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#BlackinChem breaks down barriers

Campaign amplifies the voices of Black chemists and shows they are not alone

by Marisa Sloan, special to C&EN
August 25, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 33

Screengrab of a #BlackinChem Wine Down event.
Credit: Courtesy of Devin Swiner
#BlackinChem week included virtual networking events, such as this Wine Down social attended by around 70 people.

If Black chemists feel alone in chemistry, the #BlackinChem campaign on Twitter during the second week of August showed that they are anything but.

On Aug. 10–15, #BlackinChem week inspired hundreds of Black chemists to celebrate their research and participate in discipline-themed discussions ranging from favorite analytical techniques to favorite transition metals. They even got an unexpected boost from hip-hop superstar MC Hammer, who spent the week amplifying their voices.

“It’s been beautiful to see my [Twitter feed] full of so many Black faces that are doing amazing chemistry,” says Devin Swiner, a cofounder of #BlackinChem and PhD candidate at the Ohio State University.

#BlackinChem is among the latest social media campaigns to amplify the work of Black scientists and celebrate their successes. Swiner and her cofounders say they started #BlackinChem in response to recent protests against racism and police brutality against Black people. Swiner notes it’s part of a larger movement inspired by broader initiatives such as #BlackinSTEM to diversify the sciences.

Other cofounders of #BlackinChem include Ayanna Jones, a PhD student at Emory University; Ashley Walker, an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Samantha T. Mensah, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles; Kathleen Muloma Rink, a National Society of Black Physicists associate; and Natércia Rodrigues Lopes, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. The women, who are all members of groups underrepresented in the sciences, say they started this campaign because they all have felt the isolation of being in a field dominated by white men.

Swiner remembers being one of three Black chemists in her undergraduate class at the University of Pittsburgh, and the only Black woman. She says she felt “lost in the shuffle” at the predominantly white institution, particularly when it came to a support system that would advocate for her. “I didn’t even know graduate school was an option for me because I didn’t have anybody to talk to me about it,” she says.

Swiner’s undergraduate experience and that of the other cofounders were echoed by many other participants throughout the week. That’s why the #BlackinChem campaign included virtual events aimed specifically at students: an Undergrad 101 FAQ panel and an elevator speech competition where undergraduates and graduate students presented their research.

“[We wanted] to let them know that they’re not alone and to be a resource for them, because sometimes they don’t have those resources in their departments,” says Swiner. “Giving them a space to ask us the questions that I know I had when I was an undergraduate was really important.”

It’s been beautiful to see my [Twitter feed] full of so many Black faces that are doing amazing chemistry.
Devin Swiner, cofounder of #BlackinChem

Sophya Alamudun, a first-year PhD student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, won first place in the undergraduate portion of the competition for her undergraduate research on how substituents affect photobasicity. As someone just beginning her PhD journey and struggling with imposter syndrome, Alamudun says the event boosted her confidence. “It always feels good to get recognized for your hard work, especially by people in positions I aspire to be in,” she says.

Imposter syndrome was one of many topics discussed in the campaign’s closing event, a video chat joined by five panelists working in academia and industry. Travis White, an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry at Ohio University, recalled that he didn’t have a Black chemistry professor until his fourth year of undergrad. Now, as a faculty member himself, he’s the only Black chemist on the tenure track in his department.

White says that in addition to tweeting about students in his research group throughout the week, he also enjoyed the opportunity to speak frankly about his own academic journey. “Not only just being one of two Black students in the class, but also then going into the postdoctoral role and the faculty position,” he said. “You’ve heard about the leaky pipeline, and that does hold true.”

For White and many others, #BlackinChem week was a welcome reminder of the other successful Black chemists that are out there. Throughout the week, with each day highlighting a different field of chemistry, hundreds of Black chemists introduced themselves and their research on Twitter using #BlackinChem, as well as the hashtag #BlackinChemRollCall.

White says that Twitter made it particularly easy for Black chemists from around the world to connect with one another—and even with seemingly untouchable superstars like MC Hammer.

Walker, one of the cofounders of the campaign, agreed: “Seeing these big-name people, who have influenced the world in different ways, backing Black scientists is really important.” She says she couldn’t believe it when one of her #BlackinChem posts was retweeted by singer Michelle Williams on Twitter.

In addition to bringing together people from around the world, #BlackinChem week also helped chemists working at the same university feel more connected to one another. Jones said she was able to connect virtually with a graduate student at her university whom she hadn’t yet met, and the two quickly made plans to do a socially distanced lunch. “The week was a success,” Jones says. “And we still have much more to do.”

In fact, raising awareness about the successes of Black scientists is just getting started. Other initiatives to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM, such as #BlackinGenetics, #BlackinAstro, and #BlackinNeuro continue to trend on Twitter. There’s also #LatinXChem week, which took place on Aug. 18–25 to help amplify the voices of Latinx chemists.

Swiner says she hopes this increased exposure will help Black students and those from other marginalized groups in the sciences realize they are not alone and that they are a powerful force for change.


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