Issue Date: November 2, 2015
The NOBCChE Community
Rosemary Onjiko knows what it feels like to belong to a community. Growing up in Kisumu, Kenya, Onjiko had a support system that extended well beyond her immediate family. “In Kenya, they always say that the child belongs to the village,” Onjiko remembered. “So basically you have your whole village raise you.”
In late September, Onjiko experienced a similarly supportive community when she attended her first meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE, pronounced no-buh-shay) in Orlando. At the start of the conference, Onjiko, a Ph.D. chemistry student at George Washington University, met another Ph.D. chemistry student, Eugenia Narh, from the University of Texas, Arlington, during a leadership training workshop for minority women. Upon hearing Onjiko’s background, Narh couldn’t help but think of introducing Onjiko to one of her UT Arlington colleagues, Mercy Oyugi, who was also from Kenya.
Onjiko and Oyugi struck it off as soon as they met one another and discovered that not only did they share the same home country, but they also spoke the same dialect. “It’s so funny. I mean, who would have known the next Kenyan I would meet was from the same ethnic tribe I come from?” Onjiko marveled. “What are the odds I was going to meet someone like that?”
Stories of fortuitous encounters, such as Onjiko and Oyugi’s, have been happening at NOBCChE ever since its inception in 1974. According to Narh, the annual conference’s track record of facilitating connections stems from the wide swath of friendly faces, both familiar and new, who attend year after year. “It creates an atmosphere where you hang out with people who you know already,” she said, “but at the same time, it’s a safe space to get to know other people.”
Hundreds of minority chemists and chemical engineers took advantage of this collegial atmosphere at the 2015 conference, participating in events such as a career fair, professional training workshops, and technical sessions in which students presented their research (see page 42). And with a conference theme of “Bridging Generations through STEM,” or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a particular emphasis was placed this year on the interaction between young attendees and their more established counterparts.
Educational sessions provided one such opportunity for fostering a dialogue between veteran and burgeoning scientists. During a session titled “STEM’s Impact on 21st-Century Forensic Science,” for instance, representatives from academia and federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute of Standards & Technology discussed what it takes to scientifically aid criminal investigations.
“Everyone always feels like you have to have a forensics degree to go into forensics science, and that is not true,” said Candice Bridge, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida’s National Center for Forensic Science. “The thing with forensic science is it’s all about the science,” Bridge argued, noting that a basic understanding of chemistry, biology, and instrumentation goes a long way toward building the background needed to work in a crime lab.
That message resonated with Ashley Taylor, a graduate student at Louisiana State University who had planned to pursue a career in cosmetic chemistry upon graduation. The forensics session left Taylor wondering if she should consider a different career path. “It had an impact to the point where now I’m talking with DEA and NIST about their forensics programs and how I get my foot in the door,” she said.
Established scientists also had an impact on the middle and high school students who attended NOBCChE’s STEM Weekend, which included a science fair and science bowl quiz competition. The weekend’s events kicked off with remarks from Samesha Barnes, director of the University of Florida’s Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which provides financial assistance to low-income undergraduates belonging to underrepresented minority groups. Barnes spoke about her transformation from a bashful child into a Ph.D. materials scientist and how a love of STEM combined with hard work got her to where she is today. “That geeky, somewhat shy person could also very easily be any of you,” Barnes told the crowd of young attendees. “STEM opens doors. It opened doors for me, and it can open doors for you.”
Barnes’s message struck a chord with Imani Fuller, a member of Team Phoenix, a group of Atlanta middle schoolers competing in the science bowl. “The part that was inspirational to me was when she said how it’s okay to be a nerd,” Fuller said. “You don’t have to follow the path of everyone else. You can follow your own path.”
George Washington University’s Onjiko can relate to looking to more senior members of the NOBCChE community for guidance. After all, Onjiko’s mentor, a scientist at DuPont who was previously involved with the organization, was the one who initially suggested that the Kenyan graduate student attend the annual conference. And now that she’s experienced the conference firsthand, Onjiko can understand why her mentor encouraged her to attend.
“Everyone is here to cheer you on. Everyone is here to support you,” Onjiko said. “This is all about community. I love it.”
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