“Be Humble, Be Bold and Be You”
According to renowned analytical chemistry scientist Dr. Reña Robinson, these are the keys to succeeding and thriving in the scientific research community. Although she originally planned to pursue a career working in cosmetics as an organic chemist, Dr. Robinson made the decision to pursue her interest in analytical chemistry after being inspired by her work using novel and complex instruments involved in biochemical assays. NOBCChE’s national president-elect (National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers) and a 2020 recipient of a substantial NIH grant for her work on proteomics (large-scale study of proteins) related to Alzheimer’s disparities, Dr. Robinson is a research leader who has also brought public awareness to the racial and ethnic disparities in Alzheimer’s disease research and treatment. She firmly believes that you have to feel inspired in order to be motivated enough to effectively conduct research, and with the complexity surrounding Alzheimer’s and its biochemical pathways combined with its increased severity for several racial and ethnic minority groups, Dr. Robinson has plenty of inspiration for such a dynamically elaborate problem.
Her research group, the RASR Lab, conducts research in proteomics to understand the link between hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease and has a primary focus on health disparities in Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is known to both disproportionately affect African-American and Hispanic populations. These groups have higher incidence rates of disease and are underrepresented in basic science research and clinical trials related to Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, recruiting research participants from these populations is particularly difficult partially due to their historic mistrust of the scientific and medical community. Raising awareness on Alzheimer’s disease in these communities and encouraging more research studies to understand the connection between biochemical pathways, genetics, socioeconomic factors, and pre-existing health conditions is thus critical.
Thanks to Dr. Robinson’s work, however, these daunting gaps in both research and awareness are being addressed by graduate and undergraduate students alike in the RASR lab. To highlight Dr. Robinson’s most noteworthy contributions, ongoing research, and passion for both diversity in STEM and in research, we sat down to ask Dr. Robinson five questions:
1. What are three key words of advice or encouragement you would give to a minority student interested in studying chemistry or other natural sciences to combat imposter syndrome?
I would say be humble, be bold, and be you. Be humble because where you start is not where you are likely to finish. Be bold as you go through the work and rigor of scientific training and know that we aren’t represented in large numbers in some scientific fields, but we are here. And be you, because you contribute the most when you feel comfortable bringing yourself and your passions to your field.
2. Why do we need to increase diversity in chemistry, specifically for black and hispanic students?
We need to increase diversity in chemistry because if we want to be able to solve society’s most daunting problems, we need different people in a large variety of roles in our multicultural society, including in these harder disciplines and fields.
3. What is it like to be a black leader in a STEM field dominated by the white majority?
Defeating imposter syndrome is one of the hardest things I have had to do, realizing and subconsciously knowing that I am a deserving analytical chemist. Additionally, because there aren’t many of us [black analytical chemists] currently in this field, I find it necessary to balance my research while actively creating opportunities for mentoring passionate STEM youth.
4. Please describe your proudest achievement or moment concerning reducing disparities in research on racial/ethnic minorities (receiving an important grant for a research project, being able to be involved in outreach and recruit more minority research participants, etc.)
I have several proud moments. My first would be when an African-American chemical engineering student became a co-author on a publication during the first few years I was teaching. It was wonderful because she had intentionally sought me out and asked to work with me as a minority scientist. When she successfully became a co-author on our publication, it felt like we had done something right, so we said “let’s try to do that again.” My second would be the first time I graduated a Ph.D. student under my mentorship as an analytical black chemist, and I had the direct opportunity to help them, see them grow, and become successful in my field. My last proud moment is one that is recurring, and it is to see publications come to fruition in our group [RASR Lab] that deal directly with racial/ethnic health disparities in Alzheimer’s, as I know that we’re making a difference for so many minority communities.
5. How do you hope to see the chemistry research field change over the next few years and into the future?
I hope to see the barriers that prevent young talent from pursuing chemistry as a major and/or career eliminated. The idea that chemistry is “too difficult” or “not the right fit” are increasingly commonplace, and it’s due to these unnecessary barriers that we put in our field, from difficult introductory courses to imposter syndrome. I also hope that the field makes more scientific advances and creates more opportunities for necessary collaboration between chemistry and other disciplines (biology, psychology, public health, etc.) to tackle multiplex societal issues from a variety of perspectives.