Mar 1, 2022
Samantha Mensah
In honor of #WomensHistoryMonth, UCLA Newsroom features in-depth spotlight on materials chemistry PhD student Samantha Mensah, co-founder of the #BlackInChem movement. 
 
She’s a catalyst: UCLA graduate student helped build a system that nurtures Black scientists
 
At UCLA and beyond, Samantha Theresa Mensah, a fifth-year chemistry graduate student and co-founder of BlackInChem, is helping to build a system that nurtures fellow Black and underrepresented scientists. 
 
Samantha T. Mensah
Samantha Mensah counts her first college chemistry professor, Karin Chumbimuni-Torres, and the late astronaut Sally Ride among her influences. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA.
 
Sparked by the national reckoning with racial justice in 2020, Mensah spent the last two years rigorously pursuing her doctorate in physical chemistry in the labs of Professors Anne M. Andrews and Paul S. Weiss, while also working to make chemistry and other science fields more welcoming to people of color and women.
 
In the midst of an isolating pandemic, Mensah put in countless hours mobilizing Black scientists and their allies via emails and Zoom meetings to build a support system for thousands of Black chemists across the United States, Canada, Africa, and Europe — and she helped secure approximately $130,000 in funding for postdoctoral fellowships.
 
Mensah was determined to dedicate herself to building a fuller and more easily accessible pipeline into the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. One of the most important ways to accomplish that, Mensah said, is to have more mentors with similar experiences to help guide students — and especially to help students of color and female students thrive.
 
That’s why, in 2020, she co-founded BlackInChem, a nonprofit that helps Black chemists network with and support each other and aims to boost diversity in the sciences. “I want to continue to be a mentor to Black people in chemistry, which is something I’m doing with my nonprofit,” Mensah said. “If you can’t see people who look like you in science, then it’s harder for you to imagine yourself in it as well — without the idea that you’re an imposter or you don’t deserve to be where you are.”
 
As someone committed to helping others succeed, Mensah credits her first chemistry professor for inspiring her to pursue a career as a scientist. Karin Chumbimuni-Torres, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, where Mensah did her undergraduate studies, proved firsthand how a woman and person of color could thrive in a field historically dominated by white men.
 
“She showed me what opportunities there are in chemistry,” said Mensah, who worked in Chumbimuni-Torres’ lab throughout college. “She helped me realize that I can do research as an undergraduate, present at conferences, and, if I work hard in a lab, that I can publish papers. She influenced the trajectory of my career in a major way.”
 
“I remember as it was yesterday when Samantha took my general chemistry class and I invited her to work in my lab,” Chumbimuni-Torres said. “I am proud of her, I was blessed to see her transformation! She only needed to know that she was able to accomplish anything she wanted! After that she excelled and became my first undergraduate student to publish papers in my lab, now she serves as a role model to my students until today!”
 
Now Mensah hopes to help other women and people of color recognize science as a viable career option. “There’s a lot of us who are aching to contribute in the field, but it’s hard to because of the representation issue,” she said, referring to the lack of women and people of color in science labs. “And it really affects the future of the sciences.”
 
BlackInChem is part of the BlackInX network, which is made up of more than 80 groups representing STEM fields such as physics, neuroscience. and science policy. BlackInX launched in 2020, after the death of George Floyd and the Black Birder incident in New York, when a white woman accused a Black bird watcher of threatening her. These incidents once again exposed the embedded racial inequalities in the United States. “The response has been amazing,” Mensah said.“People are supporting us, not only by showing up at our events, but also amplifying our work and the work of Black scientists.”
 
In February 2022, BlackInChem and the UCLA division of physical sciences announced a travel grant: members could apply to attend the American Chemical Society Spring Conference, which took place in March in San Diego.  And in August 2022, BlackInChem will team up with the Emerald Foundation, Inc., a private biomedical research organization, to offer a postdoctoral fellowship. The award is intended to help more Black researchers make the transition to tenure-track positions at top institutions. “We realized that we don’t have a network and online community of scientists,” Mensah said. “I feel like it only helps the oppressor when those who are oppressed aren’t speaking to each other, creating fellowship, and talking to each other about their experiences.”
 
After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a minor in nanoscience, Mensah set her sights even higher. She applied to — and was accepted into — UCLA’s graduate program in chemistry. She received a master’s degree in materials chemistry in 2019 from UCLA.
 
“The illustriousness of the Ph.D. program attracted me to UCLA,” said Mensah, who studies biosensors that can detect neurotransmitters in the brain. “We have scholars who have accomplished amazing things. My department is not only advancing science and chemistry but advancing the professional development of their people.”
 
And Mensah is doing her part to help a more diverse group of students tap the program's strengths — at UCLA and beyond.  “Samantha is a visionary leader whose dedication is an example for anyone in the sciences, no matter the discipline,” said Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the division of physical sciences in the UCLA College. “Her commitment to increasing access and equity in the sciences has guided all of us to do better, from our home department of chemistry and biochemistry throughout the division of physical sciences and beyond.”
 
Mensah said she also appreciates her advisors, Anne Andrews, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Paul Weiss, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
 
In 2021, Mensah received the UCLA Academic Senate’s prestigious Graduate Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Award, which is given to just one person each year in order to honor a graduate student who has motivated other members of the University to strive for excellence, embrace diversity, and serve humanity through learning.
 
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, be fluent in a wide variety of techniques, and be highly collaborative. “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.”
 
Mensah said she appreciates Andrew’s and Weiss’ guidance.“They have been so supportive of all of my efforts and are training me to be a better scientist,” Mensah said.
 
In 2021, Mensah made a significant impact on the UCLA community by working with the Organization for Cultural Diversity in Sciences (OCDS) to demand action toward improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (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 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.  
 
Since 2022, Mensah has also been part of a group of graduate students who have helped the department recruit new faculty members. “So many early-career researchers who are recruited to UCLA want to discuss diversity,” said Mensah. “Involving graduate students in the recruitment process is one highly tangible way to make recruitment more equitable.”
 
The sky is not the limit
 
At UCLA, Mensah also found inspiration in another woman — the late physicist and astronaut, Sally Ride. Ride, who took physics courses at UCLA, made history in 1983 by becoming the first American woman in space. “I always knew about her but didn’t realize she was affiliated with UCLA,” Mensah said. “And then when I got here, I always passed her photo. There’s a Sally Ride exhibition in Young Hall with pictures and documents that I’d walk by every morning.”
 
That’s helped Mensah see that the sky is not the limit — literally. “She was not only a scientist, but an LGBT astronaut,” she said about Ride. “I am still holding onto the dream of becoming an astronaut. I love her tenacity.” UCLA has been a launching pad for others who, like Ride, show what can be done with education. Anna Lee Fisher, a triple Bruin who earned a bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry from UCLA, as well as a medical degree from the UCLA School of Medicine, journeyed to space in 1984.
 
Becoming the mentor
 
Mensah’s path to UCLA wasn’t easy. Due to economic hardships, her family moved often, between the Dominican Republic, New York City, and south Florida. Science didn’t make it onto her radar until middle school, when she discovered after-school programs ranging from journalism to theater to chemistry.
 
At first, she took classes after the bell rang to stall before returning to her foster home. But she soon saw a whole new world of possibilities. Mensah especially loved the robotics club, where she learned how to code robots to perform tasks.
 
“It was my first introduction to STEM in general,” she says. “The sciences were what I was really excelling at. And once I realized I could manipulate matter on an atomic level, it was just onward from there.”
 
She’s never looked back. Instead, she hopes to serve as a visible inspiration to other Black women and girls who want to become scientists. Mensah channels Ride as she points out how important it is for girls to see role models in their careers so they can visualize themselves in those jobs. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Mensah said, quoting Ride.
 
So, what’s next for the aspiring astronaut? After completing her doctorate, Mensah hopes to launch medical technology companies to help tackle health issues such as heart disease, a leading cause of death in the Black community.
 
She’d also like to run for public office one day, so she can help advocate for STEM education and science funding.
 
“I remember thinking for years we need more diversity and more scientists in government,” Mensah said. “And then later on, I realized that I could be the one striving toward representation.”
 
A version of this article first appeared in UCLA Newsroom. Many thanks to writer Nancy Gondo for giving us permission to use her article here.