Black in Neuro – A Week of Community Building in the Neurosciences

Connecting with peers and new colleagues across the nation and abroad through virtual sessions and via social media.

In the wake of protests against police brutality, researchers took to Twitter, creating events and virtual conferences to celebrate and elevate Black researchers. Creating a community of scientists across the US and the UK, from fields as disparate as birding, astrophysics, botany, and neuroscience, a new movement was born.

And the movement is growing. At the end of July, a handful of neuroscientists became conference organizers, pulling together a week of virtual events open and accessible to all, and still available for viewing on the website Black in Neuro. Sessions included an outreach and mentorship roundtable, a panel on neuro-racism and a discussion with a neuroscientist filmmaker. There were also more holistic sessions like the Black Women in Neuro, a Neuro Art Contest, and the Black Joy in Neuro Day, which highlighted a lot of the non-science aspects of participants’ lives.

Brandie Morris Verdone. Photo by: Rachel Smith

Brandie Morris Verdone, a PhD candidate and neuroscientist in the lab of Piera Pasinelli, PhD at Jefferson became one of the many researchers who participated in the events, and created a profile on Black in Neuro website. Verdone studies the genetic basis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and co-led a Science Communications series for Jefferson students and faculty last year. She spoke with us about her experience participating in the week’s events. She reflects on the need this community and conference has filled by celebrating the achievements of Black neuroscientists – work that isn’t being adequately accomplished elsewhere.

Q How did you first hear about #Black in Neuro?

I first heard about #BlackInNeuro on Instagram when they announced a call for profile submissions but soon learned that twitter was the real home of the movement. I actually was in the process of taking a break from social media. However, I created a twitter account specifically to be able to fully engage in #BlackInNeuro Week and now I am loving the platform!

Q Why do you think this event was important? What made it so successful?

I believe Black in Neuro Week was born out of both relevance and necessity. A lot of us have had to unlearn a lot of habits and biases as we navigated not only a global pandemic, but also a reckoning with the systemic racism our country has tolerated. We’ve had to watch COVID-19 take lives, we had to watch a Black man die with a knee on his neck, and we’ve had to watch a false-911 call in Central Park that could have gone awry quickly if not for cell-phone footage.

That last case, the case of Christian Cooper, a birder known to explore The Ramble in Central Park, NYC, was a catalyst for #BlackBirdersWeek, a social media movement that highlighted Black birders in a traditionally non-Black space. #BlackInTheIvory was also born this summer, where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) academics shared their stories of racism navigating the academy. Black in Neuro was a direct result of social media movements such as Black Birders Week and Black in the Ivory, and was founded by Angeline Dukes from UC Irvine. There was a need to highlight Black and BIPOC neuroscientists in a space where they are often not visible and the organizers, who all introduced themselves in a series of posts and on the website, saw to it that this void was filled.

I believe this event was so successful because of the passion of the organizers. These are scientists at all stages from all over the world who came together to execute a flawless virtual event designed to create visibility and inspire. Their passion was contagious and could be felt with every tweet.

Q What was your favorite session and why?

My favorite session was “Beyond the PhD: Neuro Careers in Academia, Policy, and Industry.” I am at a stage in my PhD where I am thinking about the future beyond being a student. This panel showed me a variety of jobs featuring people not only with a PhD in fields related to neuroscience, but also those who are normally not featured on panels or, if they are indeed featured, expected to represent the views of an entire group of people. It was refreshing seeing Black scientists who are not only thriving in their fields, but also comfortable being their whole selves. Plus, it was excellent exposure to the variety of options available to me upon graduating.

I also really enjoyed the Black Neuro Mentors panel. There is a power in positive mentorship and I believe that it’s not only essential to recruit diversely, but also have the tools to support those you recruit. This session (available on YouTube) is essential viewing for anyone looking to actively recruit a more diverse workforce, for anyone on a Diversity Equity & Inclusion Committee at their institution, or for anyone just looking to be more aware of how they can support their peers. Told from the perspective of community and non-profit leaders as well as professors within the neuroscience space, the panelists offered tools on how to provide mentorship that makes talented scientists want to stay in their fields and not be dissuaded to leave because of politics or lack of support. I can’t stress enough how essential it is for institutions to have these tools.

Q What did the Black in Neuro events mean to you? Do you think they will have a lasting impact on the lives of black neuroscientists?

I actually love this question because I think it has a simple answer: Black in Neuro means that we are here and we are ready. The work to find Black neuroscientists has been done (see the Profiles page on the Black in Neuro website). The tools to retain this workforce have been curated and are out there (see every webinar recorded that week). Now it’s up to institutions, PIs, mentors in industry and academia, to use these curated tools to put their words into actions. I believe that Black in Neuro will have staying power because of the work these leaders have done and for that I am a grateful.

Q How would you like to see this movement grow in the future?

I hope that when it is safe to do so that Black in Neuro becomes an in-person event, and I don’t mean limited to a session at a large meeting. I see it becoming a conference in its own right, similar to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) for example. I also would like institutions to see the standard this conference has set in terms of recruitment and compensation for presenters’ and organizers’ time and hopefully make these practices commonplace.

Read more about the movement to highlight Black researchers in various fields in this USA Today article  or this Forbes article.

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