Black chemists celebrate diversity at Umoja Center event

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by August Linton

Claps and cheers echoed through Founders Hall 118 during the Umoja Center’s Black Excellence in STEM event, probably far more than had graced the room in quite a while. Many HSU community members filled out the seats, just as their enthusiasm and passion filled the room.

Dr. Kim White, Cal Poly Humboldt professor of chemistry, hosted the event at the request of Umoja Center for Pan African Academic Excellence.

After an indigenous land acknowledgement, she began by paying homage to several Black scientists under whom she studied. One of these was Dr. Loyd Noel Ferguson, the first Black person to earn a PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley.

“He was the original backyard chemist, he synthesized moth repellent and stain removers in his backyard in Oakland when he was growing up,” White said. “He also used his academic talent not only to propel his own career but also to create opportunities for others.”

She also spoke fondly about Dr. Phillip Crews, a UC Santa Cruz professor of chemistry known for his involvement in diversity programs.

“Phil instilled in me a strong desire to use my privilege for the benefit of others… seeing him use his strengths to lift up others was pretty fundamental in the trajectory of my career,” White said.

Dr. Chris Harmon, another member of Cal Poly Humboldt’s chemistry department, spoke next. He spoke on the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the growing diversity within science.

“It matters where you come from, it matters what language you grew up speaking, and absolutely the color of your skin matters, Harmon said. “When I got into chemistry, one of the things that I loved was all of these rich, beautiful colors that you would see in the lab… if we celebrate the colors of the chemicals why can’t we celebrate the colors of the chemists?”

Photo by Morgan Hancock | Dr. Kensha Clark speaks to students of her work in chemistry via Zoom at Founders Hall on Feb 11

Harmon introduced Dr. Kensha Clark, a highly celebrated and accomplished Black chemist currently teaching at the University of Memphis.

After brief technical problems, she appeared on the projector screen, Zooming in to the event.

Clark discussed her work, both as a private sector chemist with Chevron and as an academic. Her current fields of interest include molecular electronics, solar energy conversion, and small molecule activation, among others.

In her lab, she makes sure that students of all backgrounds feel welcome.

“I think [our diversity] makes our science all the better,” Clark said.

When she was a student, however, Clark felt that her interest in science was quashed. She described only being encouraged to become a writer or an artist, all the while never wavering from her passion for science.

Even though strong familial support allowed her to achieve her dream, Clark is still faced with a shocking lack of diversity in her field.

“By default, you are the representative of your people,” Clark said. “It makes it exciting when one sees up-and-coming scientists of color.”

Photo by Morgan Hancock | Asia Anderson explains her research into membrane protein isolation on Feb 11.

Cal Poly Humboldt student Asia Anderson took the stage after Clark, to a joyous round of applause from the audience. A transfer student from College of the Redwoods, Anderson is obviously beloved to the campus community.

She spoke about the community and support that she has found while studying chemistry at Cal Poly Humboldt, and how her mother’s going back to school to study English inspired her.

“I feel like every step of the way I’ve had this ushering of peers around me… I will also be the first person in my family to graduate from college,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s research during her undergraduate degree at Cal Poly Humboldt has been in the targeted extraction of membrane proteins. She said that the proteins’ sensitivity to light means that further study could illuminate ways to use these proteins for targeted medication delivery.

After graduation, Anderson will study to receive a graduate degree at UC Santa Cruz.

The Umoja center hosted this event in collaboration with NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers. Demi Ogunwo is a masters student in Cal Poly Humboldt’s Energy Technology and Policy Program, and spoke at the event as the president of the school’s NSBE chapter.

“NSBE offers a platform for students to network and get mentored by … Black professionals,” Ogunwo said. “It’s not for engineers alone, it’s for all STEM students.”

NSBE is a community focused on supporting Black scientists, whether academically or professionally. They will be hosting a social hangout for students potentially interested in joining this Friday Feb. 18, from 1 pm to 3 pm in the University Upper Quad.

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