Being raised in tiny Brownsburg, Indiana, while not only Black but Nigerian, confronted NIU doctoral candidate Ore Akinbo with challenges from many sides.
Standing on one side: her professional path of neuroscience and behavior. On another, her white classmates and teachers. On another, her African American peers.
Yet the daughter of two scientists – her father, Olujide Akinbo, is a professor of chemistry at Butler University who earned his Ph.D. at NIU in 1997 – is not one to surrender easily.
Or, as she has discovered this year, quietly.
Her journey began with a recognition of cultural, and perhaps genetic, expectations.
“My dad is an analytical chemist. My mom’s first degree is in physics. It was bound to happen,” laughs Akinbo, who enrolled in the NIU Department of Psychology in 2017. “It’s one of the accepted career choices you can make as a child of immigrants: lawyer, doctor, engineer. Scientist falls under acceptable.”
Inspiration at home was abundant, as she spent summers working with her father on projects and experiments or watching brain surgeries on the Discovery Health channel with her mother.
The outlook past those four walls, however, proved sparse.
“Growing up in a predominantly white environment, and being the odd kid out, I smelled too much like our home Nigerian food. I got bullied for things. Even the other Black students around me didn’t understand why I was so passionate about science or doing well in school,” Akinbo says.
Within her treasured books, she adds, “all of the scientists that I ever really read or learned about were all white males. There was never really space for someone like me to exist. I knew of Black female scientists, but only because they were the people my parents introduced me to.”
At school, meanwhile, “there were no Black teachers for me to learn from. The only Black teachers I encountered were special ed teachers, or teachers who worked with troubled children. There were never any science or English or math teachers who looked like me, and that was frustrating.”
Nonetheless, Akinbo persevered, heading to nearby Butler to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology with minors in chemistry and neuroscience.
Coming to DeKalb for graduate studies at her father’s alma mater opened doors to research positions in the labs of NIU psychology faculty.
Under the guidance of Angela Grippo, Akinbo focuses on the behavioral, neuroendocrine and cardiovascular consequences of social and environmental stress using the prairie vole model. With Leslie Matuszewich, meanwhile, she explores the effects of stress, addiction and drugs of abuse on neurochemistry and behavior using Sprague Dawley rats.
Despite Akinbo’s arrival at this penultimate level of her professional life, however, she found that some of the experiences of home remained.
“Knowing the pain I felt, I would love to push for a different narrative in science that’s more inclusive – not just for Black women but for Black people in science – to give students who look like us that role model, or that person to look up to, to know that there is space for them,” she says.
“Right now, unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like that,” she adds. “I go to this huge international conference – the Society for Neuroscience – and you would think that if it’s an international conference, and there are 30,000 people there, that there should be a stronger presence of Black scientists. In the two years that I’ve gone, I have come across very few of them.”
Enter George Floyd and his May 25 murder in Minneapolis.
“When the activism really started ramping up on Twitter, I heard about Black In Neuro, and I was like, ‘Finally! Maybe I can find one or two other people,’” Akinbo says, “and I found an entire community. I didn’t even know they all existed. At one point, I was crying while I was tweeting. I didn’t know that anyone else was out there.”
Finding that collective online brought not only connections and comfort but a compulsion to lift her own voice and the platform to accomplish exactly that.
Akinbo tweets her own opinions and advocacy and retweets others who are like-minded champions of social justice issues along with hashtagged “introductions” of other Black women in science. She also candidly shares her feelings about the “mental, physical and emotional” stress of graduate school, and about the challenges of teaching undergraduate classes.
Twitter has proven a friendly place for a graduate student with no Black classmates in her particular program and only a few in the department.
“It is very lonely being the only Black person sometimes because there are things that you can’t necessarily explain to other people,” she says.
“When you see someone suffocate on national TV, or when you watch someone get shot in front of their kids, you know, it hits a little bit differently as a Black person – because you see that person as your family. You see them as a family member,” she adds. “And, sometimes, that’s hard to explain to my white peers.”
Despite some pushback from unexpected corners – “from people that I did consider family, from people who I was very close to growing up” she says – Akinbo is determined to press forward to create positive change.
She hopes that lifting her voice via Twitter helps some of her white friends and colleagues to recognize their unintended microaggressions – “Sometimes, they don’t cut deep, and sometimes it’s death by a thousand paper cuts, and they keep doing it, not knowing that it hurts,” she says – and to consciously evaluate whether their “mental and physical spaces” are truly welcoming of and inclusive of Black and brown people.
Going online also has given Akinbo a new mentor, Black in Neuro co-founder Kaela Singleton.
“Kaela is amazing. She calls herself ‘The Beyoncé of Neuroscience,’ and she is literally what I want to be once I hit postdoc life,” Akinbo says. “She’s confident, she has come through a lot academically and a lot personally, and she’s come out on the other side so much stronger. She says, ‘Yes, I’m great, but let me help you be great.’ She remembers to look back behind her and uplift people.”
Akinbo wishes she could have found this when she was younger – a face on her screen similar to the one she saw in her mirror.
“I would have followed that person to the ends of the world. That would have been amazing to have,” Akinbo says. “But I’m perfectly OK with me being that person for another person.”
“For somebody like me, who’s a super-nerdy girl, hiding in her room, reading her fifth book of the day, our dreams are a little bit different, and the environments we find ourselves in don’t always encourage that. Even when it’s not a predominantly white space, even if it’s a low-economic or low-socioeconomic area, you’re not encouraged. You are overlooked. You are not seen. You are invisible,” she says.
“I hope that by amplifying our voices even louder, and by getting involved in these programs, that I’m able to encourage one child to continue on with their science dreams. I’m hoping with all of us shouting into this space of social media that we’re able to create a voice that will attract more children, that will attract more future scientists and that will let them know they’re not alone,” she adds.
“Building this community is not just to help us but also to help whomever comes next so that they’re not entering their graduate programs alone: They’re entering with a tribe.”