2021 Graduate Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Award

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PhD student Samantha Mensah (Andrews/P Weiss labs) has been selected by the UCLA Academic Senate for the 2021 Graduate Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Award. 

According to the Academic Senate’s DEI website, the prestigious award is given to just one graduate student each year in order “to honor those who have motivated other members of the University to strive for excellence. These students embrace diversity and serve humanity through learning. Not only are these students constantly working to better themselves, but they are also dedicated to the growth of their peers.”

A fourth-year materials chemistry graduate student, Samantha T. Mensah is working in the labs of Professors Anne Andrews and Paul Weiss. She studies biosensors that can detect neurotransmitters in vivo. Mensah received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with a minor in nanoscience, from the University of Central Florida in 2017. She received a master’s degree in materials chemistry in 2019 from UCLA. 

Mensah is co-founder of #BlackInChem, which is a group of graduate students from around the nation working to amplify the voices of Black scientists. This #BlackinX movement was a runner-up for Science’s 2020 Breakthrough of the Year.  Last year, she and other UCLA graduate students kicked off a fundraising campaign to raise $100K to endow an annual UCLA lectureship series to celebrate Black chemists and biochemists (for which we are still fundraising – click here to give).  In August 2020, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) featured an article about #BlackInChem week. In February of this year, Mensah’s interview with Professor Davita Watkins of the University of Mississippi was featured in C&EN.

As a student member of the UCLA Center for Education & Innovation & Learning in the Sciences (CEILS), Mensah is currently training and advising Chemistry & Biochemistry faculty and staff on diversity and inclusion. “It is an eye opening and valuable effort,” her co-mentor Professor Paul Weiss said. “She is also one of the top teachers and mentors in our department, training others in how to connect with students in order to optimize their learning and understanding.”

For several years, Mensah has served as the Internal Coordinator on the executive board of UCLA’s Organization for Cultural Diversity in Sciences Seminar (OCDS).  In that role she has planned and executed professional development and outreach events, both within UCLA’s Division of Physical Sciences, as well as in local underserved communities, by empowering youth groups to pursue science and higher education.  Mensah has been elected as OCDS’s co-president for the next year.

In addition to being an activist, Mensah is also a talented researcher. The Weiss group specializes in nanoscience and nanotechnology and the Andrews group specializes in neuroscience and chemistry. Working between both groups has required Mensah to speak multiple scientific languages, being fluent in a wide variety of techniques, and being highly collaborative. She is currently taking over the fabrication of the field-effect transistor array devices on an NIH funded project that is part of the BRAIN Initiative, led by co-mentor Professor Anne Andrews. “Sammy is a creative, intelligent, and insightful scholar and leader,” Andrews said. “She continues to inspire those around her, students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and administrators, to make our department and university better places.”

This past summer, Mensah made a significant impact on the UCLA community by working with OCDS to demanding action toward improving DEI efforts at UCLA. She helped to bring together members of diverse communities and academic backgrounds on campus to identify specific needs, as well as ways to potentially address these disparities. This work sparked many conversations across our campus about how UCLA as a whole can be improved in regard to DEI.  In July 2020, Mensah co-authored an opinion piece for the student-run newspaper The Daily Bruin about the need for the UCLA Physical sciences division to make changes regarding diversity and representation.

In their nomination letter on behalf of the Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science, Hayden Montgomery and Michael LeClaire wrote of Mensah, “Samantha’s DEI work is not just distinguished–rather, we would describe it as phenomenal. She has made an undeniable impact on UCLA through her activities within the Department of Chemistry, in OCDS, and in the #BlackInChem campaign. Her passion for DEI work cannot be contained within UCLA, and we are confident that she will continue to create positive change wherever she goes.”

Mensah can be followed on Twitter at @blackinthelab.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.