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  • Naomi Howard

“I want to foster a sense of community for Black chemists"

As #BlackChemistsWeek2021 draws to a close we want to thank everyone who has shared their work, engaged with us and helped us celebrate and support the work of Black chemists. One such individual is Naomi Howard who, alongside studying for her PhD, is developing the Bond Chemistry Project – “Bond” standing for Black Opportunities and Network Development. The project seeks to create a set of resources, identify interventions and foster a community space that is tailor-made for Black chemists through extensive engagement and analysis. We spoke to Naomi and here’s what she had to say about the project’s findings so far, how good intentions can often miss the mark, what belonging to chemistry community means to her – and what it’s like working with her younger brother.

Naomi Howard is studying for her PhD at Loughborough University. While doing so she is also developing the Bond Chemistry Project to create a set of resources, identify interventions and foster a community space that is tailor-made for Black chemists through extensive engagement and analysis. Picture: Naomi Howard





What is your background as a chemical scientist? I’m currently around ten months from finishing my PhD, which is looking at nanoparticle self-assembly within fluids and interfaces. It’s a really collaborative project meaning I work closely with the departments of mathematics as well as the design school. Before my PhD I did a masters in formulation chemistry at Greenwich University, where I also did my undergraduate – that was actually in nutrition. I’ve always felt like I didn’t take the standard route towards a chemistry PhD and I think that feeds into my passion for equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI). We can’t assume that everyone has taken the same journey to arrive at a specific place so to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to study and learn should they want to, we need to make sure we create environments that can work for everyone. What led you to start the Bond Chemistry Project? I’m a member of the RSC and it was during the pandemic when I first saw the ID Fund’s special call for Black chemists. It was during the George Floyd movement and an unusual time where I was isolated from my wider family. It was just me and my children – at the time my daughter was classed as high risk so we barely left the house. Watching the civil rights protests made me long to do something positive at a time when everyone was listening – I felt really frustrated that I was stuck inside. So when I saw this call I thought I can’t really ignore that – it felt very tailored to me. It’s great to see the RSC really put their money where their mouth is on these important topics and that is one reason why I thought I couldn’t really not get involved!

Naomi’s work, alongside the #BlackChemistsWeek2021 social media campaign have been funded by our Inclusion and Diversity Fund, which in 2020 put out a special call for projects that would focus on Black individuals’ retention and progression in the chemical sciences. This year’s Inclusion and Diversity Fund special call is for projects to improve accessibility and disabled inclusion, and was open from June to August 2021 with applications reviewed on a rolling basis and grants worth up to £5,000.

For a full list of projects funded by our Inclusion and Diversity Fund, including through the special call for projects supporting the Black chemistry community, click here.

How did you narrow down your grant application aims? My brother was studying biochemical sciences at Swansea University and I mentioned the opportunity to him, we really wanted to run a physical event – but realised this wouldn’t happen with COVID-19. I had done some outreach at the time – volunteering at colleges and so on – but felt a little naïve myself as to what was needed. I started reading about projects out there and got the impression that so many were well intended and coming from good places but also maybe ill-informed. And that’s what made me want to find the Black community, address them directly and see what interventions would work – sourcing the ideas from within the community and tailoring them rather than thinking from the outset “oh I reckon this will work” and just going ahead with it. How has progress been so far? So many universities are putting out mentorship programmes and careers programmes focusing on personal development but the uptake is often relatively low for minority groups. Likewise, I started by putting out a few blanket calls and responses were indeed very low, so we changed our tactics. We are now addressing lecturers, academics and society leaders directly and saying “who do you know who would fit this profile?” With this personal approach my volunteers and I are hosting meetings to outline our work with more of a personal touch and this has really helped retention. We are asking participants to take part in three one-hour focus groups which take place over a period of 6 months so maintaining participant interest is key.

What have you discovered so far? We are yet to complete and analyse our data collection, but it is clear that a strong theme is finding a sense of belonging and identifying what that means. “Belonging” is such a simple word but it’s surprising how multifaceted the definitions can be in a social science perspective. On a personal level a poignant moment for me was one day I was waiting for a delivery and looking at our department’s noticeboard with pictures of all the academics on–it’s a really helpful resource especially when you’re new and don’t know people’s names. I was sat there twiddling my thumbs and suddenly thought “oh my gosh – nobody here is Black!” It had never crossed my mind before – I grew up in quite a white area and I am from a mixed race family and had never gone out of my way to analyse diversity in specific areas before. But that was the moment the penny dropped for me and I realised “this is exactly what all the data about lack of diversity in our field means”. It created quite a visceral response for me and really made me analyse my own sense of belonging in that work place, and it was quite an emotional experience. I am now beginning to think that low uptake of mentorship or careers programmes may be related to these individuals feeling out of place and as if they don’t belong in that space. What will the outcomes of your project be? I hope to create a resource that is free for all, trustworthy, and most importantly based on scientific research and evidence– our goal is 60-100 participants so it is quite a big data set when you consider the size of the interest group. I want these resources to be constantly evolving as new information comes out and for it to be accessible to anyone, at any stage of their chemical sciences career – from A level students to lecturers. I want these resources to listen to the community and to be specifically tailored to their needs. I want to foster a sense of community for Black chemists, and plan to achieve this through a newsletter and our website which is currently under construction. I want to create a community space where everyone can go to find transparent and clear information or links to resources, whether these are for career progression advice or examples of community success stories. For example, if you are first in your family to go to university a lot of things that are often assumed to be known are not known – things like you don’t actually need a Masters to do a PhD. With Masters courses often looking at fees of over £10,000 this kind of help can really play an important role in an individual’s decision making. I also want to speak to academics who are hiring for new students and ask them “what makes an attractive candidate?” I want to reach decision makers themselves to help them become well informed – so if you are running a module or a programme, are in charge of employing someone etc. that you are knowledgeable yourself about who may be there and how they could feel in the university space. What is the ID Fund specifically paying for? Overall, the ID Fund is helping us create a trusted, recognisable brand and identity. It’s amazing – it would have been such a shame to spend all this time and effort on the research and then not have a product that reflects its quality. The money is mainly going toward a prize draw to encourage participants to take part and the development of our website. We also intend to have an Instagram and twitter page to reach as many people as possible with the data and resources as they come out. We also hope the website will open opportunities for engaging further people we cannot reach right now. What do you think can be done to encourage more projects like yours? Something that I would like to talk about is the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) burden. If you are interested in this work it is typically additive to your existing workload. I intend to put an overview of the Bond Chemistry Project in my PhD thesis – it is scientific work and it is based in chemistry. In a practical sense this work is arguably advancing the chemical sciences further than my PhD of research! We need to make sure that EDI funding can be utilised in a way that doesn’t just end up giving an enthusiastic applicant burnout as it can greatly increase workload and these funds are often taken up by busy individuals who already have a lot on. Finally, how has it been working with your brother? Well overall it’s OK and of course I do love him dearly, but he is my little brother and I’d be lying if I said he doesn’t need a few reminder texts and emails…

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