Carnegie Mellon University
May 10, 2023

CMU Hosts Event To Support Black Chemists, Chemical Engineers

By Heidi Opdyke

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Marketing and Communication, MCS
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Jamie Gaitor's love of chemistry is something that he wants to spread. As a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry, he has been part of outreach to students of all ages, from grade school all the way to other graduate students.

Gaitor serves as Carnegie Mellon University's student representative for the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).

"NOBCChE is a very welcoming community of scientists that are highly committed to help one another reach and even exceed their potential in all aspects of their career," Gaitor said. "There are great opportunities to 'pay it forward' at conferences as one goes through different stages of their careers. This is a well-established culture that has really helped the organization grow since its inception."

NOBCChE's Charter 2 Collaborative Spring Conference recently took place at Carnegie Mellon. Comprised of faculty and students from eight institutions the Charter 2 Collaborative offers an opportunity to create a close community and develop a pipeline of academic career opportunities for its undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral members, which helps to achieve NOBCChE's overall mission and seeks to improve the representation of people of color in academia.

"We want students to see themselves moving through academia at higher levels and for students to see themselves through the role models that they are interacting," said Tyrslai Williams-Carter, assistant dean of mentoring, research and education at Louisiana State University and the NOBCChE liaison for the Charter 2 Collaborative. "It's all about creating a visual component that students can hold onto because sometimes these students don't get to see many people who they look like or that they can relate to."

Kayla Storme, a fourth-year doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, encouraged classmates to join her in Pittsburgh for the event. Along with Gaitor, Storme has been an advocate working to understand what opportunities and information that both students and institutions need to be aware of to improve retention efforts and enhance academic and professional placement of students at each stage.

As an example, at MIT Storme helped develop the undergraduate admission interview process, which she said helped her identify areas where diversity and inclusion efforts could be improved.

"In some cases, we had students who didn't have research experience, but they did have research potential," she said. "There are opportunities to adjust the questions being asked to understand how a person could succeed."

Andy Dorfeuille was one of several MIT students who traveled with Storme to Pittsburgh and will be taking over as a student representative for the Collaborative.

"MIT doesn't have that many Black students and being able to attend conferences like this and talk with other graduate students provides a welcoming environment," Dorfeuille said.

The Charter 2 Collaborative's first in-person conference for faculty was held in 2022 at Spelman College, said Subha Das, an associate professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon. The faculty members meet every two weeks via Zoom to discuss opportunities and support each other and their programs. Das, who is a charter member of the Charter 2 Collaborative, organized this year's conference in Pittsburgh, which for the first time included graduate and undergraduate students.

0510_nobcche-conference_1920x1277.jpgWhile convening at Carnegie Mellon, Charter 2 Collaborative participants networked, listened to research and professional development talks and learned about the university.

Among the speakers were Carnegie Mellon professors and administrators. Michael Young, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Mellon College of Science provided the keynote address on mentoring, and Amy Burkert, the associate vice provost for education, welcomed everyone. Bruce Armitage, head of the Department of Chemistry, provided an overview of the department.

"Each of the charter institutions sent one or more students. One of our goals for the conference is to find support for this group and activities like professional development," Das said.

Faculty and students presented talks and posters, respectively, and campus tours were offered. Das said showcasing the Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab was a highlight. Carnegie Mellon alumnus and Emerald Cloud Labs Co-founder DJ Kleinbaum was on hand to discuss the CMU Cloud Lab, which is expected to be up and running later this year. The facility is an automated science lab that allows researchers to design and run experiments remotely.

"We want to foster collaborations between the faculty members and also faculty and students," Das said. "And by hosting the conference students can see what Carnegie Mellon has to offer."

While in Pittsburgh, members of Charter 2 also completed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) formalizing the partnership between the universities, which calls for faculty and students to have the ability to freely co-teach courses, collaborate through instrumentation and research space and more.

Juana Mendenhall, the Massey Professor and Chair of Morehouse College's Department of Chemistry, delivered a talk that was part science related to directing chemomechanical responses using smart hydrogels and part motivational. She offered advice on how to find success on their terms.

"The overarching goal of this talk was to provide a tangible mentoring and scientific talk to show graduate students and junior faculty, how to navigate the uneven terrain of academy," Mendenhall said. "I took the audience on a journey through my life — started from the bottom from my adolescence years, undergraduate experience, graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship."

Mendenhall and Das are working on a collaboration involving the Carnegie Mellon Cloud Lab. This summer, a group of students and a chemistry faculty member will learn to use the cloud lab, and Morehouse will introduce the facility to students in its Biophysical Course during the 2023-2024 academic year.

"The CMU Coud Lab will bring so many opportunities to Morehouse by providing a wholistic view of what it means to be a scientist," Mendenhall said. "Learning the methodology between experimental design, mathematical coding languages, cutting-edge equipment, quantitative data analysis will provide our students with the synergy needed to be competitive scientists."

Williams-Carter said NOBCChE is looking to grow collaborations like these and others.

"What we've realized with these different charters is while they do their own thing, they have an opportunity to support one another," Williams-Carter said. "NOBCChE itself has a number of different partnerships, and what it has done over time is create opportunities and spaces to work with people who have synergistic views to move things forward."

Funding for the Charter 2 conference was provided by Carnegie Mellon's Office of the Provost and Department of Chemistry, the PPG Foundation and Waters Corp.

The PPG Foundation is a longtime supporter of NOBCChE and its efforts.

"This is a great opportunity for the students to network and think about the future-ready, technology-focused career possibilities created through STEM education," said David Bem, chief technology officer and vice president for PPG. "These students will be the future. Through the PPG Foundation, we're aligned with the NOBCChE's work to help the next generation of diverse students explore science-related fields and create connections that will lead to their success."

Representatives from PPG and Waters offered a professional development session with student attendees during the conference.

"Waters supports Charter 2 Collaborative because now more than ever it is critical to excite and engage young people, and particularly women and students of color, around STEM," said John Simms, a sales manager for Waters. "Our partnership with NOBCCHE and Carnegie Mellon will hopefully continue to provide a pathway for students into STEM and at Waters."

Charter 2 members will meet up next at NOBCChE's 50th annual national conference in New Orleans in September.

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