Young Scientist in The Laboratory
If the Covid-19 pandemic has reaffirmed anything about the human condition, its that connectivity matters. Neuroscientists have long understood that being linked to others, interacting with others, and building with others is vital to development, as well as mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But during this same turbulent period in human history weve also been tasked once again with confronting inequities in experiences and representation particularly racial divides around the world. And that includes the education we receive and the work we do.
Currently, Black Americans make up 13% of the population, but estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics of full-time faculty suggestless than 6% of faculty members are Black. And, according to theNational Science Foundation,for more than a decade only about 5% of the 50,000 students earning PhDs each year are Black. What this means is that in everyday situations Black scientists often find themselves to be the only Black person occupying the space they are in. Leaving many feeling isolated and noting they dont have mentors or peers with shared experiences.
So after seeing the way that social media was recently able to connect and network groups of people from all over through hashtag campaigns and efforts to share experiences and interests,a fourth year PhD student at the University of California, Irvine,Angeline Dukes,asked Twitter when they were going to have a Black in Neuro week. But she had no idea the response she would get. Within days a groupof neuroscientists, neuro-engineers, and science communicators mobilized, creating not a day, but an entire week (July 27th-August 2nd) to bring together, celebrate, amplify, and support Black voices in the brain space.
Co-organizer and Stanford postdoctoral fellow,BrielleFerguson, PhD pointed out that, We also cant ignore the social context all of these movements are responding to, were literally watching members of our community either be threatened with violence or being killed for being in spaces people dont think they belong. So, we as members of the Black community, and specifically Black people in neuro were so ready to counter that, and when Angeline tweeted out the call, the answer was a resounding yes from all 22 of us that became organizers, basically in unison.And the result has been beyond anything the organizers could have predicted even with all that brain power.
Beginning Monday,Black In Neurostarted celebrating a week of Black excellence in neuro-related fields. In a matter of days their Twitter account (@BlackInNeuro) has over 12,000 followers, and more than 2,000 people have attended live events. Not to mention that more than 60 individual and institutional donors have become official sponsors. But the most incredible part of all, is that this initiative and all its programming across sites came together in just three weeks proving how eager and passionate neuroscientists are to share their joy for science.
When asked what called her to action, Angeline Dukes said, Growingup, I thought all scientists were old, white men because that's what we see in the media. It is difficult to strive to be what you have never seen. Seeing and being mentored by brilliant Black female scientists at my undergraduate institution, Fisk University, inspired me to apply to graduate school. To this day, they are still a valuable part of my community and reassure me regularly that I belong in neuroscience.
Her sentiment was echoed by other co-organizers such asAshley Cunningham,a neuroscience PhD student at Mount Sinai who added For me, Black In Neuro week has been about redefiningwhat a neuroscientist looks like. We want to show current and future neuroscientists that we are making this space for them, where no one can dull their shine, their intelligence, or their existence. And thats exactly whatDanielle Nadin, a Masters student in Neuroscience at McGill University contends shes gotten from helping to organize. To put it lightly, Black In Neuro Week has changed my life.Its hard to explain the power of seeing people who look like you, and love learning about the brain as much as you do, after having gone for so long feeling as though you would always be the only Black person in the room.
Something else that has made this initiative meaningful is that its broken down barriers not only in terms of race, but also career maturity. Neuroscience is not a field known for cross-sector collaboration or strong partnerships between scientists. But this week undergraduate students, bench scientists, and tenured professors alike have offered up time to share stories, personal journeys, and offered to collaborate with those that they never knew existed.
Adnan Hirad, MD, PhD has been one of those already carving out his valuable time to do calls with younger scientists and aspiring scientists. What the organizers - mostly women - of the #BlackInNeuroWeek platform have done is invaluable. Im immensely grateful. It is already paying dividends in terms of mentoring, sharing ideas, networking and even potential collaborations. Equally important, is that younger students in college or even high school realize there are people that look like them, that are at all stages of the neuroscience knowledge pathway. And we want these younger students to know it is possible to become a neuroscientist, a doctor, or both at the same time. And we are ready to mentor them.
But in addition to building networks and confidence, as well as validating that one isnt alone, its also important to remember thatdiversity drives innovation. Brielle Ferguson reminds us dataconfirms thatdiverse scientists find novel discoveriesat higher rates than their peers - but are still less likely to be rewarded for them, in terms of accolades, and securing faculty positions.
#BlackInNeuro Zoom meeting with team organizers.
Thus, the need for diversity applies not only within our science communities on the human level but also between them. The brain is the most complex organ in the body and arguably the most complex object on earth. Its going to take many different creative minds to begin to unravel its mysteries.D'Angela Pritchett-Rowe,an NIH NAEP Fellow pointed out that, #BlackInNeuroWeek has been extremely validating for me as a Black woman, a neuroscientist, a musician, an artist, and a writer. Someone who is both analytical and creative. This week, especially Thursday #BlackNeuroArt day, showed me that there are so many different intersections of our identities and that none can exist without the other.
And the more connections, the more potential for collaborations of all kinds. Not just here in the U.S., but all over the world because many of the same issues are experienced by Black neuroscientists around the globe.De-Shaine Murray,a Neurotechnology doctoral student at Imperial College London points out, The power of peer support must also be stressed here, as seeing other Black neuroscientists who look like you, encounter the same hurdles as you and feel the same pressures of doing a PhD is rejuvenating, especially in the context of U.K. academia, which has a major diversity problem. But this opportunity has, completely reinvigorated my spirit as we have curated an intercontinental community of support, joy, and resources, saysGwenalle Thomas,a Neurobiology PhD Candidate at Duke University. As the only Black woman in my department, it's easy to feel isolated, especially when people's actions directly contradict their statements on diversity, inclusion, and equity.
But diversity doesn't end with discussions about race for Black In Neuro organizers, according toDr. Kaela S. Singleton, As a Black Queer woman, the beauty of #BlackInNeuroWeek was that it highlighted intersectionalities that are often forgotten in university diversity initiatives. Seeing the amplified voices of Black Disabled, Black Non-Binary, Black trans, Black lesbian/gay folks and Black Women in neuro is so necessary to creating inclusive, welcoming spaces. By being intersectional #BlackInNeuroWeek not only highlighted Blackness but also the beauty and complexity of Black identities in our field.
With three days to go, there is still more for the Black In Neuro team to accomplish. And with each passing day it becomes more evident that their efforts will certainly extend past the week itself. Not just for those in and around neuroscience, but for the patients they treat and research they conduct. "In all my years of organizing, I have never seen a more dedicated, efficient, and passionate group of people. I have no doubt that the accomplishments of #BlackinNeuro will have lasting impacts on our community for years to come, saysRackeb Tesfaye, aPhD Candidate and BlackInNeuro organizer.
When asked what the group envisionsgoing forward, Angeline says the group hopes to seeBlack people in neuro-related fields from all over the world connect with each other and be recognized. And further, that non-Black people will use the opportunity to connect with Black scientists and medical professionals, invite them for speaking engagements (preferablynot just to talk about 'diversity and inclusion'), nominate them for deserved awards, and recognize how their own research impacts the Black community.
For those looking for everything frommentorshiptofunding opportunitiesto network growth, resources are availableonlineand through the Black In Neuro social media accounts. And, please, continue to use the hashtags, share advice, share your journeys, open your networks, and connect with those in and around #BlackInNeuro so together, we can move science forward.
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