Published February 25, 2021
In 2020, powerful online movements emerged to celebrate and elevate the voices of Black scientists.
Called the #BlackInX movements, these efforts arose during months of protests against police killings and police brutality. They were a reaction to events, including the Central Park bird-watching incident — an episode that highlighted the dangers and harassment that Black people often endure while living their daily lives.
Among the leaders of #BlackInX movements are two UB doctoral students: Olivia Geneus, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry who co-founded Black In Nanotechnology, and Raven Baxter, a PhD candidate in the Department of Learning and Instruction who founded Black In Science Communication. (Baxter, a microbiologist and prolific science communicator known as Raven the Science Maven, also created Black In STEM Education, but has handed off coordination of that initiative to other organizers.)
Like many #BlackInX movements, #BlackInNano and #BlackInSciComm gained traction on social media, with Black scientists and engineers connecting with one another through hashtags on Twitter and other platforms, and through weeklong virtual conferences held last fall.
UBNow recently talked with Geneus and Baxter about their respective #BlackInX movements.
Baxter: It’s exciting because before last year, when all of these movements popped up, there were only a couple of organizations that I’ve known of, in all this time I’ve spent in STEM, that were centered around Black people. We didn’t know where to find each other. We didn’t know how to access our community in STEM.
Although the #BlackInX movements were triggered by a really unfortunate event — being the incident in Central Park with the bird-watchers — I’m glad that it brought us together to find each other and make these communities and affinity groups to support each other and talk about our shared lived experiences. It’s really just spending time to unpack our lives as scientists together and move forward.
Geneus: The movement highlights our greatness and shows everyone that we are present and visible. We want to encourage universities to increase representation, diversity and inclusion, and recognize the advancements of Black scientists as they transform the STEM fields. We want to highlight how these disparities translate in industry, to positions that arise after graduate school.
We are hoping to expand to help organize a #BlackInX conference that includes all other #BlackInX groups.
Baxter: We’re planning some outreach initiatives and tapping into our network to see how people want to use their voices in supporting that. We have some people who are Wikipedians, which is a word we use to describe people who can create and edit and monitor Wikipedia pages. So one of the things we are thinking of doing is a Wiki-thon — basically, just create entries into Wikipedia for Black scientists and engineers and people in STEM. We want to make sure people are aware of the work that has been done and is being done by marginalized folks in STEM, including the important contributions that they’ve made to the STEM field throughout history.
Geneus: As part of our pro-bono initiative, we are partnering with EMO-Haiti, a nonprofit organization, to bring STEM skills and technology to Haitian students currently living in Haiti who have a passion for STEM. We are introducing the Haiti National Robotic Competition to inspire and empower the next generation of Haitian innovators and game-changers.
During a six-month intensive program, these students will work in teams to customize and build a robot to solve an identified local issue. Teams will receive robotic kits comprised of necessary resources to build their robots. These students will also have access to a variety of coding courses, workshops and mentoring sessions designed to support them through the program. In addition, experts will be speaking on non-STEM related topics including mental health and entrepreneurship. Each team will have the opportunity to showcase their finalized robot, and a winner will be awarded.
This initiative is particularly important because, given the ongoing crises in Haiti including political unrest and economic and educational challenges, as well as the ongoing pandemic, we want to ensure that students have the necessary avenues and support needed to remain engaged in their passion for STEM.
The Black in Nanotechnology team is also partnering with a middle school in Atlanta, Georgia — Rex Mill Middle STEM School. Our goal is to emphasize the importance of representation to younger individuals who are in middle and elementary school. To expand the percentage of Black individuals in STEM, recruitment efforts must start at the younger educational level. We are still developing this partnership.
Baxter: I have always felt like getting the public interested in science and curious about the world around them was really fun and interesting, and I’ve always been naturally inclined toward this field.
Geneus: In high school, I always liked math and science. They were my two strongest subjects. I wanted a career in the field of science, as well as in health, without being a medical doctor. At the time, I was unaware of what that would be. Physics and public health provided the mixture of science, health and medicine that I was always drawn to. Thus, I decided to double major in both subjects.
Having enjoyed multiple classes of organic chemistry as an undergraduate, I pursued a PhD in chemistry. UB’s rigorous chemistry department made it a natural selection for my pursuit. I chose a principal investigator by attending seminars from different faculty members, and when my adviser presented his research, which was nanotechnology and nanomedicine, I was really intrigued. This was the combination I was yearning for. I was fortunate to be selected as a graduate student and be part of his laboratory based on merit.
Baxter: My research is centered around my own science education efforts and understanding the impact and responses to my work from the general public. I’m studying viral videos that I’ve created, and collecting the abundance of data that exists around my work. I’m analyzing it to understand what it is about my style of science communication that people are resonating with. How can we use that information to create more inclusive and culturally relevant science education content on a larger scale?
People really want to see or have spaces to be their unapologetic selves. There needs to be a push in the media to provide representation of scientists who don’t fit the mold of what people commonly believe a scientist is and what a scientist looks like. People often say if they had a science teacher who was like them, or somebody who communicated in their style, that their path in STEM would have been different.
Geneus: Currently I am developing a nanoformulation that is suitable for the targeted therapy of hypoxic regions of glioblastoma multiforme — a type of brain cancer.
The aim is to develop a drug-delivery system that will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and target hypoxic regions of glioblastoma. These hypoxic regions are those that have low oxygen levels as well as low pH, and are resistant to chemo- and radiation therapy. Because of that, the tumors tend to metastasize, invade and relapse. My research goal is to improve the oxygen and pH levels within these hypoxic regions, while simultaneously providing imaging capabilities, therefore, making chemotherapy more effective.
Baxter: I really felt like Black voices in STEM needed support, especially after all that we’ve been through in the past year. It was really important for me to provide a space where people are reminded that they have a community of people who care about their voice and care about the science that they are passionate about.
I wanted to provide a space for people who would like to communicate science and receive resources and training, and a network of people to help boost their skills and access opportunities.
Geneus: Representation and visibility as a Black woman has been almost nonexistent throughout my academic and professional career. This lack of representation has been discouraging. I am in a department where no one on the faculty or very few students look like me.
Through the Black in Nanotechnology initiative, we wanted to highlight both the contributions of Black scientists and the barriers they face within the field of nanotechnology. We wanted to build partnerships and networks to push innovative ideas to tackle questions within the field and advocate for Black voices to be heard while inspiring the next generation.
Baxter: I do want to say it’s really not just Black people. There have been a lot of people who have been allies to the Black community coming in and helping to build these communities with us and show support, and that’s also been very fundamental to all of this progress that you’ve been seeing. It’s been very heartwarming.
Geneus: I had the great opportunity to be on the planning council for STEMNoire, which is a research conference and a holistic wellness retreat for Black women in STEM. We realized that we wanted a conference that provides an open space to talk about our journeys, our successes, our failures and the obstacles that we have overcome without delegates feeling that they are in a minority. We wanted a group where Black women are the majority and are comfortable enough to share everything that we have experienced in the scientific fields.