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Celebrating African American Chemists: Malika Jeffries-EL

February is Black History Month in the United States. This year, ACS Axial is looking forward and highlighting noteworthy African American chemists working today, engaging them in conversation about their life and work.

Professor Malika Jeffries-EL is the Associate Dean, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Materials at Boston University.

How would you describe the current focus of your work?

We’re interested in new materials. Developing new materials and also the method to assess new materials. Our two major objectives are developing materials for use in organic light-emitting diodes and developing materials for use in solar cells. And we love synthesis. We love making new materials and figuring out how to get them done in an efficient fashion.

How did you first become interested in materials chemistry as a field?

It’s kind of been an evolution. First of all, I was that oddball kid who was always interested in chemistry. When I was a kid, I was just kind of curious as to why? Why does water boil? Why does wax melt? How do things function the way they do? When I started taking chemistry classes, I was like, ‘OK, this is where I’m going to get the blueprint.’ I fell in love with organic chemistry, just the idea that you can manipulate molecules and atoms and just come up with so many different things.

As I made my way through my studies, I got into materials, which was like the next level up. In addition to manipulating atoms to make molecules, you can manipulate molecules into macromolecules. You can get different molecular properties and how the processing plays a role in it. Just the added dimensionality that came with the material space even intrigued me more. And so I figured out I found my people.

Reaching way back, what was your first encounter with chemistry? What do you remember? When did you decide that it was the field for you?

I was fortunate when I was a kid, probably around 12 years old or so, definitely before high school. I did an advanced program for girls, and that was when I first heard about chemistry. I was always that inquisitive kid. When I took that program, they gave us a periodic table. And I came home with my periodic table, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be a chemist.’

A chemist’s job is to heat, mix, stir, and see what happens. And this is the period table, and these are all the elements that are in the world, and you can combine them in different ways, and you get different molecules. And mother is like, ‘OK, that’s nice dear, that sounds great, it sounds like that will keep you out of trouble. You do that; you go be a chemist!” It was just the simplest of concepts, but it just really got to the heart of things that I always wanted to know about. And I just said, ‘Chemistry, therein lies the answers,’ and I was hooked.

Who were your mentors? And how did they impact your career?

I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of mentors in my life and people who have come alongside me at different stages of my career. Early on, when I was a kid, my mom was my biggest champion and mentor. She didn’t know a thing about what I wanted to do but encouraged me to do it and worked to find the opportunities. I mean, my mother would just take me to the library and drop me off for hours and was like read and learn. This was back in the day before the internet, and I remember being on a quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I was a nerdy kid – leave me at the library with a snack and have at it.

I was really fortunate when I got to college because that’s when I developed my first true mentor or mentee relationship with someone who was a scientist. I had a chemistry professor, Professor Stanley. I met her my first week of college; I was doing my orientation meeting with the freshman class dean. We were discussing majors, and I was going to a liberal arts school, and they were trying to tell me, ‘just take everything, sample everything, and figure out what you want.’ I said, ‘but I want to do chemistry.’ And they said, ‘Well, you don’t have to make a decision today, you know? You can try a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ But I was like, ‘I want to do chemistry.’ And after the 3rd time of saying that, the dean writes a name down and then says, ‘Go talk to this person.’

She sent me to talk to Professor Stanley, and we talk, and I said, ‘Dean White said to come to talk to you because I’m a freshman student and I want to be a chemistry major.’ We got a chance to talk and see what that would look like. She looked at what I was registered for and was like, ‘whoa.’ Because I was a freshman student and I was already trying to register for organic chemistry. And she was like, ‘No, you have to take general chemistry first.’ But I had gone to a specialized high school, so I was like, ‘I’ve already had generalized chemistry, and I want to take organic.’

The truce we made was that I would do combined general chemistry, which was one semester instead of two. She said, ‘If you do this and if you do well enough in this, then we’ll let you take organic as a freshman, but we don’t usually let freshman take organic.’ And I said OK.

So I did that, did very well in that, and then ended up taking her organic chemistry class, and she was just like, ‘Oh my God. This girl really is a chemist.’ At that point, she began to advise me, not only just how to get through what I needed to do as an undergrad, but also to think about my next steps.

I was actually pre-med; I was one of those pre-med students that were trying to juggle the pre-med, and she was like, ‘Why are you doing pre-med?’ I was like, ‘I’m good at science; I’ll go to med school. She said, ‘No, you’re amazing at chemistry; you should be a chemist.’ It was a great conversation, because I never really wanted to be a doctor, not at all, but I signed up. I knew I could handle the curriculum. I knew I could do it. And my parents had that expectation that I’ll be the doctor in the family, and so I was pushing myself to do it.

I was doing the biology for pre-med, I wasn’t at all interested in it. She freed me of that. She said, ‘You don’t need to take biology.’ I could just get a Ph.D. in chemistry. I was like, ‘That just sounds wonderful, but my dad is going to be upset because he wants a doctor in the family.’ I’m a first-generation college student, so you want to talk about not knowing a lot about anything. She said, ‘My dear, PhDs still call themselves doctor.’ And I was like, ‘problem solved! My dad still gets a doctor in his family. I don’t have to take biology. I don’t have to go to med school. This is great!’

Professor Stanley actually just retired, and because of Covid, I couldn’t make her retirement party. But I told her I’m not ready to be as old as that means I am because she’s at the end of her career. That means I’m officially mid-career, when your mentors are actually hanging it up. But she has been a lifelong adviser to getting me through undergrad, convincing me not to drop out of grad school, encouraging me as I pursued tenure and promotion. And so she’s been great.

My next best mentor was when I did my postdoc. My postdoc adviser Richard McCullough was an amazing mentor, and he really pushed and encouraged me to go on; and at that point, I kind of had a horrible Ph.D. experience. So I was convinced maybe I would just go work in the industry and didn’t want much to do with academia. He convinced me to stick with academia, in that there was a place for it. And it worked out. He’s been a great advisor all through that process, the postdoc, the job search, the promotion, the tenure, and even still to this day, we still keep in touch. Now I’m an administrator at the university, and he’s an administrator, so he’s helping me how to navigate life and how to balance research and administration.

What’s one piece of advice you wished you’d received before you started your career in chemistry?

It is not a sprint; it is a marathon. And it is not a straight path. I think so many people get on a path, and they stick on that path because they started on that path, but to know that you can look for the exits and look for the off-ramp and get on another road if this point isn’t serving you. It’s all about the pacing; you don’t have to do everything at once. I have to talk so many students off the ledge. I call it burnout; burnout is real. I see so many people who just go, go, go, go, go, work so hard to get it done, but you know, the journey is just as important as the destination.

I think we do our students a disservice sometimes. I had a student who was about to do an internship. The student suggested doing the internship, and the advisor thinks, ‘oh my God, it’s going to prolong the time it will take for you to complete your degree.’ It probably is, but so what! It’s a great experience, and he’ll finish his degree 6 months later. He’ll probably have a better Ph.D. at the end of it. And when you get to be 45, no one is going to notice that you got your Ph.D. at 28 instead of 27, or whatever the case may be. I think pacing is important. I myself experienced tremendous burnout when I was a Ph.D. student.

You’re at a stage in your career now where you’re helping to mold the next generation; what have you learned about being a good mentor?

I’ve learned that one size does not serve all. I sometimes have to realize that you have to be intentional and that everybody doesn’t respond the same way. You try to be upfront about who you are and how you mentor, and let people decide if they want to work with you or not. But often, the students are so young and green they don’t necessarily know what serves them and what doesn’t serve them until they get going.

I learned as an advisor that sometimes adjustments are necessary. I don’t like to micromanage people, for example, but I’ve learned that sometimes you have to. Some people do not do well with open-ended periods of time. Some people, you tell them, ‘OK, do these things, get back to me in a month, and we’ll see where we are, and we’ll go from there.’ And some people will come back to you in a month with all those things done and then based on what they learned and saw, what the next steps they took were and then you can have a hearty discussion. Some other people will say, ‘OK, I did those things.’ ‘OK, but that probably took you two weeks, so what did you learn? And what should you do next? What did you do with the next two weeks?’ ‘Well, we hadn’t met yet, so I didn’t do anything.’ And you’re like, ‘OK, but you did everything I asked you to do, yes, you learned what worked and didn’t work, you have an idea of what you should do next, but you didn’t do it because you didn’t hear from me that you should?’

It takes a while for some students to take ownership because, I think, the Ph.D. is a different mentality. You see the transition between really young students, and as they get older and more mature, they take ownership of their projects. But some students are just not great at pacing or visioning or even just taking ownership, and so more frequent check-ins are needed for some people. Like I said, I’m not the type to micro-manage. I’m the flash photographer model – come back to me after some more time has elapsed.

What do you think the role of social media in science communication is?

That’s a great question, and that’s on my New Year’s to-do list to get better, to do better at utilizing my social media platforms for communication. I think social media is great, and I think the more significant and meaningful content we can put into social media, the better off everyone will be. I think everyone’s coming to it, and you know, you can ask the average citizen when is the last time they sat and read a whole article versus a BuzzFeed article of something they saw on Twitter. And so I think it’s a great vehicle to highlight things. I’m trying to learn to be more adept at it.

I think our generation, we’re the digital immigrants, meaning we’re the people who grew up without having iPhones attached to ourselves, but now have iPhones attached. Whereas I have a 20-year-old niece who is a digital native – she was playing with an iPhone since she was a kid. And so I bring it up just to say never be afraid to enlist the help of the natives.

I learned a lot as an immigrant, but I look at how these younger people just innately, what they can do. You look at some of the videos that these people produce, some of the TikTok videos and stuff. I know some people just thumb their nose, but it’s just not going away. You can either avoid it or be absent from it. Or you can embrace it and figure out how to use it. And so I’m, myself, I’m very interested in figuring out how to use it, how to highlight the accomplishments of my research group. You know we have an Instagram account, and we highlight some of the research, and you know our pretty pictures and cool images coming out of our lab. We put that out there. You know, aside from just highlighting two people in the field, but what we’re doing and what we’re accomplishing. I think those things are important for the younger generations.

I mean, I think of myself and how I got inspired, you know, seeing Mae Jemison. That was something that was just so inspirational to me. It was some medical woman who was African American and an astronaut, like what? You know, that was unheard of. I grew up in the hood where you either have more kids than you should’ve with the guy you probably shouldn’t have had them with. Or you, you were doing really well, and you had a stable job, you worked for transit or something or a good government job working for the city and having a steady paycheck, and that was an upgrade, and that was it. Being a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, those weren’t even in my trajectory. Then I saw that, and I thought maybe there’s a place for me. So if some girl sitting in Mississippi sees my image and says, ‘Wow! She looks just like me, and she got a Ph.D., maybe I can get a Ph.D.’ If it inspires that person, then I want to put it out there so they can find it.

You mentioned Mae Jemison. Who are some other chemists you admire? Past or present?

Past or present? Alright, well, we’ll go to the past. You know, in terms of stories, the Percy Julian story was one that I became familiar with. That’s a great story. And I was happy when they made it into a movie, but that’s just a great story of persistence, you know, and not letting go of your objective. And also making lemons out of lemonade, because he didn’t let up on his goal despite everything he had to overcome. He didn’t quite hit his goal of making the synthetic cortisone steroid himself, but he didn’t give up on it. And then eventually, he got there with the help of others. I just like that story of persistence. So definitely, Percy Julian was a hero of chemistry.

Paula Hammond from MIT. I remember when I met her, I was just like, ‘Wow! You not only went to MIT, but you’re also a faculty member at MIT!’ I was just blown away listening to the science that has come out of her lab. If you’ve ever heard her talk about science and the way that she talks about science, it’s like, ‘I geek out the same way!’ With the enthusiasm and the excitement that she has for her science and the passion. I remember the very first time I met her, and I thought, ‘I want to be like her when I grow up!’ She’s not that much older than me, but it’s like dog years when you’re a student, and someone’s actually a faculty member. But I remember thinking, ‘Goals; Paula Hammond is definitely goals.’

Sharon Hanie is another person that I’ve known over the years, and I think she recently retired, but she worked at DuPont. And she was somebody that I met through my involvement with ACS. Also, somebody who overcame obstacles and adversity. When you look at people significantly older than you, when you look at the demographics now at some of these institutions, and you meet women who went to go get Ph.D.s at places like Harvard in organic chemistry. Harvard has a bad rap for women in organic chemistry today, so when you meet someone who did it 30 years ago, you’re like, ‘Man, you’re tough!’ You can’t help but tip your hat with respect and admiration for what they had to overcome just to do things that most people would take for granted.

STEM is still a field where African Americans are under-represented. What do you think needs to change in order to address that?

I think we need to address the elephant in the room. And that is implicit bias. That we need to acknowledge a lot of people get into this good/bad, that good people don’t do bad things. When people identify themselves, they say, ‘I’m a good person. Being racist is a bad thing. Therefore, I’m a good person. I’m not a racist.’

But to realize that it’s intrinsic, the DNA, the United States is built on racism. Period. End of discussion. It’s pervasive in every aspect from our government, from our zoning, our districts. We see you now the Georgia turn blue phenomenon. Georgia has always been blue. It’s just people registered to vote. I mean, you know, and even what happened in Pennsylvania, there were some lawsuits that settled about gerrymandering and redistricting. I mean, that’s just a political, well these are the people that determine the money. And this school district, every kid who comes out of there is guaranteed to be dumb because they don’t get to be taught anything, and then you go to college, and you say this person isn’t as good as this other person. It’s like, ‘Was this person ever really given a chance?’ If two people take the same test and one person had the books and the other person, you know, had a few lost pages of photocopies, and then you said this person didn’t score as well, and this is the basis of admission, and it just rolls on and on.

In many ways, I marvel at the ignorance of the situation. If I knew then what I know now, I don’t know that I would’ve done this. I mean, that’s the upside. I mean, again, coming from the digital immigrant, the internet was just becoming a thing when I was growing up. We sure didn’t have social media and this immediate just-in-time information. By the time it had occurred to me that I had gone down a long and very lonely path, I was too far down to turn around.

When I got started in chemistry, I did it because I wanted to do it. When I went to college, there were only 2 of us [Black women] in the whole 4-year time I was there. There were 2 of us that were there that were chem majors. There was one girl that was two years ahead of me, and there was no one behind me—two of us. That bothered me a little bit, but I wasn’t that worried. And I went to Wellesley, and the gender thing wasn’t an issue – it was all women, but it was only 2 of us. And so I was worried, but I wasn’t worried. In the back of my brain, ‘I was thinking, well, OK, but Wellesley isn’t that diverse. There weren’t that many Black students anyway.’ I think in my brain, that’s because I went to the wrong school. At other schools, there are more Black students, and this is just because I went to the wrong school.

Then I get to the Ph.D. level, and I’m thinking, Where is everybody?’ I had heard about the [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and stuff, and I’m thinking, ‘Alright, we’re all going to dump into this Ph.D., and I won’t be alone anymore.’ And then, I was the only one in my Ph.D. program. And then I, later on, found out from some stats that that year, there were only 22 Ph.D.s awarded to Black women in chemistry the year I got my Ph.D. There were over 2,000 Ph.D.s awarded, and there were only 22 to Black women, and I was the only one that’s a tenured professor who got out that year.

People say it’s a pipeline issue; there’s just not that many. That’s true, but the percentage yield is extremely low. It’s true that there are not that many, but 22 that went together, then something’s wrong. I mean, 22 could have gotten you 10 if you would’ve cultivated talent. 22 going to one is not a pipeline issue; it’s a process issue. Then you know you look at all the other things. Now there’s all this data coming out, like ‘shock, shock, shock, there’s racism in peer review.’ Shocking! But I mean, you ask those of us to go through it. I remember my very first manuscript submission; it was an ACS journal, my second ACS journal. I remember getting my reviews back, and it says you should make sure you have somebody who spoke English reviewed my papers before I submitted them.

And I thought, ‘I was born in Brooklyn, New York, I speak English.’ I guess because I have an unusual name, that I came from this exotic place and you want to disparage me, and it was just negative, negative nasty reject. And you know, it was disheartening. And I later on, in talking to some other scholars, they were like, ‘Learn about appeals and rebuttals.’ But it really set me back in my progress, because I actually had another manuscript queued up, and I didn’t think this one was that bad, and look what happened. I started to second guess everything, everything that came, over-analyzed everything that happened.

Now, when I see some of this data that comes out, it’s like, ‘Of course, it is.’ It’s remarkable. You never get the benefit. When you’re Black, you never get the benefit of the doubt. You don’t. If something is wrong, it’s because you’re incompetent. I mean, as a professor, I have a colleague, and we taught the same class. It was just glowing recommendations for him, and it was like, ‘She makes frequent mistakes.’ I don’t know the requirements for undergrad organic chemistry? I got an A in that class when I took it as a college freshman. I’m pretty sure 15 years later, I can master material from doing it repeatedly. When you’re a professor, and you’re lecturing, you’re like standing. You’re walking. You’re talking, you’re writing, you’re touching your nose, doing all those things at one time. I even asked my colleague, I had him sit in my lecture, and he said it’s not unusual to make mistakes. Professors write all the time and make mistakes. What’s the big deal? But it’s like, ‘She makes frequent mistakes.’

One of my comments said, ‘She is, is sloppy and disorganized’ – completely unprofessional in a student evaluation. And you know, my chair wanted to talk to me and said ‘I’m concerned about your evaluations,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ And he said the scores are low in some cases, and I’m looking at these comments. And I said, well, read this comment. It says, ‘I’m sloppy and disorganized.’ I said, ‘You know I’m the best-dressed faculty member. Sloppy? I am never sloppy. I am stylish; I am the most put together professor in this faculty.’ I said, ‘Disorganized? Hardly!’ I said, ‘That is crazy.’ And I pointed to another example of the bias, and it went over his head, and I had to spell it out to him. And I said, ‘Read this paragraph,’ and he read it. It said, ‘I thought it was bad last year when I took the class with Dr. Winter, until I got the misfortune of taking the class with Ms. Jeffries, I should’ve taken the class with Prof. Kingston.’ And I read this to him, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, they always compare you to your colleagues, and you’re not the same.’ And I said, ‘No, they didn’t compare me to my colleagues. They took my Ph.D. He’s Dr. Winter, he’s Prof. Kingston, but I got stuck with Ms. Jeffries.’ You know, when you have to read student evaluations that say, ‘the best part of the class is the 60 minutes you get to spend looking at her backside.’ It’s not equal.

But you know, you fight the fight you can fight. I went on a crusade. Students submit these things anonymously to us, but they do it online. But it goes from their blackboard system, which is their online web portal for student access, and then it goes into the system, and it’s anonymous to the professor. That might be true that the professors shouldn’t know who the students are, but at some point when it went into the system, someone knows who that person is, and I need someone to flag this for language, and those students should be brought up on bullying complains when they say things like this to professors in evaluations.

They kind of dragged their feet a little bit, but it actually was serendipitous because we had a new dean of students at my former institution, and we actually ended up becoming friends, and I was like, ‘A the end of the semester, I just need a drink,’ and some other colleagues went out for drinks. And we invited our new dean of students with us, and we were all going on about these horrible things that were said. She was just like, ‘I’m sorry this is sent to you?’ We were like, ‘Oh yeah, and her office got involved and worked with IT to now flag up and identify, and sanction, and discipline students who write sexist, racist, and hateful language in faculty evaluation.’ But it was going on for years. We get these things dumped on us to read. I mean, they only scanned it for things like the n-word, and they were scaled back and stuff, but then nothing happened. They would just delete it so you wouldn’t read it. But nothing happened to the person that said it. And I was like, ‘That’s the first step.’

But my current institution has gone even further to say we can’t use student evaluations for a basis of faculty promotion and tenure. Because they know they’re extremely subjective and biased. So I feel like the world is coming around to the realization that they want to say it’s fair. We have a process. Yes, but every metric that you consider, every metric, every checkpoint that you value for this process is corrupted. So you can say, ‘well, we’re not racist, we pick the people with the most publications or the most funding, and that’s why you didn’t get picked.’ OK, but how did they get more publications than me? Or how did they get more funding? And you know, to actually peel back the layers, it’s like you say these student evaluations are the most important, then you have to acknowledge that not everyone is being treated equally in this process.

I think only now, today, people are coming to the realization. Like, ‘Wow! People, some people actually consistently being screwed by the system.’ You know, you’ve been saying this since before Martin Luther King. Now the liberals are finally coming around to realize like, ‘whoa! This is systematic.’ Yes, racism is not a person. There are some racist people, but racism is systematic. I think people are coming around to realize that, yes, they’re starting to see the systematic nature of it.

This last week was absolutely exhausting. It was absolutely exhausting. And you know, just listening to the Republican party try to underplay what happened by comparing it to Black Lives Matter. If you actually think, if that’s what you think, then you don’t actually understand what happened. I have a friend of a friend who is like saying all these same kinds of things, and I said, ‘Let me tell you the difference. Looting a Target is vandalism. Raiding the capital is sedition.’ Alright? Like, let’s just, they’re not the same. They’re not the same. I was like, ‘Let’s get back to the real point. Black people march because we’re tired of our government failing to understand that cops and civilians kill us with impunity. Your people march on the capital because they tried to ratify a legitimate electoral process. That’s not the same thing!’ And he said, ‘It’s the same thing. People are lawless.’ It’s not the same thing. It’s a fact that you can actually kill Black people without going to jail, but it’s not a fact that that election was rigged. And he said, ‘Those people that got killed by police were criminals, and they showed that they all had criminal records.’ Then the data when the press got involved, they found out they had cigarettes or minor drug possession charges or something. But at the time that that person got a knee to the neck or had a gun to their head or busted into their apartment, none of that information was known. That’s not what that information was for. Meanwhile, some guy brought an automatic weapon in Michigan that didn’t even go to jail. So, yeah, America.

I’m haunted a little bit by the 22 to 1 ratio. We talked a little bit about implicit bias. But are there are systemic things that institutions can do to correct that ratio?

Oh absolutely. I mean, you know, one of the most damning things with institutions was over-reliance on standardized test scores for the basis of admission. That’s the one thing that did people in. They said, ‘oh, they just don’t make the GRE cutoff.’ It’s like, ‘You picked the GRE cut off.’ You’re making an assumption.

We actually did our own study back when I was at Iowa State, and we looked at our own numbers, and we found no correlation between GRE scores and Ph.D. performance. And it’s true in many fields, and I say this pausingly because I know that’s heresy, because I know there’s so much on standardized testing. But the reality is you think about the skillset that’s needed for Ph.D. and the skillset that’s needed for a standardized test, you know, the thinking and mindset that it takes to excel are not actually the same. That’s actually a more narrowly defined repetition, control set of thoughts that doesn’t necessarily translate to the creativity that you need to do well in a Ph.D. program. It’s sad that inadvertently we probably screened out the really talented people who probably would’ve done well in a Ph.D. program because they didn’t do well on this standardized test.

Now it’s not to say they don’t have a place. If your program is very based on math, physics, computational chemistry, anything that’s very math-based, then you want that standardized test because the math proficiency – it’s either there or it isn’t. But not being proficient in math doesn’t make me think they can’t be an organic chemist. But yeah, that’s what we admit it for. So when you look at GRE scores, it’s like, ‘oh, the GRE math score is really low, the analytical score is really low,’ but what did that test for? And what do we actually need this person to do when they get here?

I remember having a laugh about that back when I was at Iowa State. We had a student who did something incredibly stupid and broke an expensive piece of equipment. And it was so stupid when you talked it through. It was like what? Did you not think this through? Something on the scale of, ’round things roll.’ Somebody laughed and said, ‘he had a perfect GRE score, but he was one of the worst Ph.D. students we had experienced.’ It really got us to thinking that those things don’t necessarily correlate. The route memorization, excellence that he demonstrated on that test was not at all the skillset he needed to do well in the research lab. So I think people need to come to terms with that.

I cringe because when you tell people to look at things more holistically or not rely so much on test scores, the comeback to that is, ‘we’re all in favor of diversity, but not to demise the quality.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, but you determined what quality was.’ Like, why is quality such a fixed integer? And you said these people who aren’t hitting this aren’t quality, and these people who hit it are quality. But you picked that standard, why are you holding it so near and dear? People say it hasn’t failed us before. And that’s the number one reason – ‘if the system works for certain people, the system is working for most people. The people it’s not serving are broken. It’s not the system.’ And you’re like, ‘is it?’

When I did come through my Ph.D., you get students who second guess you and say, well, you’re only here because of affirmative action; you’re not good enough to be here – you’re a diversity hire. And so, this is like a double-edged sword. The university tries to implement policies to try to knock down barriers so that people can compete. Then they don’t get credit for being there because then people say you’re not good enough to be here. You were just let in for diversity. And it’s like, ‘OK, wow! But I’m scoring higher than you in every class. I’m more productive than you!’

I remember when I got my NSF Career Award, and I was so excited that I got my Career Award. one of my colleagues who didn’t get one was, you know, gripping to other people that I got it, and he didn’t. Then the next year, my colleague got it, a woman, and that year when she got hers, he was gripping that he didn’t get it last year and he didn’t get it this year. And he wasn’t surprised that she had gotten it instead of him because she was a woman, and he wasn’t surprised that I got it before both of them because I was both Black and female. I was actually very annoyed, and my female colleague was very upset. And she said, ‘I almost wanted to cry when he said that, and you have a different reaction – anger.’ And I said, ‘you know, I’m angry, but I’m not.’ I’m calm because one thing occurred to me. I said, ‘you’re a year ahead of him, and I’m two years ahead of him, so we will both be through tenure before he will, and I look forward to voting no.’ I said, ‘Let’s supply the same logic here. ‘Why are you voting no to his tenure?’ I said, ‘Because he doesn’t have a Career Award.’

Oh, cry me a river! Oh, you didn’t get a Career Award. Oh, was it hard for you to get a Career Award because you’re a man?! And that shouldn’t be a metric of excellence because you couldn’t achieve it? But that’s how they do. If roles were reversed, that’s the measure of success. If you didn’t get a Career Award, therefore, you’re not successful. Therefore you’re a dud. But when it’s somebody else, ‘it was really hard, oh but not every good person gets the award.’ That shouldn’t be the metric of success, and that’s the gold standard. It gets a little bit exhausting.

Read Malika Jeffries-EL’s papers in ACS Publications journals.

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