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. Renã A. S. Robinson is an Associate Professor of Chemistry and the Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow at Vanderbilt University. […]
How would you describe the current focus of your work?
Right now, my work is focused on using advanced proteomics technologies, as well as lipidomic ones, to understand health disparities in Alzheimer’s disease. We’re really interested in trying to determine what molecular contributions are associated with African American/Black adults having higher incidence rates of Alzheimer’s Disease. To do that, we’re generating molecular signatures of Alzheimer’s Disease in African American as well as non-Hispanic white and Hispanic/Latino populations and trying to understand how similar and how different those signatures of Alzheimer’s Disease are, as well as also evaluating risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease, such as hypertension.
How did you first become interested in your field?
My interests go back to my undergrad/grad school transition, in which I was trying to determine my route to graduate school. I thought that was going to be in organic chemistry because I was interested in starting a cosmetics company. I found out when I was interviewing for different graduate programs and learned what it would take to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, that that was not for me. So I instead became more interested in the groups that were doing mass spectrometry and were looking at peptides and proteins, and that’s what I could wrap my head around more. That’s how I started doing analytical chemistry as a grad student. If I actually think back, I did have an undergrad research project where I was using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to look at fish oils for glaucoma purposes. I guess that was kind of my intro.
What about chemistry in general? When did you first encounter it?
I was in a number of different programs when I was in elementary school, as well as in middle school, that exposed me to math and science, so I can’t put a particular date to it. But I do know that I had a lot of extensive experience, especially when I got to middle school. I was in a program that was called the Whitney M. Young Scholars Program, and we spent summers on college campuses and got exposed to chemistry, biology, and other sorts of college-level science, as well as math courses. Then I participated in a program in high school, which was Math and Science for Minority Students (MS2) at Philips Academy in Andover and was also exposed to a lot of chemistry outside of just what I was getting inside my high school classroom.
Who were your mentors? And how did they impact your career?
I’ve had many mentors along the way. When I think about my graduate career, my research advisor was one of my first mentors. He was very impactful in terms of helping me to think outside of the box. Also, he was very helpful at just encouraging me to keep going at times when I felt like science was difficult. There have been a number of African American scientists and professors that I have relied on throughout the years to stay in the field and know how to navigate challenges along the way. As for other underrepresented individuals in science, I’ve been fortunate to find some really good people that I’ve been able to rely on, who are more senior. Too many to name but I appreciate every one of them.
What’s a piece of advice you wished you’d received before you started your career in chemistry?
That rejection in chemistry is a lifestyle or would be a lifestyle and it’s up to me to decide how to bounce back. I think I didn’t anticipate how much work that I would put into something for someone else to criticize or to say no in terms of funding, papers, or just ideas in general. I think if I was given some advice in terms of “just expect that this is a part of pursuing chemistry, especially doing it in academia, but it’s something that everyone experiences”, it wouldn’t have knocked me off my feet as much as it did when I first got going with my own independent lab.
How do you bounce back from rejection?
This just happened today, so I think the immediate first best thing to do is to take a step back and put it away. For me, that means once I see the rejection, I have to give myself some time and space to put my emotions to the side and work through my emotions about it, so that I can go back and actually try to read the criticisms and see where the points are valid and objective and how I can best respond to them. For me, it’s been to just give some time and space to actually work through my emotions before I go back in and respond.
You’re in a position now where you’re starting to mold the next generation of chemists; what do you think makes a good mentor? Or what are the qualities that you try to bring to that role?
I think the first thing is just having a heart for it. I think you have to be an individual who truly and genuinely cares about others and the success of other individuals, especially if you want to be helpful to them. I think really good mentors listen and really try to understand what it is that their mentees need, which may not be what you anticipate that they need in the beginning. I think really good mentors also go above and beyond sort of the call of duty and are willing and able to do that. If you have a mentee who you’re mentoring and they’re coming to you with a particular question or set of problems that are not what you had initially signed up for in mentoring, a really good mentor sees how to navigate that. And if they can’t help to navigate the problem, then they’re willing to go out and find the person who can.
STEM continues to be a field where African Americans are under-represented. What needs to change in chemistry in order for that to be amended?
Institutions, whether they’re academic, industrial, or government, I think they really have to put up in terms of where they are. I think a lot of companies say they want to have diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments but haven’t figured out how to do that best. I think they really have to put in more to figuring out and following up on creating DEI environments and spaces.
Recruitment has one part to do with that, in terms of getting people in the door that come from under-represented groups, but really the bulk of it has to do with sustaining that and retaining those individuals in those fields. I think in each institution, it boils down to figuring out what are the barriers within the institutional environment that are preventing individuals from diverse groups from staying in that particular institution. I think for chemistry, the field is an institution. But really, it’s represented among many different companies and labs regardless of what sector they come from. I think each individual institution has to do its part to remove those barriers to impact chemistry as a whole.
What are the characteristics of an organization that does a good job of retaining people of color?
They create spaces where people feel welcome. Spaces where everyone feels like they have a right to use their voice and they feel open enough to use their voice. There’s space where creativity and differences are appreciated, and so when you have individuals who walk into a room, and they share their brilliant science ideas with other individuals, instead of those ideas being shot down, the reception in good places is, ‘ok, how can we build those ideas up? How can we turn those into feasible ones?’ They’re ones where individuals can see a reflection of themselves in the spaces that they work. Companies that do a really good job with this, they have good representation of individuals from different backgrounds. I think that’s part of what they’re doing well.
What do you wish I’d asked you?
‘Why haven’t we figured this out yet?’ is what I wished you’d asked me. Why is it in the context of everything that’s happening in the world today, and I would say that it’s even been happening in terms of injustices across the board, especially in science? Why haven’t we figured out how to do this better? Why has it taken really drastic things happening in our society for institutions to really wake up and step up at doing their part in terms of creating diverse and equitable environments? I don’t know why we haven’t figured that out fully yet, but I do hope that due to current events and all of the positive chatter that is taking place at a lot of institutions [and you see this in publications and in conversations on social media], that institutions will really do their part to help in this conversation. Basically, doing what needs to be done so there’s a fair representation of all individuals that need to be represented especially Black and Brown individuals in chemistry.
Why do you think it has taken that long?
Because I think it’s easy to turn a blind eye to things that don’t impact you, right? And whether that’s ignorance or it just doesn’t impact me, so I don’t have to pay as much attention to it – it’s easy to do. I also think because there hasn’t been as much weight on hearing the collective voices of so many under-represented groups and allies of under-represented groups in terms of addressing these issues. I do feel like, in light of everything that’s happened in the last year, that it’s really been a good time and an impactful time for individuals to feel free enough to speak out and say now, ‘Actually this isn’t just happening to George Floyd, these things are happening to us, metaphorically, in other environments, like in chemistry and in academia and in these different companies.’ You know, we’re very few, and so I think it’s been important for us to have a space to speak, and I think we’ve been able to be heard because it’s not just one individual speaking, it’s thousands of individuals that are speaking and addressing these issues right now.