Last August, the inaugural #BlackinChem event started as a national movement that ended up connecting hundreds of Black chemists around the world. The reception went beyond the organizers’ dreams, bringing together a community to learn about, celebrate, and amplify each other’s accomplishments, as well as the unique challenges they face in navigating the field.
It was one of a number of Black in X social media campaigns that began in 2020 following the Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality perpetuated against the Black community. Since that time, the number of virtual events has exploded.
We got in touch with two of the event’s organizers, Dr. Devin Swiner and Ph.D. candidate Zemen Sarah Berhe, to learn more about the movement, their experiences around it, and what they have in store for this year’s #BlackinChem week.
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Devin: I am a senior scientist at Merck. I am an analytical chemist by training but now work on method development for drug products to support all parts of the pipeline from pre-clinical to clinical trials, all the way to through market process.
I got my Ph.D. at Ohio State, I just graduated spring 2021. There, I did mass spectrometry — small molecule analysis for clinical diagnostics. I got my undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. I have always been interested in chemistry. High school is where that hit for me. By the time 11th grade came around, everyone knew I was going to undergrad to get a chemistry degree and now I work in pharma.
Zemen: I was raised in Stuttgart, Germany and received my Bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Stuttgart with a focus on technical chemistry. I am now a photochemist by training and a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. I’m studying the phototoxicity of porphyrins in professor Dr. Emmanuel Ojadi’s research group.
I am the first Black chair of the Northeastern Section Younger Chemists Committee (NSYCC) of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Younger Chemists Committee in Boston and prior was the NSYCC career chair. I am so excited to be part of this year’s organization team for our #BlackinChem week this August.
What is the #BlackinChem movement? How did this all get started?
Devin: Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd and several other police brutality events against Black people, a lot of people on Black Science Twitter started trying to find ways to highlight Black people who were doing something positive. A lot of Black in X meets took place [that summer], which started with Black in STEM by Dr. Stephani Page, and then there was just this huge influx of Black in X weeks: Black in astro, neuro, cancer, etc.
I saw all of these things happening and just tweeted it, “Hey, I’d love to do one for chemistry. Who wants to help?” Then I found the other co-founders and we started planning the inaugural Black chemists’ week, which took place last August.
I think each of the co-founders has a different motivation [for starting this event], but for me, the driving force was just visibility. Finding a way to increase everyone’s visibility and us getting a chance to meet each other, network, and talk about the barriers we face competing in these chemical degrees or in different chemical careers was where it started and began to grow. It became this global movement — we have people in the UK, Africa, Australia. It’s become a movement to celebrate Black chemists and propel chemistry toward being more inclusive for Black people.
Zemen: I was so thrilled about last year’s virtual #BlackInChem week on Twitter. As a Black chemist, it’s sometimes isolating to be in those chemistry conferences or departments by yourself, with no community and no support for Black chemists. Black people were historically excluded for centuries from studying chemistry. So, It’s amazing to see the efforts of the Black in Chem organization, who amplify you and support you and understand your struggles. In addition, it was refreshing to see this #BlackInChem movement alongside all the other Black in X groups who are predominantly STEM centered.
I was an active #BlackInChem participant and I enjoyed every day of the week last year and thought, for this year, I need to get involved. I’m happy to be a part of this year’s #BlackInChem organizing team. Also, I am very excited to announce that I created the #BlackInSwimWeek initiative to amplify Black swimmers and encourage non-swimmers to learn how to swim. The #BlackInSwimWeek wouldn’t be possible without the #BlackInChem week and the other Black in X organizations.
What keeps you going in continuing this type of advocacy work?
Devin: I’m a huge DE&I advocate, and my main motivation is accessibility. I know what it’s like to be alone in a classroom, not being taught by people who look like me. When I graduated from Pit, there were three of us in the graduating class who were Black and I was the only Black woman. When I got to grad school, I was the only Black person there. So, I know what that isolation feels like, and I know the barriers that I had to cross to continue to be in chemistry. I want to help remove barriers and be a resource for people in the same situation. How can we as a collective grow and how can chemistry be better?
Zemen: I definitely agree with Devin and would like to add that this #BlackInChem advocacy work not only raises awareness for other Black people in chemistry organizations and departments, but mobilizes supporters and allies and creates positive media attention to hopefully help diversify the chemistry world through meaningful conversation around how to make sure everyone is included and that Black people feel safe in their workplaces.
Devin, you had mentioned that last year’s event was beyond what you expected. Why do you think people were so enthusiastic about it?
Devin: I think [we] were all waiting for something like this to happen. A lot of people that I talked to were like, “We were all talking about this, but you all went and did it!” I think it was the sheer size of the week that was really shocking — that these junior scientists were able to put on something that was global, impactful, and very much needed.
People had been trying to find ways to engage Black chemists, but we actually lit the torch and started propelling the conversation forward. That’s really why I think the reception was what it was last year.
Zemen: Also, we were in the middle of the global pandemic last year, we were all stuck at home, and the fact that the #BlackInChem week was on Twitter meant everyone could be part of all these free research,social and career events. I think this helped make it successful.
Will it stay virtual going forward or are there plans to make it an in-person meeting?
Devin: We haven’t necessarily talked about having events for the week be in person yet, but I would love to see little #BlackinChem meetups. I’m hoping when things open up there are people you’ve met that through #BlackinChem on Twitter that you can meet with in person. Trying to plan a full conference seems like a lot of work and I don’t think we’re there yet. But that’s not outside the realm of possibility.
How has the event evolved and how has that played into planning for this year?
Devin: I think the success of last year really made the co-founders find more people to plan the week. Last year, there were seven of us trying to put this thing together and we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Now we are going in with our eyes open and we know the potential that this thing has, and as a result, we also realized we needed more manpower.
This year we opened up the planning committee and I’m super thankful for people like Zemen who reached out. It also brought a lot of fresh ideas and perspectives, and a lot of that is going to be reflected in the events for this year.
Why are grassroots movements like this important?
Devin: Grass roots efforts are really important because it just shows you that these issues aren’t tied to large organizations for us to care about them, that these are issues of the people, and that if we want to drive change, then that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to wait on big corporations or scientific institutions to do this work for us. We’re going to help our own microspheres, which as we’ve seen, can go on and grow into this big thing.
It’s important to elevate Black voices in chemistry because, really, we’re the ones people don’t hear from. A lot of times, when you think of famous chemists, more times than not you don’t think of Black people and that’s really the issue. People don’t necessarily associate chemistry with Black people, so a lot of this movement has been to show people that that isn’t true.
Zemen: I think in science that only 1.6% of Black professors in chemistry exist in the US, and to me that’s shocking because roughly 13% of the population are Black Americans. The Black in Chem organization is therefore a first step in the right direction to amplify Black chemists and celebrate Black people in chemistry! There’s a long way to go, but I’m optimistic that we will create meaningful change in schools and industries to get more representation and include marginalized communities just like the Black community.
Which Black chemists do you idolize or get excited about?
Zemen: I admire and appreciate working under my current chemistry research advisor and mentor Professor Dr. Emmanuel Ojadi in the chemistry department at UMass Dartmouth. He is the main reason I enjoy being in the Ph.D. program. He not only encourages me to become a better chemist and scientist, but also to become a better human being.
I also admire Dr. Dorothy Philips. She is a very well-known chemist and she is the Director-at-Large at the American Chemical Society (ACS) and part of the Northeastern section of the ACS, so right here in Boston. I was fortunate to meet with her on a few occasions. I see her as a role model and I appreciate her experiences and meaningful advice and tips.
Also, I want to sent well wishes to my wonderful chemistry high school teacher, Mr. Karl-Heinz Roth, since he is the main reason I became so fascinated with chemistry.
There are of course so many others, but these three individuals have been important to me in my chemistry journey.
Devin: I fan girl over Dr. Renee Robinson all the time. I act like she wasn’t my academic advisor at Pitt, but I talk about her in every interview I’ve ever done. She does mass spectrometry, looking at diseases of aging. I think her research is super cool and she’s an amazing human being.
I also met Dr. Isiah Warner, who is about to retire from Louisiana State University. He’s [a big reason as to why] LSU graduates the most Black Ph.D.’s in science specifically. I actually got to interview him for a C&En Black History Month special issue article. When I saw that I was paired up with him I was star struck, thinking, “What am I supposed to talk to Dr. Warner about?” But talking to him for that hour was the most amazing experience that I have had. He is such a sweet man, he gave me really good advice, and he knew a bunch of people that I had known, and all I could think is “This is amazing. We were meant to be.”
What can people expect for this year and beyond?
Devin: This year, we have a big focus on intersectionality, which I’m really excited about. I think this can be a little scary for folks. Outside of race — or outside of the Black community because Blackness is not necessarily a monolith — all our identities under that umbrella still matter and still influence our places in the world and our science.
I’m also excited about what we’re calling “career lunch breaks”. We tried to find a bunch of people that aren’t in pharma or who aren’t tenure track faculty to informally talk to people who might want to explore these “nontraditional” career paths, ones they might not even know are open to them. For example, people that work in government, cosmetics, entrepreneurs, people that write. We tried to get as many people as possible in different parts of chemistry to talk and have lunch with a bunch of students. I’m really excited for this year.
Zemen: I completely agree with Devin that the Black community is not a monolithic group. For example, I am also part of the Black Disabled in Higher Education organization, which organized this year’s Black Disabled Empowerment in Higher Education Month (#BlackDEHEM) on Twitter during Black History Month. It was created to amplify and celebrate Black disabled students in higher education since they are the most vulnerable students on college campuses and are often left behind without a community, accommodations, and college support. We wanted to change that and created a whole month full of dynamic discussions, joy, love, and community building. I was privileged that I was part of the organizing team this year, and we hope to make this #BlackDEHEM celebration an annual event.
Also, I am very happy that during this year’s #BlackInChem week, we will talk about the importance of mental health in a live audio conversation with our fellow Black chemists, allies, and supporters to share our experiences in how to navigate the sometimes stressful aspect of being a Black graduate student or Black student in general.
Black students continuously experience, fight against, and bear emotional scars from racism, which can lead to increased anxiety, poor mental health outcomes, and poor academic performances. Unfortunately, many colleges ignore it and make our college experiences challenging. That’s why our work is vital to raise awareness for mental health and support our members that might struggle with their mental health. I am very much looking forward to speaking about this during our #BlackInChem week this year.
What tangible changes do you hope to see in chemistry as a response to #BlackinChem?
Zemen: Last year, I saw a lot of these Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) statements and announcements after George Floyd was murdered, but nothing really changed, unfortunately. The policies in many chemistry departments and industries are still the same. There is still gatekeeping going on to keep Black people away from getting hired and tenured. And so, the question is: How do we make sure Black people want to apply and stay in those chemistry departments and get tenured? How can we ensure they can research and study in safe environments?
For this, I think we need policy changes — real change — so that Black people can really be unapologetically themselves. Far too often, at least for me but I think many Black people feel the same, you have this code-switching mask on when you’re around non-Black people. So, how can we make sure those Black people can really be who they are and are celebrated in their whole identity?
Devin: I really want to see people come up with very well-thought-out intention practices. Everybody always focuses on questions like, how do you get Black people here? But people need to focus more tangibly on how we can keep them here. Are people partnering with Black organizations like NOBCChE [the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers] or doing due diligence to make sure people feel safe? This is something as simple as looking at the syllabus for a university class — does it take into account that a lot of underrepresented minorities have full time jobs?
I think we’re at a point where we’re past the awareness phase. We need to start putting our resources to work and put actual action behind all of the things that people say they want to support. Are we inviting Black faculty? Are Black faculty being mentored in their spaces? If you are in industry, are you being mentored in a way that helps you grow your career? That’s what I’m hoping to see.
How can more people get involved?
Being involved with the movement doesn’t mean you need to be involved with the organization. It can be as simple as engaging with the Black people your own sphere. It doesn’t have to go through us to be thoughtful or advance the movement.
People can also let us know if they’d like to sponsor us financially. All that information is available in the link in our bios (on Twitter and Instagram), the same goes if they want to plan events — just shoot us a DM or email [email protected], or contact any of the co-founds on social media.
Zemen: I would like to send my well wishes to the #BlackinChem co-founders, the other organizers, and all our supporters for creating this year’s #BlackInChem week. I’m so happy to be part of it and I am certain that this is only the beginning of our advocacy work to diversify the chemistry world.
#BlackinChem will take place the week of August 8, 2021. For more news, information on events, and resources, please visit the Black in Chem website.