Over the summer of 2020, American chemist Dr. Devin Swiner was paying close attention as Twitter campaigns promoting scientists of colour started taking off. Many were inspired by Black Birders Week, created after a woman placed a 911 call about a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park.
Swiner works at U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck & Co in New Jersey, where she analyzes drugs for pre-clinical trials. While she landed the job she wanted after her PhD from Ohio State University, Swiner didn’t feel as prepared as she could have been. She didn’t have a lot of guidance and so didn’t know how important it was to have research experience or how to go about finding people to write letters of recommendation for graduate school.
“I know what it’s like not to be myself in chemistry. I know what it’s like not to have access to the things I wanted to do,” says Swiner. “So I thought I’d love to curate a #BlackinChem campaign. I looked around and said, ‘Who is down to help with that?’”
Ashley Walker, the founder of #BlackinAstro, was in. Together with a group of women and non-binary people from across the U.S. and Europe, they created a Twitter hashtag and transformed it into a platform to amplify Black voices and celebrate Black excellence in chemistry.
Last August, Swiner and Walker used #BlackinChem to host a week of virtual networking, support and job opportunities for underrepresented scientists. It didn’t take long for celebrity endorsements to start rolling in.
MC Hammer posted Swiner’s intro video, followed by posts from Black Panther and Creed star Michael B. Jordan and Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams. After the week was done, #BlackinChem had more than 4,000 followers around the world, including students in India, Africa and across Europe.
This week, Swiner is recreating her successful formula with #BlackChemistsWeek2021, running August 8 to 14. The theme is #InMyElement, and is focused on making chemistry accessible to Black people. It will feature a keynote talk by chemical education expert Dr. Leyte Winfield from Spelman College in Atlanta, and fun events such TikTok challenges and a virtual poster competition.
Kerisha Bowen, who has a PhD in organic chemistry, is one of the featured speakers for #AltCareerLunchBreaks, a discussion about how to leverage chemistry degrees in alternate careers.
Bowen, who grew up in Toronto, is a lawyer who is a patent agent with Philadelphia-based Dentons’ Intellectual Property and Technology practice. She focuses on patent prosecution in chemistry and biology, where she calls on her science background to advise clients on the experiments and data needed to write successful patent applications.
“In 2009, I was the first Black woman to get a PhD in chemistry from Temple University,” say Bowen, who graduated alongside two Black men. While it didn’t help that they started looking for work in the midst of a recession, the colour of their skin made it particularly difficult.
Bowen held several assistant professorships and research positions at prestigious universities but eventually came to the realization it wasn’t for her.
“I experienced a lot of racism from faculty, not from students though,” she says. “I didn’t want to stick it out. I know a lot of people do and there is more of a community now.”
While Bowen is happy in her work, she suspects she would have stayed in chemistry if she hadn’t felt so alone. “I want to show others how not to have the experience I had,” she says.
Kayrel Edwards, a materials chemistry PhD student at McGill University who has signed up for the week’s sessions, is eager to get all the tips she can. The Black chemist’s research is focused on designing photo-degradable plastics by incorporating azobenzene in hydrogen bonded polymers.
“I’m trying to increase my network in Canada,” says Edwards, who is from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. “I don’t know a lot of people of colour here at I’m near the end of my degree.”