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Mentoring for excellence at NOBCChE

The annual meeting of black chemists and chemical engineers demonstrates the power of community

by Alexandra A. Taylor
January 5, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 1


A photo of 14 conference attendees sitting on a flight of steps.
Credit: Jennifer Korman Photography
Conference attendees pause for a moment during the 46th annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

In a room packed with chemists ranging from brand-new undergraduates to seasoned retirees, Ashley Wallace, assistant director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, took the floor to open the Winifred Burks-Houck Luncheon. “Let’s keep pushing the boundaries in STEM!” she said. “The marathon must continue.”

Minutes later, Jonathan Ashby, a chemistry professor at Mount Holyoke College and chair of the 2019 meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), counseled students: “Be brave. Talk to each other. Network.” Murrell Godfrey, director of the University of Mississippi Forensic Chemistry Program and NOBCChE’s president, followed up with, “Do not be afraid to talk to us if there’s anything we can do. We’re family.”

Thus began the 46th annual NOBCChE—pronounced “no-buh-shay”—meeting, held Nov. 18–21 in Saint Louis. The setting—a hotel in what was formerly one of the busiest train stations in the US—was appropriate: it was hard to shake the feeling that the 650 meeting attendees were all headed to exciting places.

A group photo of participants in the STEM Week discussion.
Credit: Alexandra Taylor/C&EN
Bobby Haney (clockwise from top left), Adekunle Onadipe, Zweli Hlatshwayo, Caroline Blakemore, Jada Hoyle-Gardner, Alyssa Johnson, and Anne-Marie Schmitt answered questions from high school students about how to make the transition to college.

Take Brent V. Powell of the University of Connecticut. He’d come to NOBCChE a handful of times as an undergraduate when he was hoping to get into grad school. At the meetings, he improved his communication skills, learned about fellowships, networked with people from different schools, and connected with mentors. “It helped me to meet the right people at the right time, which was really important for advancing my career,” Powell said. Two weeks after the Saint Louis meeting, he successfully defended his PhD thesis.

The week included technical and career development sessions punctuated by talks from accomplished scientists and educators willing to share what they’d learned along the way. Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at the Louisiana State University College of Science, started her Winifred Burks-Houck Professional Leadership Award speech by saying, “I’ve sat in the seats that so many of you are sitting in now.” Wilson emphasized how important her network had been in helping her confront the stress of being a black woman in academia. Now, when she walks into a room of people who may doubt her abilities, “I’m not focused on their perceptions of me,” she said. “I’m focused on what my goals are.”

The importance of a strong support system was also clear at the STEM Week panel discussion, at which grad students and professionals addressed high school students preparing for college. NOBCChE’s STEM Week caters to younger students with events like a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) festival, college fair, and Science Bowl competition. “Always tell people what you’re looking for,” Adekunle Onadipe said. He’d been able to land a job at Pfizer in part because he’d been vocal about his career goals with coworkers.

Jada Hoyle-Gardner, a PhD candidate at Florida A&M University, concurred: “It’s the people you know that will help you in the long run.”

Of course, making connections can be daunting, especially for younger students. The meeting chair, Ashby, introduced changes to improve the interaction between students and exhibitors and sponsors at this year’s conference. Student travel-grant recipients were assigned to lunch tables with sponsors, who then had the opportunity to invite them to their booths at the career fair. He believes this strategy helped mitigate some of the anxiety that students might feel about initiating these interactions themselves.

For some, interactions at the conference could profoundly affect the direction they take. Fatima Obe, a master’s candidate at Illinois State University, came away from the National GEM Consortium’s Getting Ready for Advanced Degrees (GRAD) Lab, held at the NOBCChE meeting, with a new perspective. “When I was coming here, industry was 100% on my mind, but after attending the GRAD Lab and the different advice from people I’ve met, I’ve started considering a PhD after my program,” Obe said. “NOBCChE has enabled me to connect to all different kinds of people who are willing to help you, mentor you, and make you become great in your career.”

A photo of Fatima Obe next to a poster explaining her research.
Credit: Alexandra Taylor/C&EN
Fatima Obe is considering pursuing a doctorate after attending her first NOBCChE meeting.

Abdoulaye Djire is a postdoc at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who is searching for his next position in academia or industry. He said he returns to NOBCChE every year because of the interactions and opportunities to mentor and be mentored. This year, he met a few PhD candidates from outside the US and connected them with his immigration lawyer in the hope that they’ll be able to obtain green cards and stay to continue their research. “I was also able to interact with a number of people who are in the same field as me, and there’s going to be a lot of collaboration down the road,” he said. The meeting is small enough that he can reunite with people year after year but large enough that there is always someone new to engage with.

A photo of Paula Hammond giving a talk.
Credit: Jennifer Korman Photography
Paula Hammond counseled attendees to create camaraderie and build their own moral support systems.

When Paula Hammond, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Chemical Engineering Department and winner of this year’s Percy L. Julian Award, took the stage during her award luncheon, she was full of advice for students. “Don’t take yourself out of the pool,” she stressed, encouraging students to apply to MIT and other elite institutions. Grad school will be hard wherever you end up, she continued, but the important thing is that you’re doing what you want and have a network of people who can mentor you. These could be peers or higher-ups who can give support and careful criticism of your work.

“We need to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘Girl, you can’t believe what happened with this reviewer 3,’ ” Hammond joked. “We need to hear each other’s voices.”

Going for the GOLD

At this year’s NOBCChE meeting, DuPont introduced its Growth Opportunities Leading in Diversity (GOLD) Graduate Seminar Competition, a recruitment effort aimed at preparing promising PhD candidates for jobs in industry. Of 94 applicants, 8 candidates received 2 months of coaching on how to present their research to an industry audience and interview for an industry position. At the meeting, the candidates applied what they’d learned by presenting their research in competition for a cash prize and a trophy. All the participants will have the opportunity to interview for a job with DuPont.

Alejo Lifschitz, a research investigator at DuPont, hopes the initiative will positively affect the participants’ careers, regardless of where they end up. “It’s common that people from underrepresented communities do not have the kind of mentors—the support network—that other groups may have, and I think they need that for their success,” said Lifschitz, who helped organize the competition. “What DuPont GOLD tried to do was to fill in that gap and coach them individually on how to present their work, how to maximize the impact of their work, and how to present their achievements so they resonate better with industrial recruiters.” The program was modeled after existing initiatives such as Dow’s Building Engineering and Science Talent Symposium.

First place and $1,000 went to Abdoulaye Djire, a postdoc with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for his talk, “How Nanostructured Nitrides Can Revolutionize Energy Storage and Conversion.” Second place and $500 went to Christine B. Hatter, a PhD candidate at Drexel University, for her talk, “2-D Nanomaterial Integration for Next-Generation Multifunctional Composite Systems.”

Djire says that because he comes from an academic background, being forced to consider how his research could be translated into a viable technology by 2035—a benchmark chosen by the competition organizers—was an important exercise. Though his dream is to become a professor at a top research institution, he’s open to other options, so the opportunity to interact with DuPont employees and to learn what a career in industry has to offer was valuable.

Hatter hopes to leave academia for product-driven research at a company like DuPont. She’s just embarking on her job search and says the experience has made her feel more prepared to market herself and her research to industry employers.

According to Jonathan Ashby, chair of the NOBCChE 2019 organizing committee, the competition fit seamlessly with NOBCChE’s goal of improving the interaction between students and sponsors and exhibitors. Lifschitz and coworkers chose to premier the program at NOBCChE because the organization has a strong, established infrastructure that helped them reach minority students across the US. They plan to make it a yearly event at the meeting.



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