Chemists Devin Swiner, Ayanna Jones, and Ashley Walker are the minds behind #BlackinChem, the hashtag that exists to raise the profiles of Black chemists and their work, and enables them to connect with one another.
This year they ran #BlackinChem week, which ran from 10–15 August. We caught up with them about the outcomes of the week, their experiences as Black women in chemistry, and their advice for others.
A highlight of #BlackinChem week was the "wine downs", allowing Black chemists and their allies to connect with each other.Picture:
What was the aim behind #BlackinChem?
Devin Swiner: We wanted to highlight Black chemists and what they were doing, and gain visibility for Black chemists. And it just grew from there.
Ashley Walker: Also the Black Lives Matter movement… A lot of “Black in X” weeks started due to racial and social injustices. We know that we could have been Breonna Taylor, we could have been Sandra Bland, we could have been George Floyd and so on.
Ayanna Jones: We also wanted to increase networking opportunities for Black scientists, bridge the gap between younger and older Black chemists, and show the world that Black chemists are contributing valuable research. Black chemists matter!
What was the reception like?
Devin: I could not have imagined it would blow up like it did – I had people contact me from Australia, India, the UK, literally everywhere. We got a lot of celebrity endorsements as well. [Rapper] MC Hammer was tweeting about the week every single day and so was Michelle Williams from Destiny's Child. [Actor] Michael B. Jordan also tweeted us about the week. It definitely exceeded all my expectations.
Ayanna: I think that the reception from both Black and non-Black scientists was very positive, and that really made me happy. We’re not often used to just putting aside a space for celebrating Black chemists. Not just "people of colour" – there’s nothing wrong with saying we’re going to celebrating specifically Black chemists.
The reception was great, and I think that everyone from undergraduates all the way to senior Black chemists really benefited from the week.
Ashley: It was, really really beneficial. One of the most important things was seeing what a lot of organisational backing does, and like promoting the week to get everybody involved.
I'm also really grateful for that Michael B. Jordan tweet and I try not to gush every day about that!
I'm really, really grateful that you know we came together and that this movement happened for a reason – to celebrate Black people and chemistry.
Were you surprised that the week got the attention of such high-profile people?
Devin: I was floored by all of that. And MC Hammer kept posting all week, to the point where it got mentioned in a Forbes article that he was featured in.
Ayanna: It made me happy to see Black celebrities and other celebrities endorse a movement that celebrated a scientific field we don't often get represented in. It was really positive that with everything going on the world they chose to highlight us.
Do you have any personal highlights from the week?
Devin: I was tweeting from the Real Scientist account as well, and I did a thread about AB ionization – my subfield in mass spectrometry. I’m obsessed with this technique and know so much about it, but my lab doesn’t do it. And then the person who created the technique started following me and liking all my tweets. He helped me answer people’s questions and he ended up tweeting about #BlackinChem as well. It was really special because it’s not every day you get to engage with the people who create these techniques that we use.
Ayanna: My highlight was interacting with so many Black chemists that I don't typically get to interact with. COVID has created a unique opportunity to make us think more creatively about how we network and connect with people.
We did a "wine down" on Zoom, which was a great event that we’ll continue to do. I was really inspired to meet the next generation and also to meet Black chemistry faculty who I didn’t know existed.
Ashley: The wine down was my highlight. It was really fun and energetic. There was a lot of energy in the breakout rooms – we were all getting to know one another.
What was in like reaching out to people across nations with #BlackinChem?
Ayanna: I am not used to interacting with Black scientists across the world, and I love how we’re using these platforms – especially during the pandemic – to communicate.
I was so inspired to see scientists in Africa – I’d love to visit Africa one day. And I’d like to collaborate with African chemists not just socially but on research. Let’s publish together, let’s change our fields together – I think that’s really powerful.
We don’t often get to hear the perspective of African chemists or chemists in the Caribbean.
Devin: It was a really special week and really inspiring to meet different people from different backgrounds. I’m excited to see how we use this momentum to create more spaces and collaborate with other people.
Ashley: Like Ayanna said, seeing people from the motherland was really, really special for me. I also had someone in my breakout room that was Black and from India. I know that we exist there and it was just exciting to see.
Ayanna: I think the African diaspora, you know, African Americans, Caribbeans, Africans... we exist in all corners of the world and that is so evident within #BlackinChem.
Not only that, but I think oftentimes chemistry is framed from a Western view. And I think that we don't get to see different viewpoints. We are everywhere and all of our perspectives matter, and I think we should try to continue to expand our perspectives across the world across borders.
About Devin, Ayanna and Ashley
Ayanna is co-founder of #BlackinChem, and a graduate student at Emory University. She studies the spatio-temporal chemistry and microbial interactions in the rhizosphere of plants – the zone around the roots of plants.
She carries out both experimental and computationaI research, and recently became a NASA intern with the NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in California. She’ll be creating a model that will contribute to carbon cycle research.
Devin is the founder of #BlackinChem. She is completing her PhD in mass spectrometry at Ohio State University. She develops new ionization sources for mass spectrometry using common materials.
She is currently using ordinary thread to do work in clinical diagnostics. She has worked on drug screening and is now working on disease biomarkers – using small molecules to identify the presence of conditions like obesity and cystic fibrosis.
Ashley has just graduated from Chicago State University and is in the process of applying to graduate school. She is the founder of #BlackinAstro, and cofounder of #BlackinChem and #BlackinPhysics. She studies planetary atmospheres, particularly that of Saturn’s moon Titan. She is studying stratospheric ice clouds of Titan, using IR spectroscopy to understand more about their chemistry.