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Diversity

Podcast: Black chemists discuss strategies for dismantling systemic racism in science

Taking cues from the #BlackInChem movement, Stereo Chemistry asks what’s working and what comes next

by Ariana Remmel
September 23, 2020

 

20200923lnp1-blackinchem.jpg
Credit: Daniel Fishel
C&EN

In August 2020, Black chemists and allies took to Twitter to celebrate the inaugural #BlackInChem week. The social media campaign highlighted the diversity and accomplishments of Black chemists at all stages of their careers and also created space for candid discussions about the discrimination these scientists face in chemistry. In the latest episode of Stereo Chemistry, host Kerri Jansen and reporter Ariana Remmel hear from Black chemists from a variety of disciplines across academia and industry about the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the chemical sciences and what non-Black allies can do to support Black chemists.

Read more:

9 Black Chemists You Should Know About

Black Chemists Speak Out about Inequity in STEM

Nurturing Black Chemists

Sign up for C&EN’s newsletter at bit.ly/chemnewsletter.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify.

The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

Ayanna Jones: I feel like combining this identity of being Black and a chemist is unique in itself. And I feel like a lot of times, unfortunately, we’re forgotten or we’re overlooked. I’m looking forward to this week kind of breaking those barriers for Black scientists. I mean, I know that we’re capable. I’m sure everyone here knows we’re capable. So it’s really for those who are the doorkeepers that are trying to keep Black chemists from kind of moving to the next level.

Kerri Jansen: That was Ayanna Jones, a second-year PhD student at Emory University and one of the cofounders of the inaugural #BlackInChem week that took place on Twitter between Aug. 10 and Aug. 15 this year. The social media campaign was organized by a group of primarily Black chemistry students from around the country and inspired hundreds of Black chemists from every walk of life to share stories about what it means to be “Black in chem.” In this episode, we’re going to talk about some of the themes that came up during the week. I’m your host, Kerri Jansen. And C&EN editorial fellow Ariana Remmel, who followed the #BlackInChem hashtag in August, is here now to kick off our conversation. Let’s start with the campaign itself. So, Ari, what can you share about this week focused on Black chemists?

Ariana Remmel: Hey, Kerri. Let me just say that following the #BlackInChem hashtag was actually a lot of fun, and it wasn’t just one hashtag. There was also #BlackChemistsWeek, plus #BlackInBiological, #BlackInAnalytical, #BlackInInorganic . . . the list goes on!

Kerri: Wow, it sounds like they really had all their bases covered.

Ariana: They really did. The organizers wanted to encourage Black scientists across chemistry and chemistry-adjacent fields to participate in the week. They even got a few high-profile nonchemists to show their support, including the actor Michael B. Jordan and the singer Michelle Williams. But the biggest surprise was the all-out support from rapper MC Hammer.

Kerri: That’s amazing.

Ariana: Yeah. And the point is that #BlackInChem week attracted a lot of attention to what makes chemistry such a cool field to study, in addition to opening up some honest—and sometimes painful—conversations about the discrimination that Black chemists face and how very little progress has been made to address these problems.

Kerri: Right—that’s an important part of this conversation. So what were some of the problems that chemists brought up over the course of the week?

Ariana: OK, so problems associated with lack of representation and ineffective recruitment and retention practices were among the most discussed topics across Twitter and the various virtual events that the organizers hosted. And none of those topics surprised Devin Swiner, a fifth-year PhD student at Ohio State University and cofounder of #BlackInChem week.

Devin Swiner: I think that everything that was discussed, we kind of expected people were going to want to talk about. I think a lot of people are always interested in talking about, you know, the lack of representation and what we can do, or, you know, how do you handle microaggressions or self-care? So I think a lot of the themes have been conversations that we’ve all been having on, like, a smaller scale. So having this platform to do it on a larger scale just kind of felt really organic.

Ariana: And I think this is a really important point. For people actively involved in work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, often abbreviated as DEI, these are not new problems. Many of the people I spoke to for this episode talked about how they’ve had these kinds of conversations over and over again within their own circles both inside and outside of chemistry. And for the organizers of #BlackInChem, Twitter provided a much larger, public platform to build a community that was invested in celebrating Black excellence.

Devin Swiner: Because I think a lot of times why certain things don’t change is because people don’t actually see that it’s a problem because they’re only focused on their own small place in the world. But seeing that all of these Black chemists are having the same problems, it’s like, “Oh, wow, maybe we all need to take a look and figure out how to change this on, like, a larger scale.” And I think that’s really eye opening for a lot of, like, companies, a lot of organizations.

Kerri: Now, we know that increased awareness of a problem is not the same thing as actual change. And with a problem this pervasive, it can be hard to know where to start.

Ariana: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. But it is not impossible to have a real impact. In fact, #BlackInChem week did a great job of highlighting some of the efforts that are actually working as far as promoting the scientific careers of Black chemists in our community. Another highly discussed topic throughout the week was the value of effective mentorship and peer support. Here’s Ayanna again.

Ayanna Jones: I think we don’t talk enough about horizontal mentorship as much as we talk about vertical mentorship. And though vertical mentorship is very important, like having someone more senior than you give you advice. But there is value in horizontal mentorship, where people that are also in your same kind of point of view can also give you different perspectives.

Ariana: So I spoke with Black chemists about how their careers were affected by mentorship and peer support, and I want to share a couple of those stories with y’all. First up is Abraham Beyene, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Abraham Beyene: OK, so my name is Abraham Beyene. My affiliation is a group leader at Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. So mostly we’re focused on developing technology to study neurobiology. But in general, the idea is to work and leverage techniques in chemistry to be able to elucidate questions in biology that might elude conventional methods of inquiry.

Ariana: Abraham came to the US from Ethiopia when he was 20 years old. He says that he’d always been a good student but never considered a career in science until he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or UMBC.

Abraham Beyene: It never really occurred to me that I can go to get a PhD and then become a scientist. So someone at UMBC effectively scouted me and said, “You might really enjoy a life of service and science.”

Ariana: Abraham got involved in two programs at UMBC designed to support underrepresented minorities in science: the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the MARC scholar program.

Abraham Beyene: Those two programs really were totally transformational in their impact on my life. So, I was working full-time really. I was a valet driver at a hotel in Baltimore. And I was, you know, hustling to be able to support myself. But then once I got pulled into these programs, I could really just leave all of these side hustles and focus on science and to, you know, engage and spend up to 20 h per week doing undergrad research to then go on to apply for a PhD.

Ariana: The combination of financial support and effective mentorship came up a lot in my interviews for this episode. In Abraham’s case, he actually describes the students and staff from the Meyerhoff program as family. He worked with a team that advised him about how to get research experience in labs, how to put together a competitive graduate school application, what it looks like to become a scientist.

Abraham Beyene: I mean, they look very apparent and very easy if you come from a family that has a very strong background in science, right? But if you are coming from a background like mine, all of these guidances were not clear to me at that point. But were really preparing me for a career in science.

Ariana: The Meyerhoff Scholars Program has actually been so successful in graduating students from underrepresented backgrounds that it is being piloted on campuses beyond UMBC. But when Abraham continued to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, he saw fewer people who looked like him.

Abraham Beyene: And it just feels very odd being alone, right? And those are really, I think, the most challenging times. And those moments where you’re the only one in a conference room full of people, like the only person out of 100. Which is why I always go back to undergrad level. You know, if you could work at the undergrad level very, very hard and maintain a very good, steady supply into the graduate school level, then you stand a chance of really tackling this problem.

Kerri: OK, so ensuring students have a sense of community, financial support, and strong career guidance at the undergraduate level can help address some of the key barriers to someone considering a career in science.

Ariana: Right. And as far as addressing the lack of representation at the graduate school level, I want to introduce y’all to another chemist, who talked to me about the community he was part of as a graduate student.

Steven Townsend: My name is Steven Townsend, and I am an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University.

Ariana: Steve uses organic chemistry to solve questions in biology. Currently, his lab is using biochemistry and glycobiology to understand the molecular makeup of human breast milk. And Steve has a habit of bringing chemistry home with him.

Steven Townsend: I’m a chemist at all hours of the day, right? So I love manipulating matter. I’m in the lab, right? I was just running reactions last week. When I come home, I compost. You know, you’ll never see any happier human being than big Steve Townsend when he sees that his compost is at 100 degrees, because he’s adding more nitrogen to get this temperature up.

Kerri: I love that. He’s got the happiest microbes on the block.

Ariana: Probably. Like many of the scientists I spoke to, Steve has always liked science. He was the kind of kid who loved to experiment with mixing liquids from around the house, much to the chagrin of his mother. So she tried to make it into a learning experience.

Steven Townsend: So my mom would see me doing that stuff. And she was like, “You’re going to be some form of a scientist. You’re going to be a chemist, because you keep mixing potions and messing up all of my stuff.” So what she wanted to do was go find some books on scientists for kids. And what she noticed was that she couldn’t find any books on scientists who weren’t white men. There was no representation. So she did the best that she could and she got me just about every book they had on Louis Pasteur.

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Kerri: Look, I love me some Pasteur, but that’s a very limited picture of the chemistry community.

Ariana: Yeah, absolutely. And yet, Steve still found his way into chemistry thanks to the help of a supportive undergraduate mentor at Oakland University in Michigan. Professor Kathleen Moore took Steve under her wing and taught him the fundamentals about being a chemist. And Kathy, like so many great mentors, knew when her student needed extra support.

Steven Townsend: And I remember one day Kathy came in and was like, “You know, Steve, I can teach you how to be a scientist. But I don’t know if I can teach you how to be a Black man and scientist because there’s going to be different things you face.” So fortunately, at the time, Amanda Bryant-Friedrich, who is now the dean of graduate studies at Wayne State, Kathy had me go into her lab to get some toxicology experience. Basically, I was the junior organic chemist for a roomful of people doing toxicology. And then that set me on the trajectory to go to graduate school and then postdoc and ultimately the faculty.

Kerri: I remember Steve talking about this when he was named one of C&EN’s Talented 12, last year. He credits those two women with getting him on the path to grad school and ultimately starting his own lab.

Ariana: And this came up again and again in my reporting. Mentors don’t have to be the same gender or ethnicity as their mentees to be supportive. But mentors do need to educate themselves on the unique challenges their mentees face, and that often means building a team of mentors who can guide students through their careers in science.

And when Steve got to graduate school, also at Vanderbilt University, where he’s now a professor, he says he found both financial support and a sense of community through industry fellowships.

Steven Townsend: At the time, industry was very big on partnering with academic institutions in order to give graduate school fellowships. Both Pfizer and Merck specifically had great programs oriented for people of color. You know, we always joked and called them the “others fellowships” when we got together to meet. But yeah, they knew what they were doing. They knew that the numbers were bad in science and that if they wanted to improve it, they had to put money behind it. And they did. So I think those programs are just fundamental to increasing diversity, because then there’s no barriers for people, right? If a student has their own support, there’s no reason that anyone should say they don’t want to train them. Because often that’s a big topic when it comes to supporting students.

Ariana: So again, we heard this from Abraham earlier in the episode when he talked about his time in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Financial support paired with strong mentorship is exactly what experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion describe as a strategy that’s working to increase representation of minority scientists in chemistry and beyond.

Recently, Steve cowrote an editorial published in ACS Central Science entitled “What Comes Next? Simple Practices to Improve Diversity in Science.” In the piece, he and his coauthors draw on current research in this area and also their own lived experience to describe effective mentorship strategies, along with steps to make industry hiring practices and educational structures in graduate programs more equitable. And now Steve’s taken that same energy and turned it back to his own trainees to help cultivate the next generation of scientists.

Steven Townsend: There’s nothing better than planting an idea, watching somebody mold and develop it, and then watch them trip to get in my office to tell me about the next positive result. I share in that joy just as much as they do. But I also share in the pain, right? So when the reaction doesn’t work, we don’t have this, like, crazy, shaming environment in the group. I need to know about bad news more than I need to know about good news so we can fix the chemistry.

Kerri: So what we’ve heard is that the combination of financial support, strong mentorship, and peer-to-peer support has helped Abraham, Steve, and likely others achieve success in their careers. Let’s take a short break before we hear about more strategies for increasing representation of Black scientists in chemistry.

Gina Vitale: Hi, folks. Gina Vitale here. I’m an assistant editor at C&EN, and I want to tell you about an exciting project that we’re putting together for early next year: C&EN’s Trailblazers program.

C&EN’s Trailblazers program celebrates the diversity that drives chemistry forward. In 2020, guest editor Jennifer Doudna chose to showcase female entrepreneurs in our first annual Trailblazers issue. The next Trailblazers issue will celebrate Black excellence in chemistry. Watch for it in February 2021.

To make sure you don’t miss it, sign up for C&EN’s newsletter using the link bit.ly/chemnewsletter. Every week, you’ll get not only the latest news but also special features and some really cool extra content, such as Periodic Graphics, which are in collaboration with Compound Interest. And Chemistry in Pictures, which features submissions from all of you. Again, that link is bit.ly/chemnewsletter. Now, back to the show.

Kerri: So Ari, we’ve now talked about how mentoring, funding, and community support promote diversity in chemistry. What are some other ways that people are trying to make chemistry more inclusive?

Ariana: Well, y’all remember how Steve’s mom brought home a pile of books on Louis Pasteur because she couldn’t find any representation of not-white-guy scientists? That’s something people are working on, too. Which brings us to our next guest.

Sibrina Collins: My name is Sibrina Collins. I am the executive director of the Marburger STEM Center on the campus of Lawrence Technological University in Michigan.

Ariana: Though she’s an inorganic chemist by training, Sibrina’s work at the Marburger STEM Center is focused around making science education more equitable and inclusive of diverse audiences. That means finding creative ways to teach technical concepts.

Sibrina Collins: I really believe that everybody on the planet should be a chemist. And I know that’s not possible. But that’s my goal. My way of trying to move the needle is, you know, helping faculty come up with creative strategies to make their classroom spaces more inclusive. And you can do that by broadening the image of a chemist in the classroom.

Ariana: Over the years, Sibrina has published a number of resources, including peer-reviewed articles about how to increase the representation of women and people of color in chemistry curriculums. And given that I’m an avid movie fan, I think this next story is one of my favorites.

Sibrina Collins: A couple years ago, we published a paper entitled “Black Panther, Vibranium, and the Periodic Table.” The idea for that came from when I went to the movies, and I can’t shut off my chemistry brain. And the whole idea of the economy for this fictional Wakanda really thrived on the production and use of this fictional element vibranium. And so I said to myself, “If this really existed, if this element existed, where would it be in the periodic table?” And we ended up publishing a paper based on student responses.

Ariana: Sibrina worked with a colleague teaching general chemistry and came up with a bonus question for her next exam, asking where students thought vibranium would fit on the periodic table and why. They got a lot of thoughtful, creative responses from students who were excited to see a blockbuster movie cross over into the classroom.

Sibrina Collins: But one of the key points that we make in the paper is that the character Shuri is a shining example of what’s possible for a young woman, a person of color, to pursue a successful career pathway in chemistry or technology or STEM.

Ariana: Sibrina has also designed science workshops for girls around the movie Hidden Figures about the Black women scientists who helped NASA get to the moon. And she’s designed lessons about how to teach electrochemistry that reference several popular—and diverse—musical artists. She is adamant that reforming curriculums to accurately represent the contributions of women and people of color is a key step to promoting DEI in science.

Kerri: That’s something we heard in our last episode as well, which was about name reactions in organic chemistry. Since the overwhelming majority of that list is made up of white men, chemists told us how they’re making an effort to highlight the important work of non–white and male scientists as well.

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Ariana: Exactly. Sibrina says that one way educators can increase representation in their classroom is by featuring women and people of color who do research in the subject area being taught. In the internet age, these scientists are not hard to find. C&EN has a story about nine historic Black chemists who made major contributions in their fields, which we’ll link online, and now the #BlackInChem movement has introduced hundreds of Black chemists on Twitter.

Kerri: And don’t forget NOBCChE, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

Ariana: Yeah, that’s a great point. NOBCChE is probably most well known for its annual conference that highlights the work of Black scientists. The organization also oversees K–12 outreach programs and professional development workshops for chemists at every level of their careers. NOBCChE came up in just about every live event during #BlackInChem week and most of my interviews. I heard many senior scientists advise students to start their own NOBCChE student chapters at their universities if one didn’t already exist. Devin, the #BlackInChem cofounder we spoke with earlier, describes the organization as a “hidden gem” for Black chemists.

Kerri: Yeah, it sounds like NOBCChE is a great resource. But a lot of what we’ve talked about here puts the burden of DEI on Black chemists themselves. And, of course, Black chemists are not responsible for the systemic racism that has historically excluded them from being recognized for their work.

Ariana: And that’s why I talked with our next guest.

Esther Odekunle: I am Dr. Esther Odekunle, and I’m affiliated with GlaxoSmithKline. My department is basically focused around discovering and developing antibodies, so we’re trying to develop them as therapeutics for different disease targets.

Ariana: Esther recently published a letter in Science entitled “Dismantling Systemic Racism in Science” where she talks about the lack of representation of Black scientists in the UK. Given that conversations about effective DEI have been happening for so long with little progress, I asked Esther what she thought was standing in the way.

Esther Odekunle: You know, when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, it is normally people from, you know, marginalized communities that are the ones that are kind of looked to to make that change. But it’s literally, you know, the people in leadership positions, it’s those people that we really need the action to come from. Because there’s only so much that we can do. We actually need the people who have the power to make change to actually make the change.

Ariana: In every conversation I had with Black chemists for this episode, the necessity of effective allyship, of people with privilege stepping up to share the burden of dismantling a broken system that discriminates against Black chemists, that came up again and again.

Esther Odekunle: Someone may not necessarily be racist. But if you are utilizing a system that does discriminate for or against a certain demographic and you’re not making any effort to change that system, then essentially you will be perpetuating systemic racism. And it’s trying to encourage people to act instead of just kind of stay on the sidelines.

Ariana: This isn’t just about addressing the personal biases of individual people. It’s about looking at the systems-level barriers that prevent Black chemists from accessing the same resources as their white counterparts.

Kerri: OK, so how do we get off the sidelines and start taking action?

Ariana: Let me start with what not to do. Because too many women and people of color have shared stories online and told me in interviews about how a well-meaning colleague came up to them out of the blue and asked intrusive questions about their lives.

Esther Odekunle: I think a number of our colleagues just, you know, read different things and say, “Oh, well, this is terrible. I’m just going to go to the first Black person I see in my department who I’ve never spoken to at all and just ask them to tell me about all the, you know, racist things that have happened to them, and then we can start the discussion from there.” Well, if you actually stepped back, you would realize that actually, what we’re really requiring is to have the same rights as any other human and be treated like a human being. And in order to do that, we need to be able to relate to you as a human being. And you can’t just expect us to speak about our trauma in order for you to feel better about yourself.

Kerri: So the need here is to take action without putting additional demands on our Black colleagues. What are some productive ways to start doing that?

Ariana: We do the work to educate ourselves on the problems. We listen and believe our Black colleagues when they call out discriminatory practices. And we genuinely apologize when we mess up without getting defensive. And there are tons of resources out there about educating yourself on a personal and organizational level around systemic racism and effective allyship from experts who have spent their whole careers researching what works in DEI. I mean, look, we’re all scientifically minded people, right?

Kerri: Right.

Ariana: So we know how to learn from the literature and seek out expert guidance. We know how to do research and develop working knowledge in new fields. I want to challenge Stereo Chemistry listeners—specifically the allies in our audience—to take the same approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And while much of this work has been done by psychologists, sociologists, and other experts traditionally associated with the humanities, even chemists within our own community, like Esther, Steve, and Sibrina from this episode, have published well-researched articles on everything from inclusive hiring practices, mentorship, education strategies—way more than we can cover in a single episode of Stereo Chemistry.

Kerri: So these Black scientists have had to become educated on diversity, equity, and inclusion so that they can advocate for themselves in primarily white spaces, which is above and beyond their responsibilities as chemists.

Ariana: Right—essentially they’ve been acting as unpaid consultants. And while some people may say that we need to stick to chemistry—keep social issues out of the lab—that is also the point. Because how can we expect Black chemists to focus on the molecules when they are experiencing discrimination at the bench? It’s beyond time for the rest of us to pick up the torch. They’ve already suggested a myriad of actionable items for change. And these chemists are tired.

Esther Odekunle: I have found that when I have tried to raise actionable items in whichever departments that I’m in, nothing’s really happened. This kind of leads to an instance where people, myself included, have just felt that maybe it’s time for me to step back. And maybe there isn’t actually going to be any real change.

Ariana: And it is exactly this kind of sentiment that has led people like Esther and the #BlackInChem organizers to move to spaces like Twitter. Social media provides a platform where Black chemists can feel seen and heard and appreciated.

As a result, #BlackInChem week was about the joy of being a chemist and the discoveries we make both in and out of lab. It was about building community and celebrating Black excellence. Everyone you heard today is hopeful that change is coming as long as people continue to do the work. So I want to leave you with this message from Steve, directed towards young chemists of all backgrounds entering the field.

Steven Townsend: They’re going to be the future leaders. Any change that they want to see happen, it could happen now; it could happen in the future. And they just have to get to work doing it. Don’t be demoralized; don’t feel downtrodden. Because we can all change the system to look like something that is really functional for all of us.

Kerri: This episode of Stereo Chemistry was written and produced by Ariana Remmel. The episode was edited by me, Linda Wang, and Amanda Yarnell. Sabrina Ashwell was the copyeditor for this episode. The music in this episode was “In Awe” by Evolv and “Plain Loafer” by Kevin MacLeod.

Stereo Chemistry will be back next month with a new episode. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society.

Ariana: Thanks for listening, y’all.

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