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BlackInX Q&A with Samantha Theresa Mensah

Following is a Q&A with Samantha Theresa Mensah, co-founder and president of #BlackInChem, and one of the organizers of the inaugural BlackInX Conference. She is also a science communications intern at Research!America and a fourth-year PhD candidate at the University of California Los Angeles.

What is the BlackInX Conference?

The BlackInX Conference is a virtual meeting of members of the BlackInX network. The first BlackInX Conference was held earlier this summer.  The BlackInX network is a consortium of over 80 organizations with different disciplinary focuses. Examples include BlackInChem, BlackInBirding, BlackInNeuro, BlackInSciPol, and BlackInPhysics. 

Part of the racial reckoning of 2020, the movement started with Black Birders Week when a Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, was racially profiled in Central Park while birdwatching. The video of this event went viral and sparked a plethora of other organizations in different disciplines and interests focused on the Black perspective in science. People who initially thought that they were the one of the only people of color within their field shared a bond with others who looked like them, who were having similar experiences as them.

Today, BlackInX groups are continuing to support their members through activities including annual celebration weeks, hosting wikipedia edit-a-thons and community nights, creating pen pal programs connecting scientists and 6th grade “pre-scientists,” and funding postdoctoral opportunities for their members such as the BlackInCancer Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship.

How and why did you start BlackInChem? 

Once a few BlackInX groups started emerging, my colleagues in chemistry and I saw a vacuum that needed to be filled. I co-founded BlackinChem with six other students and professionals from the U.S. and Europe within a few months of the initial May 2020 birdwatching incident. There were a few of us who tweeted about curating Black Chemists Week. Once we found each other we started planning, assembling members of the community, and seeking out financial support. There was already #ChemTwitter, which was a huge help in connecting us to Black chemists. 

BlackInChem will be hosting our second annual Black Chemists Week August 8-14. We’ll be announcing a new partnership that will help highlight our efforts to elevate and amplify Black chemists’ work and struggles. Follow @BlackInChem on Twitter to be in the know and help promote our events!

What inspired you and the other organizers to create the first BlackInX Conference and what were your goals? 

During the BlackInX movement, several people took to Twitter and called for one huge celebration, or “homecoming.” We had our first virtual planning meeting, which was crucial in identifying potential sources of funding, and from there, we started writing grants to bring in financial support. The main goals of the event were to come together to celebrate each other and create a knowledge-sharing space. All of our conference sessions were centered around learning, sharing, and healing.

What were some of the conference highlights?

We had approximately 500 registrants, 250 attendees, 40 speakers, 15 sessions, and our engagement included hundreds of tweets. Notable speakers included Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at the National Institutes of Health; Keisha Ray, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, McGovern Medical School; and Kilan C. Ashad-Bishop, PhD, University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. 

One of my favorite sessions was the Joyful Healing Space we created. We sang, stretched, and reflected on racial trauma—all very idiosyncratic conference experiences.

We wanted to increase the accessibility of the conference, so we secured ASL interpreters for each session to ensure equitable access and to expand the diversity of participant perspectives. One person actually unmuted themselves during the conference to share that they were deaf and that they were impressed by our commitment to accessibility. The participants and the interpreters were committed to enthusiastic, equitable engagement throughout the conference. One of the ASL interpreters even went all out and danced to all of the music during the community networking event! While signing! 

What suggestions do you have for young scientists interested in organizing coalitions or planning events?

Find other people in your field who have similar interests to you! Manpower is our most valuable asset at BlackinChem. The BlackInX network is proof that no one is truly alone in their field and when people unite towards a common goal, especially when they have shared experiences, they can accomplish beautiful things.

My advice for someone planning their first conference is to start with the conference goals and identify funding early. When it comes to planning, time is either for you or against you. We started planning about eight months in advance, which turned out to be just enough time to get about 500 people registered. We are so pleased with that number, but we would like to get at least 1000 registered for next year’s event. We would also like to get more people involved globally to increase our reach.

When seeking funding, if there are no call-for-proposals that align with your conference goals, try creating a sponsorship package to send out to companies and institutions that do align, and ask your own institutions to provide support. For the BlackInX conference, we earned funding through all three of these avenues.

What’s next for BlackInX?

We are excited for what is on the horizon for BlackInX. Planning is already under way for next year’s event, and we hope to grow the organization and attract even more members next year. Follow @blackinxnetwork on Twitter for the most recent updates.

Are there particular scientists or other figures who have inspired you in your journey?

My first chemistry teacher in college, Dr. Karin Chumbimuni-Torres, was a first-year, tenure-track professor when we met. She showed me what is possible with a career in chemistry. I worked in her lab from my freshman to senior year and was able to run experiments, publish my data in scientific journals, and present at conferences.

I remember going to a conference and seeing someone reference my paper as part of the introduction for their presentation. I was so proud and honored to be part of the global discourse in analytical chemistry. I decided to chase that feeling and am currently pursuing a PhD at UCLA. I can only hope to be the kind of mentor Karin was for me. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

The conference was organized by a group of students and professionals within the BlackInX network and was funded by Code for Science and Society, UCLA, BlackinChem, Ginkgo BioWorks, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the National Science Foundation Nanotech Lab, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Black Science Coalition and Institute, and more.

In addition to following the @blackinxnetwork on Twitter, keep an eye on the BlackInX events calendar to promote and share future events!