Valerie Goss saw the flyer that changed her life in 1994. An undergraduate student at Chicago State University, Goss was walking through the chemistry department when the announcement for a scientific poster competition caught her attention. Although the competition at a conference in Atlantic City, N.J., was far away, Goss made it her mission to attend. She applied for and was awarded a scholarship sponsored by the chemical company Rohm and Haas to cover her travel expenses. She carefully crafted a presentation out of data she had collected on the role polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons play in reversible DNA mutations. Then she nervously made the journey to the conference and presented her research.
And she lost. Goss didn’t win anything for her effort. But looking back on that trip, which was her first time attending the annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), Goss can’t help but smile. That’s because, to Goss, winning or losing at that competition ultimately wasn’t important. What was important “was that I was there and had seen so many black faces involved in science,” Goss remembered. “I was blown away.”
Goss hasn’t forgotten the sense of community engendered by her first NOBCChE (pronounced no-buh-shay) experience, and she’s since gone to great lengths to re-create the experience for others.
In 1996, Goss cofounded a NOBCChE student chapter at Chicago State. In 2012, having returned to her undergraduate alma mater as a chemistry lecturer, she began serving as the chapter’s faculty adviser. And this year, Goss’s involvement in the student chapter came full circle as she, now an assistant professor of chemistry, brought 14 of her own students to the 40th annual NOBCChE meeting, which was held last month in Indianapolis.
The evolution of Goss’s involvement in NOBCChE, from student participant to faculty adviser, speaks to the powerful influence the organization holds over its members. The meeting continues to provide minority scientists with a forum in which to participate in activities such as technical symposia, a career fair, résumé-writing workshops, and a science bowl competition for middle and high schoolers.
Whereas other professional organizations might have used a milestone such as a 40th birthday as an excuse to wax poetic about years past, NOBCChE used this year’s meeting, and its theme of “Creating a Transformative STEM Workforce,” as an opportunity to empower the chemists who will shape the organization’s future and help transform the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The rallying cry began at the meeting’s opening luncheon, when NOBCChE Vice President Talitha Hampton-Mayo, a project manager at Merck & Co., asked attendees to think of this year’s event as their organization’s Sputnik moment, a reference to the Soviet Union satellite—the world’s first—that ultimately spurred the U.S. to great heights of aeronautic innovation.
Lots of people had reason to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Perhaps no one, however, had more to celebrate than William M. Jackson.
The only NOBCChE founder in attendance at last month’s meeting in Indianapolis, Jackson, a University of California, Davis, professor emeritus of chemistry, has volunteered an immeasurable amount of his time over the years to ensuring the organization’s success. He served as the organization’s first treasurer starting in 1973, and he was a member of the board and national planning committee. He even donated $200 of his own money to help start the organization. “I remember how much I kicked in because $200 was a lot of money to me at that time,” Jackson laughed as he recounted NOBCChE’s origins at this year’s meeting.
Jackson remembered being struck by the need for an organization advocating for the increased presence of African Americans in chemistry and chemical engineering when he attended his first American Chemical Society national meeting in the early 1960s. “There was no presence of African Americans in the American Chemical Society at the time, so we really had nobody who spoke up for us or our point of view in the chemistry field,” he said. “We were interested in trying to get more minorities in chemistry and chemical engineering.”
Through the years, Jackson has attended nearly every NOBCChE meeting, from the first one held in New Orleans in 1974 in conjunction with the National Institute of Science, an organization that supports minority involvement in the sciences, and the honorary science organization Beta Kappa Chi, to last month’s meeting in Indianapolis. The only meeting Jackson missed was the 1999 gathering in San Diego, which he skipped as a protest against California’s Proposition 209, a law that prohibits public employers from considering, among other things, race in the evaluation of a potential employee.
It’s an impressive attendance record that Jackson hopes to continue. When asked how many more years he’ll attend the meeting, Jackson smiled wryly and replied: “Until they put me in the grave.”
“While we are proud of our 40-year history, we are at a place where what has sustained us for the past 40 years is not what will take us through the next,” she said. “Our enemy,” Hampton-Mayo added, “is our own complacency.”
The need for future adaptation was seconded by Purdue University chemistry professor Joseph S. Francisco, a past-president of the American Chemical Society, during a panel titled “The Next 40 Years of Innovation: Challenges for Academia, Government & Industry.” Francisco noted that “the field of chemistry is really struggling with its identity” given the variety of disciplines such as biology and physics with which it has been commingled. Francisco added that this ambiguity can pose a threat to organizations such as NOBCChE as they attempt to communicate the importance of science.
To mitigate such identity crises, Francisco recommended greater scientific outreach among young people, a solution with which the panel’s moderator, Victor R. McCrary, wholeheartedly agreed. McCrary, NOBCChE immediate past-president and vice president for research and economic development at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, noted that hands-on scientific engagement, particularly participation in experiments, goes a long way toward motivating young people to explore careers in fields such as chemistry. “Learning chemistry divorced from interaction or being involved is like learning how to ride a bike by reading a book,” McCrary said.
Perhaps no one better understands this need for engagement in the sciences than Goss. As adviser of her school’s NOBCChE chapter, she works with her students to offer hands-on science demonstrations to local public elementary and middle schools. “So often, students get turned off by science because they don’t see themselves working or doing or being involved,” Goss said. Providing students with hands-on demonstrations, however, allows them to take ownership of “what they’re going to do to make a difference in this world,” she explained. “That’s powerful.”
DeBorah Myles, a senior environmental biology student at Chicago State involved in organic chemistry research and who also serves as vice president of the school’s NOBCChE chapter, has seen the power of such outreach. She recounted one story in which she was leading a group of sixth-graders through an experiment and saw a fourth-grader in the audience. When Myles asked the boy why he wanted to learn with the big kids, the boy said it was because he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. Curious, Myles asked him what that was. The kid’s response: He wanted to be a computational chemist.
“I was just so excited,” exclaimed Myles as she recalled that exchange. To Myles, that boy’s fervor for science completely justified why she and her NOBCChE friends reached out to the young students in the first place. The conversation also reminded Myles of the passion she had for science as a child. “It’s really amazing because you go there and you expect to somehow help them, but they end up helping you more,” Myles said.
Lucinda Boyd, president of Chicago State’s NOBCChE student chapter, has similarly benefited from these volunteer events. Prior to serving as a volunteer, Boyd was unsure of her postgraduation plans. Now, however, as a senior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and French, she has begun applying to graduate school programs in organic synthesis. After that, “I want to develop STEM programs in underserved communities,” she revealed.
Goss is proud of the sense of purpose and direction that Chicago State’s NOBCChE student chapter has ingrained in her students. But she is quick to point out that her involvement with the chapter stems from more than just wanting her students to succeed. She also wants to repay the organization for all it has done for her. “If someone helped me and I didn’t help someone else, then it seems that I would be doing the people who helped me a disservice,” Goss said. By returning to her student chapter as a faculty adviser, “I feel like I’m honoring the people who helped me,” she added. “And I want the next generation of students to be able to do the same thing.”
Attendees of this year’s NOBCChE meeting took note of Goss’s commitment to the organization and her students. In particular, Ella L. Davis, a NOBCChE board member who is vice president of the science education organization the Committee for Action Program Services-Analytical Training Laboratory, praised Goss’s return to the organization during a symposium honoring the late Winifred Burks-Houck, who was an organic chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the first female president of NOBCChE.
“If there’s nothing else that I bring back from this meeting, quite honestly, it is just having seen how she is coming along and bringing others along,” Davis said of Goss. Davis then pledged to do all that she could to ensure the 14 students from Goss’s group attending this year’s NOBCChE meeting would someday return to the meeting with 14 of their own students.
Goss would certainly be delighted if Davis’s vision for the future of her students came true. “Over the years, I’ve always stayed plugged into NOBCChE: I’ve come to the meetings and been involved in making my own presentations. All of that,” Goss said. “And at this point now, coming back as a faculty member, I can see the other side of that coin. So it’s really rewarding.”
The next NOBCChE national meeting will be held on Sept. 23–26, 2014, in New Orleans.