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Turning isolation into inclusion

Black chemists share their stories and advocate for more inclusivity in STEM

by Bintou Doumbia, Joelle A. Labastide, Keon Reid, Devin Swiner, Ashley M. Taylor, and Travis White
September 4, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 34


Always the odd one out

Devin Swiner, graduate student in chemistry, the Ohio State University, and cofounder of #BlackinChem

I will never forget how disoriented I felt the moment I met my graduate school cohort. I remember searching the room for just one face that looked like mine, but I did not find a single one. Unfortunately, as a Black chemist, this was my norm.

I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a historically affluent Black area, and was used to being around people who looked like me and were also in STEM. But here in Columbus, Ohio, Black people in STEM are few and far between. What is even more upsetting is that many Black students in chemistry share these experiences. A lot of us go to departments with a small percentage of Black students, zero Black tenure-track faculty members, and no structure to help us progress through our programs. In addition, these same departments will tokenize us, making us the face of all Black students. The journey from novice to expert becomes an afterthought as the pressures of knowing that what we do now can affect future Black students is always present in our minds.

Now is the time for a shift in responsibility from the students to the administrators. It is time for Black students to not be weighed down by the departmental expectations of being “the face.” It is time for Black students to boldly advocate for ourselves because we belong, and our contributions are valuable. I am hopeful that this is the time for Black students to exist in these spaces and not have to be the odd one out.

Rising to lead

Keon Reid, CEO, Keon Reid Consulting

Photo of Keon Reid.
Credit: Phillip Grant/PWG Lens
Keon Reid

I stood there, back firmly pressed on the wall, with my eyes scanning the room. To my surprise, I was the only Black man in a room of graduate students and professors preparing to listen to a distinguished chemistry professor speak on his research. It was at that moment I realized I was an anomaly in my graduate program. I realized that my race was seldom represented at the height of scholastic endeavors or in science.

I knew that despite the challenges I faced in graduate school, I had a responsibility to pursue my educational journey. After earning my master’s degree, I taught freshman chemistry, then worked at a chemical company. My most recent career change came when I moved from chemistry to business, where I now work as a proposal manager at a financial technology company. While working in my new role, I have also witnessed a lack of diversity. The consistent lack of representation drove me to start Keon Reid Consulting, a consulting firm specializing in professional writing services that supports businesses and professionals with proposals, grants, résumés, interview preparation, and business registrations.

My chemistry background has taught me a great deal about critical thinking, effective communication, and resiliency in the face of challenges. Over the past few years, I have had to work harder, be more disciplined, and jump to opportunities that presented themselves. This journey has brought about great lessons and has given me greater insight on how to channel my strengths and help others. By coupling both my scientific and business acumen, I aim to increase minority representation in both spaces and to make a meaningful impact in my world today.

Trading in my white coat

Bintou Doumbia, physician assistant student, Butler University

Photo of Bintou Doumbia.
Credit: Coutesy of Bintou Doumbia
Bintou Doumbia

After I realized how much I enjoyed learning chemistry in high school, I took a chemistry course every semester until I graduated. However, everything changed my first semester of college. I remember walking into my advanced general chemistry class full of excitement and anxiety. Like my classmates, I had tested into a 6-credit-hour chemistry course. During lab, I was placed in a group with two white men where we learned the principles of spectrophotometry. Every time I would try to participate, I was shut down by one of my group members while the other remained silent. The one who shut me down, his father was a chemist, so he was exposed to a lot of the equipment while growing up. My father was a truck driver who did his best to provide for his family.

I left lab defeated and immediately contacted one of the few Black advisers on campus about changing my major. The session was filled with a lot of tears and doubt. The Black woman who sat across from me lifted my chin and said she would support whatever decision I made. I continued to pursue my chemistry degree and added a creative writing minor; I was on a mission to prove to everyone that I belonged. When junior year came, I had to decide: Was I going to continue to academically assimilate into a culture that appropriates? Who was I trying to prove wrong, and how did this serve my community?

When I assimilated and continued to pursue my chemistry degree, I compromised myself. I was no longer pursuing my passion; rather, I was trying to be validated in a white space. I had committed an act of social suicide. I decided to trade in my white coat because #BlackLivesMatter in the streets, in schools, in academia, in government, and in health care. I traded in my white coat to fight against health disparities in the Black community. I traded in my white coat to pursue my passion of combating systematic racism.

Formulating inclusivity

Ashley M. Taylor, formulation chemist, Johnson & Johnson

Photo of Ashley M. Taylor.
Credit: Courtesy of Ashley M. Taylor
Ashley M. Taylor

As the only Black woman in R&D for our antiaging beauty company, it is hard having to develop complex technologies for races other than my own. I am trying to solve the antiaging issues of Asian and Caucasian women, which is nice, but what about my people? I am interested in educating the Black community about antiaging because this is something that is lacking in our education when it comes to skin health. Formulating to defy wrinkles and crow’s feet is a challenge, but the challenge my people face revolves around hyperpigmentation as we age. My company has a whole portfolio addressing these needs but has not profited from this because it is easier to see the results from our technology on lighter skin . . . so I’ve been told.

We need to step up to the challenge. We need to be inclusive in our clinical data and show that our technologies can also be applied to skin that looks like mine. We can easily use market insights to determine how to be a presence in this space and even become revolutionary, because corporations have not taken our communities into consideration in this specific space.

I entered this industry to make sure I could be a voice from the technical side and bridge the gap to the consumer. I want to be able to educate my people on the basic science of our skin so that we can promote our health. Instead of relying only on the products or information that has been passed down from our families, we should also have access to innovative new products that address our specific skin-care needs. Companies need to be inclusive when it comes to marketing ideation, clinical studies, formulation, and packaging, and they need to be present on the shelves for Black communities.

Embracing my identity

Joelle A. Labastide, American Association for the Advancement of Science, science and technology policy fellow

Photo of Joelle Labastide.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Joelle Labastide

On the eve of my first national conference presentation as a postdoc, I was pointedly reminded of my outsider status. My mentees (an undergraduate and a graduate student) and I coordinated our outfits, gathered our bravery, and spent the morning navigating white-male-dominated spaces. At lunchtime, our adviser asked us if we could stop by my hotel so I could practice my talk. She asked me to change out of my dress and wear jeans with my blazer instead. Taken aback, I did as she asked. She smiled and said, “That’s better. You look very professional. Now you look like me!” I glanced apologetically at my mentees as they worried over their own outfits. She didn’t ask them to change; apparently they looked enough like her already, as young white women.

My adviser later said there were “acceptable ways” to be different. You’re allowed to be quirky but not ultrafeminine, a point driven home when my university press office rejected the picture I submitted for my grant-award announcement, citing that I didn’t look like a scientist, but rather someone pretending to be a scientist. Chagrined, I protested, “I’m a scientist! How can I not look like one?” Meanwhile, my adviser had posted my photo in a STEM social media group for review. The comments ranged in acidity from “this is vulgar” to “yikes! Someone educate her!” I noticed many members wore similar makeup to mine, so it was my face these white women had found inappropriate.

I endured many such indignities to satisfy the academic identity police. I laughed at demeaning jokes I hated. My white colleagues lobbed tactless criticisms with impunity while my careful attempts to be constructive were met with hostility. My ideas were disembodied and given away.

“Change your clothes;” “change your affect;” “change your expectations of respect.” Despite my achievements, the academy couldn’t accept me unless I agreed to be remade in its image. But curating a palatable identity is a more taxing project than the most difficult science I’ve encountered, given my aptitude for scientific thinking and not for masterpiece theater. I realized my career calculations were based on whether I could maintain the illusion of conformity rather than whether I loved and excelled at my science.

Science requires ingenuity; ingenuity requires creativity; creativity requires diversity; and conformity is antithetical to all of it. If it’s not good for science and not good for scientists, what is it good for? Stop trying to separate the ideas and the ideators, because they’re inextricable. If you do, both will suffer as a result.

Finding mentorship and belonging

Travis White, assistant professor of chemistry, Ohio University

Photo of Travis White.
Credit: Coutesy of Travis White
Travis White

While attending our annual College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty awards ceremony last fall, I scanned the ballroom and immediately noticed something: with over 100 people there, I was one of two, maybe three, Black faculty members. At our de facto chemistry table, I was the only one. Unfortunately, this situation felt all too familiar and left me wondering, “Do I belong here?”

It wasn’t until my fourth year as an undergraduate that I encountered my first Black chemistry professor. Sitting in Professor Wade Sisk’s physical chemistry course at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I noticed the lack of diversity, a recurring theme for most of my chemistry courses. Yet this situation was different—leading the class was someone who looked like me. Someone whose hair was probably touched without their permission. Someone who probably had to ignore what American society expected of Black men. Now that I’m leading the class, I sometimes wonder whether he experienced imposter syndrome or a feeling of isolation just because his skin color was different.

Fortunately, I’ve had a strong support system throughout my journey toward this tenure-track position. My graduate adviser at Virginia Tech, the late Professor Karen J. Brewer, was a strong advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in chemistry. The same can be said for my postdoctoral adviser, Professor Claudia Turro of the Ohio State University, who also introduced me to the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). As a postdoctoral researcher at Sweden’s Uppsala University, the international community I encountered in Professor Sascha Ott’s group welcomed me with open arms. Most importantly, my wife and best friend, Professor Jessica K. White, has been my unwavering ally throughout everything we’ve encountered together.

So as I sat at the faculty awards ceremony, I knew that while I may look different from most everyone there, I do belong. I’m not here by accident. Instead, I’m here because of my intellect, my abilities, and people who believe in me. Hopefully the ballroom’s occupants share my opinion and see me for more than a quota to fill.


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