, Corning, Scripps Research Institute, and other organizations. Her efforts paid off when she was summoned for an interview with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which she thought went well.
But McCall is keeping her options open. During the meeting, Cynthia B. Giroux, vice president of the Optics & Surface Technology Division of Corning, spoke about the various products the firm makes and research it is conducting in glass display screens and surface science.
As a synthetic chemist, McCall is particularly interested in the company’s work with organic coatings and cell-growth surfaces. Giroux specifically mentioned that Corning is “looking for people to stick their necks out and try new things,” and McCall said she might just take her up on that pronouncement.
Also on McCall’s radar was Theodore Goodson III, who this year was awarded NOBCChE’s top honor, the Percy L. Julian Award. Goodson, a chemist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who began his research career through ACS’s Project SEED program for economically disadvantaged high school students, gave a lunchtime lecture in Houston. He touched on work he’s done with two-photon absorption spectroscopy to probe porphyrin dendrimers, materials that could be used in future organic detection devices and capacitors. McCall, who specializes in synthesizing porphyrins, sought out Goodson afterward to chat about a potential postdoc position in his lab.
Similarly, Grell networked during the career fair and at other NOBCChE meeting events. She handed out résumés that were freshly revised at a NOBCChE workshop the day before to representatives from the likes of the University of Maryland and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And she chatted with numerous attendees at the poster session, where she presented her research on evaporative crystallization.
Working with her Morgan State adviser, Kadir Aslan, Grell has developed coated silver nanoparticle surfaces that, when exposed to microwave radiation, crystallize various amino acids. The work is the first step on the road to a new technique for crystallizing proteins for structural analysis or drug formulations.
“When you come to conferences like this,” Grell said, “you see that this is where all the hard work pays off.”
Although the future is still unclear for these two young women, the value of NOBCChE to Grell and McCall is clear. After only a few days at the meeting, “I’ve learned a million things,” McCall said. “I’ve seen dynamic speakers, I’ve had my résumé reviewed, and I’ve gotten excellent questions about my research.”
No matter what happens, “I’m never missing another NOBCChE conference,” she added. “It’s not an option.”
Next year’s NOBCChE meeting will be held in the fall, from Sept. 25 to 28, in Washington, D.C.
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