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Chemists #ShutDownSTEM to reflect on diversity in science

Researchers and scientific societies are taking off June 10 to address racism and representation

by Jyllian Kemsley
June 9, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 23


Image showing people and scientific objects promoting #shutdownstem on June 10, 2020.
Scientists have organized a strike for June 10 to step back from their usual work and focus on addressing racism and diversity.

As people continue to march in the streets in the US and elsewhere this week to protest racism and police brutality against Black people, scientists are also organizing to address inequities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and academia.

Under the banners of #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM, these scientists call for non-Black scientists around the world to step back from their usual work to educate themselves and develop concrete actions to promote change. “Wednesday June 10, 2020 will mark the day that we transition into a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM,” the organizers say. “Your plan should include an actionable goal, steps you will take to reach your goal, and metrics/indicators you will look for to know whether you are successfully moving towards your goal.”

For some chemists contacted by C&EN, such action is an extension of work they’re already doing. “As a Black person, I have yet to find a way to avoid racial issues in science, so my group lives it through me in many ways,” University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Hosea Nelson says. “Given that the current pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black people, we feel that continuing our current coronavirus work is in perfect accord with the Black Lives Matter cause.”

At Vanderbilt University, chemistry professor Steven D. Townsend’s students concluded that instead of stopping work for a day, “the best way to change the system is to work hard and position themselves to be leaders in chemistry so that they can enact change,” he says. Outside of academia, his group has delivered meals to people experiencing homelessness and is gathering items to support an anti-poverty center in Nashville, he says.

If we don’t take action, the scientific community will be deprived of the latent scientific contributions of talented potential scientists.
Markita del Carpio Landry, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Other chemists are taking June 10 to focus on ways they can better address racism. University of Michigan chemistry professor Alison Narayan says she plans to spend the day “reading and listening.” Part of the day will include a lab group discussion of readings on how to become an ally to the Black community.

Marie Heffern, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Davis, is also working with her lab group to observe the strike. “Instead of group meeting, we are going to have a discussion about ways that our lab can make changes to improve inclusivity and encourage success in diverse groups,” as well as ways that their department can improve diversity in graduate student recruiting and retention. She adds that it is important for faculty “to not just say they are open to conversation, but to realize that they must be the conversation starters.”

Likewise, Markita del Carpio Landry, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has had her lab members postpone previously scheduled activities and will be holding a group meeting focused on Black Lives Matter. Her group also holds a student-run workshop on diversity, equity, and inclusion at its annual retreats. “We find that keeping an open and honest line of communication prioritizing respect, listening, and acceptance and holding each other accountable for upholding these standards helps ensure everyone feels welcome regardless of the path they’ve taken before getting to our lab,” she says.

Landry’s department also held a town hall earlier this week for graduate students and is devoting its weekly faculty meeting to discuss how it can better promote diversity. “If we don’t take action, the scientific community will be deprived of the latent scientific contributions of talented potential scientists,” Landry says.

Other chemistry departments, including those at Brown University, Harvard University, and UCLA, are holding town hall meetings on diversity issues this week.

“When I leave the boundaries of UCLA, I’m still a Black man in America,” UCLA chemistry graduate student Ani Mustafa says. At UCLA’s discussion on Monday, he shared that a person in his neighborhood, 5 minutes away from campus, brandished a rifle at him when businesses were being boarded up in anticipation of looting following recent protests.

He would like to see UCLA and other schools tackle racism and diversity with the same attention and resources as they did COVID-19. “We need to take actionable measures to limit and prevent it as much as we can,” he says, referring to racism and inequality.

He hopes such action will come out of #ShutDownSTEM, although he worries people will feel obligated to participate given recent events in the country and not really engage. “Once the protests are over, the reality of being Black in America will not go away, the reality of being a Black STEM student will not go away, unless we’re met with action items that are measurable,” Mustafa says.

In particular, he and another graduate student, Sophia King, say that they’d like to see UCLA and other chemistry departments put more resources into recruiting and retaining students of color. “I’ve had prospective students ask me what it’s like being a Black student in my department,” King says. “I had to say that it’s isolating. You’re just alone.”

On June 11, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities released a report outlining steps that higher education leaders and researchers should take to recruit and retain faculty from underrepresented minority groups. The report has an accompanying guidebook for institutions to assess their work in this area.

C&EN is supporting #ShutDownSTEM by limiting social media and story posts to those relating to diversity, postponing our Wednesday newsletter to Thursday, and rescheduling webinars. Newsroom staff will brainstorm how to increase awareness around diversity, inclusion, and respect internally and through our journalism. “We need to rise to the challenge, use our voices, and commit to actions that bring about long-lasting change to the chemistry enterprise and the scientific community,” C&EN editor-in-chief Bibiana Campos-Seijo says.

The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, says in a statement that “In support of the June 10th #ShutDownAcademia & #ShutDownSTEM, ACS strongly encourages its members and website visitors to identify meaningful ways we can make positive change happen to eradicate racism in our workplaces and in society.”

With reporting by Lisa M. Jarvis


This story was updated on June 11, 2020, to correct Markita del Carpio Landry's affiliation. She's a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, not a professor of chemical and biological engineering.

This story was updated on June 11, 2020, to mention the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' report and guidebook.


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