The first morning of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference—which was held entirely online this fall because of COVID-19—organizer Ashley Wallace felt unsure of how the programming would be received. Her committee had been planning the online format since May. Would attendees engage and mingle despite being miles apart, or would the committee’s attempts to foster community online fall flat?
The coffee break that morning, organized in a speed-dating-style structure, answered Wallace’s question: people were enjoying their conversations so much, they didn’t want them to end. “We’re doing something good, and people are receptive of what we’ve put together,” said Wallace, an assistant director of education and outreach at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was very excited from that point on. I was just like, ‘Yes! Nothing can go wrong. Everything’s good.’ ”
NOBCChE—pronounced “no-buh-shay”—is traditionally a weeklong, in-person event. This year, conference cochairs Wallace and Brian M. Mosby, a chemistry professor at Rollins College, worked to distill the highlights into 2 days. The meeting, which took place Sept. 24–25, retained popular sessions such as the master scientist lectures, exposition, networking events, and technical sessions, albeit in a virtual format. The shift seems to have paid off: attendance was up this year, from about 650 in 2019 to about 800 in 2020.
“When we set registration prices [$50 for members and $100 for nonmembers], we didn’t want it to be this high registration cost that excluded people from attending,” Wallace said. “We wanted to make sure that it was reasonable and took into account that people might be financially burdened with COVID and everything.” Plus, each video session was archived online, so attendees who might have missed watching live could catch up later. Mount Holyoke College chemistry professor Jonathan Ashby said that as an academic, he appreciated not having to take time away during the school year to attend the conference in person.
The expo, which included 80 exhibitors, compared with 60 in 2019, was a highlight for Northeastern University undergraduate Fatemah Mukadum, who spoke with representatives from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Bristol Myers Squibb. Mukadum is planning to earn a PhD in computational chemistry and then enter industry. “I’ve added everyone on LinkedIn. I got a lot of emails, and I’m really excited to move forward after this with the connections I’ve made,” she said, adding that the virtual format made it easier to remember whom she spoke with and collect their contact information.
For Isaiah Ray Speight, a PhD candidate in synthetic organic and organometallic chemistry at Vanderbilt University and NOBCChE’s national student representative, the online networking sessions presented new opportunities. “Normally, I have to be in one place at one time. I can’t hop around from here to there,” he said. This year, “it’s been much easier to get involved with a lot of new faces. It’s been more organic to make new connections, which I think has been really fun.”
NOBCChE’s technical sessions were limited to student posters this year; the number of poster submissions was lower than in previous years. Organizer Viridiana Herrera, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, attributed the lower turnout to pandemic-related school and lab closures earlier this year, coupled with the heightened stress and uncertainty of the moment. But, she said, the quality of the interactions between poster judges and the students who did submit was enhanced, in part because the virtual breakout-room format encouraged more intimate discussions. Volunteer judges tuned in from all over the US and overseas. And the poster display included a comment feature, so attendees could ask questions and discuss science at a level of detail not always possible in a crowded conference venue.
Regular attendees often describe NOBCChE as a family reunion, and despite all the benefits of holding the conference online this year, they agreed that there is no replacement for the in-person event. Trishelle Copeland-Johnson, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering at Iowa State University and NOBCChE communications cochair, missed the dance party that traditionally happens the last night of the conference. “We’d have the formal dinner, and we’d have the awards alongside that, and then we’d have the dance party, where everyone just got to be able to enjoy themselves,” she explained. “That was a lot of fun.”
“I missed all the hugs that I normally would give to all of my friends and family,” said Renã Robinson, a professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University and NOBCChE president-elect. “I miss the opportunities to connect with our student members and our professionals.”
In delivering the Winifred Burks-Houck Lecture, National Institute of Standards and Technology research chemist Christina Jones recalled how a past conference strengthened her resolve to pursue her goals. “I remember leaving a conference as an undergrad: the conference was just so inspirational. I left feeling like I could conquer the world and do anything I set my mind to.” A similar sentiment was repeated by attendees who are energized by seeing so many successful Black chemists come together to create a welcoming environment. Student representative Speight recalled attending his first NOBCChE meeting and striking up a casual conversation with Emanuel Waddell, not realizing until later that Waddell was the organization’s president. “He was just like, you’re a Black chemist. I’m a Black chemist. Let’s be Black chemists together,” Speight said of his meeting with Waddell, who is now a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It was such a genuine moment.”
In a year of great tumult, with COVID-19 and police violence having thrust racial disparities into the spotlight, genuine moments were exactly what attendees were craving. Wallace said the organizing committee saw that members were struggling with the intersectionality of being Black in the US and Black in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The result was “Conversations with NOBCChE Leadership,” a panel discussion in which attendees could voice their concerns in a supportive environment.
The event occurred the day after the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case. “I just want to start off this panel and this conversation by saying rest in peace, Breonna Taylor. I hope that seeing the events and seeing how society views us as Black people really shows how important NOBCChE as a conference is,” said panelist Kevin Ileka, a research investigator at Bristol Myers Squibb. “We always need a space where we can be amongst ourselves and do what we love. We’re all here because we’re scientists. We’re all here because we love science, and we shouldn’t have that taken away from us.”
Panelist and University of Mississippi PhD candidate Briana Simms added, “Last night after receiving the news, my first thought was, ‘Dang, I wish the NOBCChE conference was in person.’ Because I don’t think that there was a way for us to stop the disappointment or stop the hurt. But to have the sense of the NOBCChE family with me, that sense of community, I think would have made such a big difference for me in this particular space.”
Panelists counseled audience members who work in majority-white departments not to feel obligated to be the voice of the Black community or to always step up to tackle diversity and inclusion. They encouraged attendees to use their voices in contexts of their choosing and not to feel as if they have to wait—for their PhD, for tenure, and so on—to stand up for what they believe in. “If you want a balanced life, where you’re active in more than one sphere, you have to lay the groundwork for that when you’re young and you’re developing your skills,” said panelist Sharon Neal, an analytical chemistry professor at the University of Delaware.
The panel also discussed the importance of overcoming isolation and thinking creatively to build community. For example, the recent social media initiative #BlackinChem gave Black chemists the opportunity to connect while sharing their science. “I think it’s just important that we see each other and we recognize each other,” president-elect Robinson said. The initiative also helped increase recognition from the larger scientific community. “We’re doing just as well in terms of our science,” she said. “Don’t think that we don’t know what to do when we get in the lab in front of these fume hoods.”
Despite the physical distance, the community that NOBCChE has been building for nearly 5 decades lives on. “I think that this is really my community; this is the place where I can be a scientist and be an intellectual person. But also I can, you know, listen to Dr. Robinson rap about Cardi B at the award show and things like that,” Simms said during the panel discussion. “NOBCChE really allows me to be my true self and to bridge my intersectionality as a Black chemist. So I really appreciate that about this conference.”
This story was updated on Nov. 2, 2020. Fatemah Mukadum attends Northeastern University, not Northwestern University.