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Education

Nurturing Black chemists

Young Black scientists thrive in the supportive environment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But predominantly white schools don’t have the same success, in part because of barriers erected by introductory chemistry courses. No matter their path, though, 6 Black chemists talk about their hopes for the future

September 4, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 34

 

The killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests have brought about a time of intense reflection for many people in the United States, including the chemistry community.

The percentage of Black chemists falls far below their representation in the United States at every level, starting with undergraduates. In the professoriat it’s dismally low, despite decades of programs aimed to recruit and retain more Black scientists.

In this three-part package, we look at these issues from various angles.

In the first part, we look at a bright spot in the training of Black chemists: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). While less than 10% of Black college students go to HBCUs, these institutions graduate almost 30% of Black chemistry bachelor’s degree recipients, as well as 32% of the Black students who go on to get PhDs. They do that through a combination of intense student supports, diverse faculty, and a push toward science careers, according to chemistry faculty and former students.

HBCUs face intense challenges, though, including inadequate resources and overworked faculty. The Black Lives Matter movement might be a chance for scientists and the larger community to better collaborate with faculty and students at these vital institutions.

In the second part, we look at how foundation-level chemistry courses at predominately white institutions contribute to the diversity challenges that chemistry faces. The design and teaching of these undergraduate courses—such as general chemistry—have turned them into gatekeepers that block students who have the potential to succeed. Some professors are trying to change the narrative from one of gatekeepers to one of gateways, but there’s still much work to be done.

Being Black in chemistry is a lonely experience for many, and it doesn’t get better after earning a PhD. In the final part of this package, six Black chemists share their experiences and their hopes for a more equitable future in the sciences.

Natalie Arnett, a chemist at a joint Florida A&M University–Florida State University engineering program, hopes recent interest in the Black Lives Matter movement has opened people’s minds to the hard conversations chemists need to have about race. “Everybody is more aware and really more open to hearing what needs to be said,” Arnett says.

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