Reclaim inspiration

Published February 01 2018

Back when Juliette Bell was a chemistry professor, she shared her concerns about a lack of research support with the new president of her university. “That president told me that if I wanted things to change, I had to be willing to take a leadership role and not just stand by and complain,” she said. And Bell did just that. She became an interim dean, a dean and then a provost. Now she is president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

After earning an undergraduate degree and working in analytical chemistry for a few years, Ashley Warfield Oyirifi realized it was time to face the distance and detachment she felt as a black woman in the field of biochemistry. She wrestled with this question in graduate school and began to find answers in, of all places, an elective anthropology class. She is now a passionate advocate for scientific investigation situated in a larger societal context.

I recently heard the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates say in a podcast that, no matter what they say, no white person would ever really want to be black. I thought back a decade to when Barack Obama was on his way to becoming president and Michele Obama said she was proud of her country for the first time. Though I knew that was a harsh and problematic thing to say, it made sense. I was proud too, but I wished I could share the pride that was in her heart. At that moment, I thought, it must feel so good to be a black American.

Now it’s 2018 and Donald Trump is in the White House, and it feels like all the progress that’s been made in my lifetime and the century that preceded my birth is in danger of imploding with each morning’s presidential tweet. And I have to admit that Coates is right. It’s a perilous thing to be an American of color.

You wouldn’t know that talking to Juliette Bell and Ashley Oyirifi and the other African American scientists and educators featured in this issue. As we enter Black History Month in this most peculiar era, we need to balance all the awfulness of the last year with some inspiration. So in this issue, we question three college and university presidents about how their lives as black Americans and scientists have shaped the way they administer institutions of higher learning. That’s quite the crucible for leadership, yet they wear their legacy and responsibility with grace and humility. “I learned by making a lot of mistakes,” says Roy Wilson of Wayne State University, “and learning from mistakes.”

We also talk to experts tackling the tough issues of health disparities among people of color in this country, asking them about the role of basic researchers in what seems to be overwhelmingly an issue of poverty and inequality in the delivery of health care.

And we bring you Oyirifi’s imaginative and inspiring essay on diversifying educational content to attract and keep more underrepresented minorities in scientific research. This piece was submitted to us back in August, and I’ve been itching to share it since then. I’d love to hear your responses. And it may sound corny, but please — keep the faith.

Comfort Dorn Comfort Dorn is the managing editor of ASBMB Today.