These UC Irvine Neuroscience Doctoral Students Started a Movement

Elena Dominguez and Angeline Dukes planned Black in Neuro Week last summer as a one-time event. Little did they know they were starting a movement.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

UC Irvine neuroscience doctoral students Elena Dominguez and Angeline Dukes planned Black in Neuro Week last summer as a one-time event. Little did they know they were starting a movement.

Dominguez and Dukes met at the UC Irvine Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program’s welcome bonfire for new students four years ago. Dukes, excited to see another Black woman in the crowd, approached Dominguez, and the two immediately hit it off. “We were the only two Black students in our cohort, so we kind of clung to each other, and we became best friends,” Dominguez says.

Their close bond deepened last summer during the nationwide protests over police brutality, when they leaned on each other for support. But with few other Black students and no Black faculty in their department, they struggled to find others to talk to about their experiences and concerns. Dukes eventually found inspiration on Twitter, where hashtags like #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackInAstro were trending. “It was wonderful to see Black people thriving and doing so well in these fields, and I wanted another way to connect with more Black people in neuroscience,” Dukes says. “I sent out a tweet that said, ‘Sooo when are we doing a #BlackInNeuro week?’ ”

Almost instantly, Dukes got a flood of positive responses, and she asked Dominguez to join her in the effort. Along with several other volunteers, the pair put together a weeklong virtual program with multiple panels and discussions focused on everything from the contributions of Black scientists to racism in neuro-related fields. The group’s initial goal was to amplify Black neuroscientists and build a sense of community, but it quickly grew into something bigger. “As the week ended, we realized that there was no way it could stop, and we started to think about ways it could continue,” Dukes says.

Since last summer, Black in Neuro has hosted another online conference and multiple Zoom socials. The organization’s Twitter account has more than 20,000 followers and regularly posts about internships, jobs, and other opportunities. “We never fathomed it would be this big,” Dominguez says.

The Black in Neuro website has been a particular success, spotlighting dozens of Black neuroscientists across the country and showcasing the work of experts in several fields—including Dominguez, who studies successful aging, and Dukes, who researches the long-term effects of adolescent nicotine and cannabis use. People have found mentors, job opportunities, internships, and fellowships through the website. “I’ve already met so many people who’ve said when you’re looking for post-doc or a job, come talk to me, and that’s all because of Black in Neuro,” Dominguez says.

Both children of immigrants and first-generation college graduates, Dominguez and Dukes know the importance of representation. Each took part in programs through the National Institutes of Health and elite universities where they were mentored by scientists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. That’s why Dukes is working to implement a formalized mentoring program within Black in Neuro where graduate and undergraduate students can connect with researchers and scientists who can guide them. “It’s so important for Black students to be exposed to these things,” Dukes says. “It’s hard to imagine it’s something you can be if you don’t see it.”

Looking ahead, Dominguez and Dukes are hopeful their efforts will continue to expand opportunities for Black neuroscientists. But they emphasize that it’s an ongoing process, and they need everyone on board. “Because non-Black allies are the majority in neuroscience, it’s up to them that these conversations keep going, that these barriers keep getting broken, that Black people have the chance to show their talents,” Dukes says. “The non-Black allies are the ones who can open those doors for us, and it’s such an important thing that we have that continual support.”

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