On May 12, Caltech hosted the inaugural Conference for Emerging Black Academics in STEM (CEBAS), organized by the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC) and the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity (CCID).
Scholars from across Southern California convened at Dabney Hall on campus to present research at the forefront of various STEM fields and discuss their experiences as Black academics. Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum and BSEC co-presidents Evan Haze Nuñez and Thomas Henning gave opening remarks, which were followed by a session of talks across a wide range of disciplines. More than 80 attendees joined the conference in person and remotely via Zoom.
Throughout the day, faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students presented talks on research in chemistry, biology, geology, mathematics, neuroscience, economics, astrophysics, sociology, psychology, and materials science.
Conference organizers say the interdisciplinary nature is one thing that makes CEBAS unique. "There are a few existing conferences for Black scientists, but they tend to be field- or industry-focused, like the National Society of Black Engineers and the National Society of Black Physicists conferences," says Nuñez. "Our goal is to bring Black academics into a space where we can appreciate and learn from one another across disciplines."
Organizers add that the conference also aims to increase the visibility of Black scientists and highlight Caltech as a space where Black researchers can thrive.
"Caltech does not have the greatest history in regard to racial relations and in its support of Black scientists," says Henning. "But I think that has been changing fairly dramatically in the last few years. Hosting this conference showcases the talent we have, and shows that what was once a hostile environment can become something incredibly positive and open."
Although the conference focuses on research, speakers are also encouraged to mention "how they navigate life as successful Black scientists," says BSEC vice president Sarah Weisflog. "Our science journeys in general are intertwined with our identities."
After the first session of talks and lunch, Henning moderated a panel on science communication that explored those intersections. During the discussion, Caltech geobiology graduate student Josh Anadu, Caltech Presidential Postdoctoral Scholar in chemistry Arianne Hunter, and UCLA astrophysics graduate student Dakotah Tyler spoke about authenticity, representation, and resilience in science communication.
After the panel, another session of talks explored cutting-edge research, including a keynote lecture from Gina Poe, UCLA professor of neuroscience. Poe spoke about her lab's work on the role of sleep in memory consolidation and learning.
The conference concluded with a poster session and reception at which attendees had the chance to continue discussing research and making connections.
Attendees reflected on CEBAS with appreciation and enthusiasm for next year's conference. "We made history yesterday," said Hunter in a LinkedIn post after the event. "It's a beautiful thing when a group of diverse minds can come together and put together an event of this magnitude for a greater purpose."
"The conference was a great chance for the small Black community at Caltech to invite others in and discuss many topics in STEM," says Cameron Jackson, a graduate student in neurobiology at Caltech.
"It was so inspiring to see that most of us have similar experiences and continue to excel as scientists. Personally, it was like a breath of fresh air and the first time I have felt a real community since starting graduate school. I went to lab the next day ready to give 110% because I felt like I now had a group of people who were just like me and making huge contributions to science and our community, so it's my responsibility to do the same in whatever ways I can."
CEBAS was organized by BSEC leadership including Nuñez, Henning, Weisflog, and Jasmine Emtage, with support from CCID director Tashiana Bryant-Myrick and program manager for advocacy Devon Dobbs. It was also supported by the Research University Alliance, of which Caltech is a partner school.