Jendai E. Robinson has always been a tinkerer. From a young age, she would spend time at the auto shop where her dad worked. She’d watch him take engines apart and electroplate car parts. He’d watch her test radios and set up circuits to pinpoint dead headlights. “Without telling me, he had me doing physics at age seven,” she recalls.
Now a second-year chemistry Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati, Robinson still tinkers with chemistry and physics but on a smaller scale. With the financial support of the National Aeronautic & Space Administration’s Harriett G. Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship, she works in the lab to fabricate carbon nanofibers for biosensing applications. Her tinkering skills have even earned her internships at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.
This September in New Orleans, Robinson got to share her enthusiasm for science with fellow chemists at the 41st annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE, pronounced no-buh-shay). She presented a poster on her nanofiber research at the meeting, which featured attractions such as a career fair, technical sessions, a science fair and bowl for young students, and talks from several prominent black scientists.
Robinson is no stranger to NOBCChE. She attended her first meeting in 2010 and was excited to come back this year to present the research she’s done with NASA and the University of Cincinnati. “What’s different about NOBCChE compared with other conferences is its size—it’s more intimate,” she said. “At big conferences, people fly by your poster. Here, they actually stop to ask about you and your research.”
That intimacy—that sense of the “NOBCChE family,” as many call it—keeps people returning each year and helps students build connections and confidence.
“For me, it keeps getting better and better,” said Keturah A. Odoi, a sixth-year chemistry Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University who was back for her third meeting. During her first go-round at NOBCChE, she knew no one outside of her research group (C&EN, Nov. 5, 2012, page 37). This year, she went to New Orleans to reconnect with acquaintances and to accept the E. I. DuPont Fellowship award for her research on cancer epigenetic regulations in histones.
“The first time I came here, I went back to school inspired to do more. It’s a refueling process,” she said. “You hear people’s success stories, and you go back ready to spend the hours to achieve that goal.”
Fostering budding career scientists like Robinson and Odoi is one of the key reasons NOBCChE was founded and why it continues to exist: to provide networking opportunities for black chemists and chemical engineers and to encourage minority students to forge careers in the sciences. Now in its 41st year, the meeting is so successful, it had to add an extra day of student poster presentations to accommodate its growing popularity: This year the meeting and STEM weekend events hosted 750 attendees.
All of these eager students were greeted by NOBCChE vice president and conference chair Talitha Hampton-Mayo, who announced this year’s motto, “No Imitation, Only Innovation,” to reflect the conference theme of entrepreneurship. “Where we’re headed as a world, we’re not going to be doing business the same way,” Hampton-Mayo said. “We’re doing more with less, and certain jobs are never coming back.” On the bright side, she said, losing some of these jobs may force scientists to create entrepreneurial opportunities elsewhere.
Tashni-Ann Dubroy and Tiffani Bailey Lash were undergraduates when they attended their first National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) conference in 2001. They didn’t know each other, and they certainly didn’t know that, 13 years later, they would be speaking at NOBCChE about founding their own hair care company, Tea & Honey Blends.
But future success would have seemed like no surprise. During last month’s meeting in New Orleans, the pair emphasized that the key to their success was a combination of hard work and believing in oneself.
“Every time we tell our story, we want to make sure people know it didn’t come easy,” says Dubroy, who is an immigrant from Jamaica. Her work ethic earned her several scholarships and a spot in the chemistry graduate program at North Carolina State University, where she met Lash. The two discovered they both wanted to create natural hair care products with added moisture to suit African-American hair.
Despite numerous setbacks, they felt they could succeed. Dubroy reminisced about the time Lash declared she’d finish graduate school in four-and-a-half years. “There was no indication in the universe other than in Tiffani’s head” that she would finish in time, Dubroy said. She had notes all over her house with positive affirmations: “You are blessed!” and “You rock, Tiffani!” Dubroy said she was ready to call the medics. “It was a crazy person’s house!”
Hampton-Mayo has always been interested in entrepreneurship, but in school, she steered away from the business side of science because she had no idea where to begin. “I always thought I would run a business, but I was never told how,” she said. “The earlier we expose students to the fact that they can do it, the better.”
Students with entrepreneurial aspirations were surrounded by role models at the meeting. The Winifred Burks-Houck Professional Leadership lecture was given by Noreen Khan-Mayberry. She is the first woman and first person of color to work as a NASA space toxicologist, protecting crews from exposure to toxic substances in extraterrestrial environments. She has also started several businesses, including one to educate the public about toxic hazards. In her lecture, she stressed the importance of science majors taking business classes.
To further this entrepreneurial sentiment and help attendees connect, NOBCChE put on men’s and women’s networking receptions. The women heard from NaShara Mitchell, an assistant dean at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and founder of cosmetics line Ready to Blush. “Behind every single idea, you must believe in it and work to make it happen. It’s not just going to happen,” she told the crowd. “It’s a matter of making things happen and being very forceful.”
Also speaking during the women’s networking session were Tiffani Bailey Lash and Tashni-Ann Dubroy, cofounders of a product line for ethnic hair. They also led an entrepreneurship workshop during NOBCChE’s first science café (see sidebar).
All attendees gathered to listen to a lecture from Cato T. Laurencin, this year’s winner of NOBCChE’s most prestigious honor, the Percy L. Julian Award. Laurencin is an engineer and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Connecticut who is blazing trails in the field of regenerative engineering. As a researcher and ringside doctor for boxers, Laurencin stressed the need to be versatile in plotting a career path by quoting both Darwin (“it’s not the strongest of species that survives, it’s the one that’s most adaptable”) and Mike Tyson (“everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”).
“Challenges should always be seen as opportunities,” Laurencin said. “The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity.” He talked about his “big, hairy, audacious goal” of engineering bone outside of the body—an idea many found laughable at first but that’s now a working reality. He stressed not giving into doubters and seeing stumbling blocks as part of the journey.
Many students returning to NOBCChE each year see their networks—and, in turn, their confidence—growing.
“One thing that changed from my first NOBCChE to now is maturity. Now, I’m more confident,” Robinson said.
With this confidence, Robinson chatted easily with NOBCChE President Judson L. Haynes III, who also lives in Cincinnati. Despite just meeting, they are now working together to start a NOBCChE chapter in the city. “That was all spurred just at this meeting, so it’s been a very fulfilling experience so far,” Robinson said.
Texas A&M’s Odoi boosted her own self-esteem by applying for the DuPont Fellowship award—and winning it.
“Sometimes, you have this nagging idea that you’re not good enough and other people are better,” she said. “I now realize that you don’t have to wait for others to see potential in you.”
Even Hampton-Mayo was supported by NOBCChE when she felt alone as a minority student in chemical engineering. “A network of people to support me gave me the push I needed to keep going,” she recalled.
Robinson said having this NOBCChE science family as well as her own family to support her has been critical. She now realizes that tinkering in her father’s auto shop sparked her curiosity in the sciences. She called her dad from the NOBCChE conference to let him know what that meant to her.
“Even though he’s not a chemist and he’s not a big-name person,” she said, “I was still doing science back then, and it still carries me to this day.”
The next NOBCChE conference will be held Sept. 22–25, 2015, in Orlando.