If you are on twitter, you have probably noticed hashtags recently that start with “BlackIn” followed by a scientific discipline. First, there was BlackInSTEM, then BlackInNeuro. This week is BlackInGenetics (or BIG), an organization dedicated to “amplifying the voices and work of Black-identifying geneticists across the United States and beyond.”
These groups have shared goals: amplify the voices of black-identifying people in their field, connect black-identifying students and trainees with organizations seeking to hire them, provide the scientific community with resources on understanding racial inequity in genetics, educate the public on recent advancements in their field, and provide a platform to host conversations about dismantling systemic racism.
BIG’s founder, Alexis Stutzman, and Markia Smith, BIG’s co-organizer, are both third year graduate students in the biological and biomedical sciences program at the UNC Chapel Hill, School of Medicine. Smith uses integrative genomic approaches to study tumor biology including genetic and environmental determinants of cancer and their impact on racial disparities. She is a member of the Hoadley and Troester labs. Stutzman is working on 3D changes to genome architecture during Drosophila wing development in the McKay and Dowen labs.
GEN spoke with Stutzman and Smith about how BIG was started, the response it has received, and their future goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GEN: Why (and how) did you start BIG?
Stutzman: I was watching the independent movements of BlackInSTEM and BlackInNeuro and I started thinking about BlackInGenetics. I replied to a thread [on twitter] to ask how I might get involved and they answered, “Congrats! You’re the founder.” I texted Markia, and she and I immediately started organizing.
GEN: What do you hope BIG accomplishes?
Stutzman: That question is kind of loaded. But, some of our goals are to:
- Highlight that scientists have power and that our words really matter.
- Point toward people who are already here and can be good resources. “For us, by us” is really important but we also have to reconcile that a lot of people who have actual power are not us. So, there needs to be a happy medium where all of us are conversing and connecting and learning something about how we are doing.
- Get people of color to join us and become geneticists.
- Show that scientists are people too.
GEN: How did you decide on the themes for each day?
Stutzman: We took our framework from BlackinNeuro. We knew how we wanted to begin and end the week. The roll call on the first day functions in multiple ways: it allowed us to flood the timeline with a lot of wonderful scientists; establishes our community; allows us to tag people and reach out to them later in the week. Ending the week with a call to recruitment had worked well for BlackInNeuro and it made a lot of sense to say, now that you have seen us, you can recruit us.
We decided that it would be too hard to break genetics down into subfields, so instead of that, we decided to have community building days. For example, we wanted to honor the unsung black heroes and our past.
Smith: We also want to highlight the people who are currently mentors to us. Because there are not a lot of black people in genetics. So, it is not just a way for us to find community, but also to foster networks.
Stutzman: We also wanted to highlight our science. Because our science is what makes us cool. Something that I’m so irritated by is that people look at the color of my skin, sometimes, before they look at my science. And, since I think that my science is the coolest thing about me, I just want to talk about my science and figured others would want to do the same.
Smith: Another goal in showcasing our science is to reach laypeople so that they understand the importance of black people being in genetics. Our representation in the research is to say, you can trust us. This is a way to combat black people not trusting the medical and scientific fields.
GEN: How is the week going so far?
Stutzman: It’s been a great week. Last night, I was up until 3 am, sitting on my computer, reading people’s homages to their mentors and crying. It’s been amazing.
GEN: What do you want to do to keep the momentum going after this week?
Stutzman: Thursday’s theme is a call to action. Recognizing that there is a history of immense racism in our field. We would like to have a conversation—not a presentation—and try to brainstorm how we are going to move forward to combat systemic racism as a scientific community.
Smith: For us, the most important part is keeping up the momentum. We hope to make this an annual event so that we can continue to promote people in genetics. Eventually, we want to have videos and lectures so that this becomes a big entity of community, making us able to do more outreach.
We have a plan to work with all of the “black in X” weeks to create a combined call to action to say what we want from science and how we want to move forward.
GEN: What would that call to action look like?
Smith: I have attended mostly PWI (predominantly white institutions). And, after doing diversity enrichment work at these institutions, I’m tired of hearing about their task forces and committees. They don’t work. We know they don’t work. Because we aren’t seeing the number of black faculty increase. So, I ask them, what are your numbers? And, what is your plan to increase that in the next three to five years? When I ask those questions, the answer is that they are working on it—they’re doing this and that. And, a lot of times, it’s an all white committee. My own department, for example, has been interviewing for a faculty position, and the candidates are all white. So, I plan to meet with the chair of the department to ask if they are actively recruiting women and people of color, like they say they are. Because we don’t see it in the numbers. NIH is calling for increased diversity. So, it’s not adding up that a lot of institutions that are funded by NIH are not actively trying.
But, it’s also about retention. The whole system is rigged. So, it depends on whether or not these universities are willing to dismantle the system they put in place. And whether or not they are willing to do away with disadvantages for people who come from lower socio-economic status. There are many things that people can do to help with retention of faculty and students that we would like to see implemented.
For more upcoming events like #BlackInGenetics, check out twitter for the hashtags below:
#BlackInGeoscience Week (Sun, Sept. 6 – Sat, Sept. 12)
#BlackMammalogists Week (Sun, Sept. 13 – Fri, Sept. 18)
#BlackInMentalHealth Week (Sun, Sept. 20 – Sat, Sept. 26)
#BlackInCMDBio Week (Sun, Sept. 20 – Sat, Sept. 26)
#BlackInSTEMEd Week (Sun, Sept. 27 – Sat, Oct. 3)
#BlackInMicro Week (Mon, Sept. 28 – Sun, Oct. 4)
#BlackInCancer Week (Sun, Oct. 11 – Sat, Oct. 17)
#BlackInSciComm Week (Sun, Oct. 11 – Sat, Oct. 17)
#BlackInPhysics Week (Sun, Oct. 25 – Sat, Oct. 31)
#BlackInMath Week (Tue, Nov. 10 – Mon, Nov. 16)
#BlackInData Week (Mon, Nov. 16 – Fri, Nov. 20)