University of New Orleans chemistry graduate student Treva Brown sat laughing on a couch surrounded by friends at the annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) last month. She first attended the conference as an undergraduate and has returned several times because of the connections she’s made at the meeting and how they’ve helped her achieve her goals.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s my card,’ and you never hear from them again,” Brown said. “They actually keep you engaged and make sure you’re setting yourself on a path for success.”
As she and her friends chatted, an organizer stopped by to whisper, “Four minutes.” Brown excused herself—“I have to go be an adult now”—to go receive the Winifred Burks-Houck Graduate Leadership Award.
Two days later, Brown defended her doctoral thesis, and she is scheduled to receive her Ph.D. this month. After graduating, she will begin a staff position as a materials scientist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. She’s noticed how students look up to her and other successful chemistry graduates. “We have to continue to empower the younger generation, and NOBCChE definitely makes sure that we do that—that we are placed in a role where we continue to empower and inspire them,” Brown said.
Given where Brown is in her career, at the NOBCChE meeting she was most interested in the sessions run by COACh, a professional development program for women scientists and engineers. But NOBCChE—pronounced no-buh-shay—has something for everyone, including student development workshops on résumé writing, financial literacy, and professional dress; a variety of technical programming; and the K–12 STEM Week featuring a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) festival, a college fair, and the competitive Science Bowl.
From Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, the conference’s 750 attendees converged on downtown Minneapolis. An additional 500 students participated in STEM Week, including the 100 competitors for the Science Bowl. With flurries in the air, the interconnecting bridges of the skyway system meant that participants could eat, sleep, and attend the conference without venturing outdoors, if desired.
In his opening remarks at the Winifred Burks-Houck Luncheon, NOBCChE President Emanuel Waddell reminisced about a trying time early in his career. “As I was struggling to figure out which direction to go, my wife sent me to NOBCChE,” he said. The rest is history.
Who knows how many future NOBCChE leaders were in the crowd this year? This was University of Wisconsin, Madison, junior Riley Whitehead’s first national conference. “It’s been amazing,” she told C&EN. “I haven’t really seen so many science-minded people who all come from similar backgrounds in one place.”
Whitehead said she found the Career and Academic Expo the most helpful. “I’ve already made some good contacts, and I know where to apply and how to make myself a more competitive candidate.” She’s looking for an internship in process engineering but is keeping her options open. “I just wish I had started coming to these conferences earlier,” she said.
Whitehead served on a college panel attended by students from Rockdale Magnet School for Science & Technology, who had come from Conyers, Ga., to participate in the Science Bowl and the student poster competition and to learn what they have to look forward to as undergraduates. High school senior and aspiring chemistry major Brianna Pinckney found the chance to speak with several college students one-on-one about their experiences the most helpful part of the conference.
NOBCChE also offers students a taste of what it’s like to be a working scientist. Pinckney’s teammate Daniel Luu, a high school sophomore, was excited to share his research. “I haven’t had much experience presenting my projects yet, so it’s a great opportunity for me to see how well I do and what I can improve on in my presenting skills.”
NOBCChE Board Chair Malinda Wilson Gilmore can relate to the experiences of the meeting’s youngest attendees. She first visited the conference as a toddler, accompanying her father, Bobby L. Wilson, a professor of chemistry and environmental toxicology at Texas Southern University. At that time, it was a meeting of about 25 people. Over the ensuing years, she’s watched the meeting grow and shared in the unique encounters and opportunities that many students find at NOBCChE.
“I started recruiting her to [UC] Davis when she was in grade school,” recalled William Jackson, one of NOBCChE’s seven founding members. Jackson is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, where Gilmore eventually earned her Ph.D.
“In the talks I give here, I’m trying to communicate science to a much broader audience,” compared with some specialized scientific meetings, Jackson told C&EN, “and in principle to show students and postdocs that an African American can be on the forefront of science, and they can do it too.”
Another African American on the forefront of science, 3M scientist Olester Benson Jr., was honored with this year’s Percy L. Julian Award. During Benson’s lecture at the award luncheon, he recounted his journey from a young boy strugging for direction who spent years in the military and eventually became the first black chemist to graduate with a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Since then, he has pioneered practical technology, such as computer privacy screens, and has been inducted into 3M’s illustrious Carlton Society. He accepted his award at the awards banquet on Thursday.
Later that evening, immediate past-president Talitha Hampton-Mayo took the stage to accept a 2017 NOBCChE Presidential Award from President Waddell, who also happens to have been her Ph.D. adviser. He had encouraged her to attend an annual meeting while she was struggling with electroosmotic flow work in grad school; she later became the youngest president in the organization’s history.
Hampton-Mayo told the story of a grave illness that had necessitated surgery—“This time last year, I almost lost my life”—and how the support she had received from her fellow NOBCChE members had helped her pull through. She motioned to Jackson in the front row. “You see Bill Jackson here every year for 45 years. He started this organization,” she said. “Thankfully, I have more years to go, and I’ll be able to say I’ve been coming to NOBCChE for 45 years.”
The date and location of the next NOBCChE meeting will be announced in January.
“We are NOBCChE: Community, Leadership, Partnerships” was the theme in Minneapolis this year, and one partnership stood out in particular: NOBCChE signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Chemical Society at the fall 2016 ACS meeting in Philadelphia, and representatives from both organizations are now looking for ways that the two organizations can put the partnership into action.
One idea is to create joint chapters at colleges and universities where both ACS and NOBCChE have a presence, so that students would be able to join both organizations but pay one set of dues. This idea has been working well at Alabama A&M University, where NOBCChE Board Chair Malinda Wilson Gilmore is a professor of chemistry. Gilmore and colleagues changed the name of the ACS student chapter to the Chemistry Club and added student membership to NOBCChE as a benefit. “The specific objectives, the public service, the K–12 STEM initiatives that we may do, all of those are in line with the missions, goals, and objectives of both organizations,” Gilmore said.
Elsewhere, a partnership between NOBCChE and the Virginia ACS Section Minority Affairs Committee took home the first-ever Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) Partners for Progress & Prosperity Award in 2016 for its joint efforts toward increasing the professionalism of chemistry students.
The memorandum of understanding was signed during Talitha Hampton-Mayo’s tenure as NOBCChE president. “This really builds on the work of Winifred Burks-Houck back in ’94—our first female president,” Hampton-Mayo said. “She was really passionate about improving the connectivity between the two organizations.” ACS Chief Executive Officer Thomas Connelly opened the awards banquet by detailing the ways in which NOBCChE’s mission aligns with ACS’s core values of diversity and inclusion. ACS publishes C&EN.
Although NOBCChE founding member William Jackson believes that NOBCChE—a small organization with about 2,500 members—will need to be careful to maintain its unique identity within the partnership, he sees ACS’s industry connections as critical for increasing diversity in the STEM fields. “I can imagine a future where local industries are working with NOBCChE and ACS to increase underrepresented minority students in science,” Jackson said. “We need to grow more homegrown chemists here in the United States, and I want to see ACS and NOBCChE do it.”