When Angeline Dukes sent out a tweet early last July, “Sooooo, when are we doing a #BlackInNeuro week?”, little did she know the response she’d receive. The Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Irvine’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior added Founder of BlackInNeuro to her accomplishments within just days of that viral post. Soon, the first meeting was held with 22 organizers attending to bring the event to fruition. Within three weeks, the inaugural edition of Black in Neuro week was held with participants from across the world tuning in to hear their counterparts from the industry speak on informative panels and partake in educational exchanges.
On the tweet that started it all, Dukes says, “With everything that was going on last summer with the murders and the police brutality and the awareness of racism in the country and worldwide, being a Black researcher on campus and in the country in general, I am one of the few Black students in my department and we don’t have a Black faculty, so it wasn’t really like I had anyone to talk to about it and my feelings with that.”
Hoping to connect with people on the topic via social media and seeing all the “Black in X” weeks trending on Twitter, as a result of the Black Birders Week sparked by the racist confrontation experienced by a Black man birding in New York’s Central Park, Dukes sent out that pivotal tweet. “I loved seeing all this Black excellence in all these fields, but I really wanted to meet people in my field who are Black neuroscientists.”
Dukes is a first-generation American and college graduate, the child of Trinidadian and Haitian immigrants. She graduated from Frisk University in Nashville, TN, an HBCU (historically Black college and university) with a bachelor’s degree in biology. In 2017, she joined the neuroscience program at UCI, and has been living in Irvine since with her husband, while the majority of her family resides on the east coast. She is studying the long-term effects of adolescent exposure to nicotine and cannabinoids. She would like to become a neuroscience professor teaching at an HBCU to get more students aware of the field of neuroscience, something that she didn’t know much about growing up as she had never met a Black neuroscientist.
“The biggest goals for Black in Neuro are to amplify and celebrate Black scholars in their field, the work that we are doing is so incredibly important. But also fostering a community where people feel welcome and know that they belong,” she shares.
Duke’s classmate and Black in Neuro co-founder Elena N. Dominguez says, “Joining in on Black in Neuro Week was one of the best decisions I have made because it led to a network, a pool of once out-of-reach resources, and long-lasting friendships. Organizing this effort happened at lightning speed with such impressive and talented individuals, and before we knew it, we created this international movement that is still a force to this day. The response was not expected, to say the least.”
Each day of the week was given a specific theme to best address all of the topics the group wanted to touch upon, including NeuroRacism and Black Women in Neuro. There was also a day on mentoring and outreach. “We know how important that is and a lot of people may want to do more outreach now in the Black community, so we wanted to make sure it was done properly, and that people weren’t harming the communities more than helping them,” says Dukes. All panels are recorded and freely available via the YouTube channel linked on the site.
“It was amazing how willing people were to give their time and energy to this. We had so many different experts,” she shares. In fact, the event attracted sufficient sponsorship from other organizations and individuals that the monies raised afforded payment for all speakers – typically a rarity with regard to independently organized inaugural events. “That was really important because we want to make sure that Black people are getting paid for their time talking about their research, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts, racism … they deserve to be paid for all of that.”
With the unexpected success of the event, Dukes and the Black in Neuro team knew they had to continue the good work. They hosted a mini-conference toward the end of 2020 to showcase the research being done as Black scientists. Undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs and faculty from over 65 countries shared and presented their research.
“We hope people who attended gained knowledge in figuring out how to make actual changes at their own institutions so that they not only recruit more Black scholars but are also able to have a sustainable environment where they want to stay,” says Dukes. The Black in Neuro team plan on having this be an annual event and look forward to hosting again this year. Meanwhile, monthly programming has included socials, sessions on virtual interviewing tips, getting into graduate school, mentoring and other relevant topics.
Adds Dominguez, “Never in a million years did I believe that our following and support would amount to this much or that a couple of grad students and postdocs would be able to instill this much change in such a short time. I would say the best part is how we went from seeing each other in the twitterverse in passing tweets to becoming this machine that is continuously solving DEI problems that academic institutions have had decades to fix. The big difference is that we did it in less than a year.”