Published April 20, 2021
Powerful online efforts emerged to celebrate and elevate the voices of Black scientists as the pandemic took hold in 2020.
Called the #BlackInX movements, they arose during months of protests against police killings and police brutality. They were a reaction to events, including the Central Park birdwatching incident — an episode that highlighted the dangers and harassment that Black people endure daily while doing ordinary things.
Two UB doctoral students are among the leaders of new #BlackInX movements: Raven Baxter, a PhD candidate in the Department of Learning and Instruction, who founded Black In Science Communication, a network for science communicators, and Olivia Geneus, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry, who co-founded Black In Nanotechnology, a network for scientists working on an atomic or molecular scale. Like many #BlackInX movements, #BlackInSciComm and #BlackInNano gained traction on social media, with Black scientists and engineers connecting by hashtags on Twitter and through weeklong virtual conferences last fall.
Baxter, a microbiologist, is known for her communication work as Raven the Science Maven. She made a national splash at the start of the pandemic when the video she wrote and produced about the science of COVID-19 went viral and was featured on news shows from New York to Hawaii. Her “Wipe it Down” was her musical take on Lil Boosie’s “Wipe Me Down.” In it, she masterfully mixed personality and sass with science information as she sang lines like, “Don’t pass the sickness, just stay up in your house and mind ya business,” while wearing periodic table leggings and dancing with a bottle of spray cleaner.
Baxter also created Black In STEM Education, a collective of educators and researchers principled in organizing people to come together and amplify the voices and perspectives of Black scientists.
“Although the #BlackInX movements were triggered by a really unfortunate event — being the incident in Central Park with the bird watchers,” she said, “I’m glad that it brought us together to find each other and make these communities and affinity groups to support each other and talk about our shared lived experiences.”
Below, Baxter answers questions about #BlackInX, her academic journey and her hopes for the future.
Baxter: It’s exciting because before last year, when all of these movements popped up, there were only a couple of organizations that I’ve known of, in all this time I’ve spent in STEM, that were centered around Black people. We didn’t know where to find each other. We didn’t know how to access our community in STEM.
Although the #BlackInX movements were triggered by a really unfortunate event — being the incident in Central Park with the bird watchers — I’m glad that it brought us together to find each other and make these communities and affinity groups to support each other and talk about our shared lived experiences. It’s really just spending time to unpack our lives as scientists together and move forward.
Baxter: We’re planning some outreach initiatives and tapping into our network to see how people want to use their voices in supporting that. We have some people who are Wikipedians, which is a word we use to describe people who can create and edit and monitor Wikipedia pages. So one of the things we are thinking of doing is a Wiki-thon — basically, just create entries into Wikipedia for Black scientists and engineers and people in STEM. We want to make sure people are aware of the work that has been done and is being done by marginalized folks in STEM, including the important contributions that they’ve made to the STEM field throughout history.
Baxter: I have always felt like getting the public interested in science and curious about the world around them was really fun and interesting, and I’ve always been naturally inclined toward this field.
Baxter: My research is centered around my own science education efforts and understanding the impact and responses to my work from the general public. I’m studying viral videos that I’ve created, and collecting the abundance of data that exists around my work. I’m analyzing it to understand what it is about my style of science communication that people are resonating with. How can we use that information to create more inclusive and culturally relevant science education content on a larger scale?
People really want to see or have spaces to be their unapologetic selves. There needs to be a push in the media to provide representation of scientists who don’t fit the mold of what people commonly believe a scientist is and what a scientist looks like. People often say if they had a science teacher who was like me, or somebody who communicated in my style, that their path in STEM would have been different.
Baxter: I really felt like Black voices in STEM needed support, especially after all that we’ve been through in the past year. It was really important for me to provide a space where people are reminded that they have a community of people who care about their voice and care about the science that they are passionate about.
I wanted to provide a space for people who would like to communicate science and receive resources and training and a network of people to help boost their skills and access opportunities.
Baxter: I do want to say it’s really not just Black people. There have been a lot of people who have been allies to the Black community coming in and helping to build these communities with us and show support, and that’s also been very fundamental to all of this progress that you’ve been seeing. It’s been very heartwarming.