Ph.D. student Angeline Dukes photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

“Sooooo, when are we doing a #BlackInNeuro week?”

When Angeline Dukes sent this tweet last July 3, she probably didn’t anticipate that the post would soon bring together thousands of Black scholars from all over the globe. Just months after the tweet went viral, the Black In Neuro organizing team put together the inaugural Black In Neuro week and mini conference, drawing undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members from more than 65 countries to a series of virtual events on neuroscience-related research, professional development, mentorship and racism in neuroscience.

Dukes was inspired to tweet after seeing the successes of other STEM-related coalitions. As a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior, she had only one other Black classmate, Elena Dominguez (who has also been instrumental in organizing Black In Neuro). In the overwhelming aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the aspiring professor had no Black faculty members she could turn to for support. The movement provided that vital connection.

“We wanted to build a community where people felt comfortable talking about race-related issues, sharing research opportunities, and just knowing that there are more of us out there,” she says.

The importance of Black mentors
Dukes credits Black mentorship for facilitating her growth as an academic. As the child of Trinidadian and Haitian immigrants and a first-generation college graduate, she had to navigate the educational system largely on her own. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, an HBCU, where she majored in biology and graduated summa cum laude.

She originally planned on becoming a pediatrician, but after a few classes at a medical school and some hands-on experience, she realized it wasn’t what she was passionate about. Yet she still loved to learn biology and teach it as a lab and teacher’s assistant.

“As a child of immigrants, you grow up thinking you have to become a doctor or a lawyer. I didn’t know about other options,” she says. “Thankfully, I had some incredible Black female professors who told me, ‘If you don’t want to go to medical school, you can go to graduate school,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, what is graduate school?’ They helped me get into research and navigate the process of applying. They showed me that I can be a professor, too.”

Finding her path
Though Dukes now knew she wanted to become an educator and researcher, she was undecided about what her exact research interests were, so she applied to UCI’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program. There, she would be able to rotate in different labs from various departments, which would expose her to a variety of approaches and help her decide on a specific field.

UCI just so happened to be the first school she interviewed at. “I knew the neuroscience research here was amazing. But I also had lots of questions about how supportive the faculty were regarding teaching, mentorship and outreach, because those things are really important to me,” she recalls. “They addressed all of my concerns and seemed really supportive about it. This was my dream school in a way. I never thought I would actually get accepted.”

Dukes was not only accepted into the program, but it was also instantly a perfect fit.

Since she would be moving across the country, Dukes enrolled in the Competitive Edge Summer Research Program, which is designed to support entering doctoral students from diverse backgrounds. It was her first rotation that summer – in the addiction neuroscience lab of Christine Fowler, UCI associate professor of neurobiology & behavior – that sealed the deal. These days, Dukes’ dissertation focuses on the long-term effects of nicotine and THC in developing adolescent brains. However, her favorite part of her role as a scholar isn’t the research itself. It’s being able to lift other people up through her work.

A community of mutual support
“I know that the work that I’m doing is very interesting, but what I love the most is being able to talk to younger students about it. I love going to the Los Angeles and Compton school districts to tell students about the research that I’m doing,” she says. “I love to show them that this is an option for them, too. If they decide they want to go to college, they can be scientists, professors and anything else they dream of.”

Whether it’s K-12 students or her academic peers, Dukes is constantly striving to reach out and empower others. Last June, Dukes and Dominguez co-led an anti-racism discussion that started the UCI End Racism Initiative, a movement to dismantle systemic racism on campus and beyond.

Black In Neuro is another reflection of her passion for mentorship at every level. “I’ve connected with a lot of other Black scholars, especially current faculty members. Even though they’ve been through graduate school, they didn’t have anything like Black In Neuro to offer support when they were going through the process,” she says. “I’m so thankful we can connect with them now, and they can find community, but also that they can serve as mentors to us.”

One of the long-term goals for Black In Neuro is a formalized mentoring program for undergraduates and graduate students, and peer mentoring for faculty.

Sources of campus support
The future of Black In Neuro depends, of course, on external support. “Although we are creating this for ourselves, all the work doesn’t fall onto us,” Dukes says. “We need a lot of support from institutions and from departments. If they say they want to increase Black representation at the student and faculty level, they need to support initiatives like this because we’re putting in the work to not only get Black students interested in neuroscience, but to also keep them in the field.”

Thanks to sponsorships from UCI and several other campus institutions, including the School of Biological Sciences, the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and the UCI Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Black in Neuro has been able pay all of their speakers for the various panels, talks and events that they have organized.

“There’s really no shortage of ways to support the movement,” says Michael Yassa, CNLM director and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion for the School of Biological Sciences. “But my hope is that organizations that do provide support do it for authentic reasons. And along with their contributions, they should make a commitment to institutional culture change to celebrate and promote Black excellence and work to eliminate systemic and institutional barriers that prevent Black scholars from thriving in the academy or industry.”

Last year, the UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence instituted the Black Thriving Initiative – a campus-wide commitment to eliminate such obstacles at UCI and the community beyond. Led by vice chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion Douglas Haynes, the initiative – among its many priorities – is working to ensure that the contributions of Black scholars are always celebrated and that they never have to feel like they don’t belong at UCI.

In the School of Biological Sciences, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is collaborating with the Office of Inclusive Excellence to address systemic anti-Black racism on campus, improve campus culture, develop federally funded diversity training and faculty hiring initiatives, and support student outreach and recruitment.

“Anti-Black systemic racism has for hundreds of years suppressed the voices and contributions of the Black community,” says Yassa. “Black In Neuro and a number of other similar movements are a huge step to right those wrongs, to fight back against those inequities, and ensure that this generation and the next see hope and freedom from oppression on the horizon.”