This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Shawntel Okonkwo, a PhD candidate of Molecular Biology and Gene Regulation at UCLA and the founder of wokeSTEM, a unique entity that intersects social justice, STEM and science communication, while centering people of color. In this interview, she discusses the importance of embracing radical authenticity and truth-telling, which are at the core of wokeSTEM, as well as the transformative power of seeing yourself reflected in science. You can follow her on Twitter @sokonkwo_.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research center on today?
If we define a scientist as a person who seeks truth, then I’ve always been a scientist. However, my more “formal” identity as a scientist blossomed over three separate moments of awakening (or becoming):
During college, I taught scientific inquiry and experimentation to second graders at a school which was underperforming due to low standardized test scores. Because of their low API scores and the pressure from the district to score higher, they only had time for one science lesson per semester. I made every intention to arrive in that classroom as my full authentic self—an enthusiastic, proud, and confident Black woman who often spoke colloquially while slanging STEM concepts and cultivating curiosity and the ability to question the world from a scientific point of view. I also taught every lesson donned in a white lab coat, so they could literally see themselves represented as an authority, rather than an afterthought of science and technology innovation. I saw myself as a scientist when my students began trusting me as a guide for accessing their own scientific identity.
The second instance was as an undergraduate researcher at UCSF Mission Bay. There, I found the opportunity to generate original hypotheses in the lab from my creative observations, despite having low grades and minoritized identities. I also had an amazing research advisor and mentor, Dr. Daniel Hart. Dr. Hart was patient in my scientific journey and treated me and my ideas with respect. For the first time, I felt like a collaborative research colleague with something of scientific value to contribute, rather than a silent student shadow expected to become a carbon copy of their PI. It also helped that Dan was Nigerian (like myself), which helped to bring me out of the shell I developed during my experience as an “other” in academia. My work in the lab led to my first publication and many presentation awards which helped validate my ability to contribute new knowledge to the scientific community.
The third instance was just before starting graduate school at UCLA. I had a hard time reconciling with my need to be engaged in contemporary liberation movements while working as an academic research scientist—particularly in the age of Black Lives Matter. Many of my close friends were community organizers and knee-deep in their passions to bring justice to our communities, yet none were scientists. Early on, my definition of an activist was pretty naive and lacking nuance. When I was accepted into a PhD program, I began self-interrogating the use of the privilege, power and access that I would earn as a highly educated person. How is this degree going to play a role in my personal commitment to Black liberation politics? The late Toni Morrison articulated this meditation poignantly:
When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.
During graduate school, I actively began using my privilege as an academic scientist to create impact and value within and outside of the Ivory Tower with science communication, science outreach, mentorship, and science policy on Capitol Hill. The experience of speaking truth to power through creative scholarship and activism in diverse spaces helped to seal my full identity as a scientist.
I am now wrapping up my PhD in Molecular Biology and Gene Regulation at UCLA, where I’m studying how the elegant chaos of our molecular life affects the quality of how our genetic DNA behaves. More specifically, I use molecular biology and bioinformatics to explore how the dynamics of chromatin modification talk to and collaborate with other modes of gene regulation to affect the outcomes of pre-mRNA splicing, genome-wide. In other words, I study the intersectional quality control mechanisms of gene expression using the tiny organisms responsible for beer-making!
You are the founder of wokeSTEM, which centers people of color in uniting social justice and STEM. What was the inspiration for founding the community? Why choose a visual platform as the foundation for this work?
wokeSTEM is a creative response to the lack of inclusive cultures and spaces in the full STEM enterprise. In the age of rapid-fire STEM innovation, unlimited access to information and increasingly intimate social relationships to technology, I think it goes without saying that a lack of socially-conscious STEM will only catalyze more problems for our global community. wokeSTEM was inspired by many things, but what catalyzed the actual execution of the idea was Solange. In 2016, she came out with A Seat at the Table, an amazing album (and movement) that had everybody and their aunties shook and edge-less. I connected with the album so much because of the struggles I and many other minoritized colleagues in STEM were facing around harassment, bullying, racism, misogynoir, and institutionalized erasure—despite Diversity and Inclusion™ initiatives.
The community aspect of wokeSTEM was founded for many reasons—the most important being the priceless value of finally centering those who have been historically marginalized and amplifying our genius. I believe community care, collective awareness and social consciousness should be at the center of anything we do with regards to STEM. Our four principles are: joy, excellence, resistance, and radical authenticity. I strongly advocate for centering these values for true social change in STEM. The past, present, and even future has revealed what consequences arise when this is not the case—from eugenics and disposability experiments on Black bodies to AI-enabled erasure and criminalization of Black bodies and beyond.
We started with our YouTube channel as the first materialization of wokeSTEM because visual juxtaposition has the power to stir change. Humans respond strongly when they see two things that are not commonly seen together juxtaposed—take, for example, cognitive dissonance. For many individuals entering cultures of STEM, cognitive dissonance comes up frequently as an early barrier against inclusion and belonging due to the status quo. I wanted to experiment with this notion by flipping it on its head. I wanted to normalize this notion of being Black and being seen, heard, understood, and valued as knowledge-creators, stakeholders, and consumers in STEM. The creative direction I employ around wokeSTEM is to welcome a not-so-new yet refreshing (and more moisturized) outlook on what STEM is and can be—for us and by us (FUBU). We’ve done fun and digestible videos on cardiovascular physics, health justice, and food deserts as well as machine learning algorithms. The other side of this all is that I love creating all forms of art and experimenting with the visual was a great way to exercise this passion of mine while also making people smile, creating social impact, and building community.
You recently gave a TEDx talk about approaches to centering intersectionality in STEM and your work with wokeSTEM. I love the idea that you get at about culturally relevant STEM education and outreach. Could you touch on some of the programs that you’ve developed and communities you’ve worked with?
Sure! Most recently, I wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund a STEM fellowship position for myself at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) where I worked with historians, exhibit designers, sociologists and educators to research and develop socially- and culturally-relevant frameworks for how to envision more STEM at the museum. Since it’s the world’s most influential museum on African American history and culture—and that this was the first position of its kind through the NSF and the NMAAHC—I was grateful for the opportunity to help bring more STEM into this space!
I’ve also worked as the first STEM mentor at UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program, where I mentored first-generation and underrepresented STEM undergrads on how to navigate research and career experiences, as well as graduate school applications, through 1-on-1 counseling and a variety of independently developed workshops.
Through wokeSTEM, I’ve produced high impact science communication training workshops for HBCU students and collaborated with the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute on centering stories and identity in scicomm. We’ve also covered the #GRExit movement for higher education inclusion in a few of our videos on YouTube through interviews with public advocates and changemakers in the cause. In the past, I’ve worked with SACNAS and other diversity-centric organizations on college campuses and have also advocated for increased STEM education funding to low-income schools to Senators on Capitol Hill with the AAAS.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over your career—whether professional or personal?
“Don’t work hard, work smart”. A family member told me this early on in life and the concept grew more in my head the higher I rose. Many Black women are often silently bearing unbearable weights in society, in their careers, and at home. They’ve been the ‘first’ to access spaces or achieve milestones. They’ve worked twice as hard to only be seen as half as good. They’ve relied on self-preservation first aid to survive rather than thrive. It’s a trans-generational struggle (or rather the sour aftertaste of colonialism) and we see this in many communities across the global Diaspora. These labor also have profound implications in the epigenetic inheritance of stress and health disorders, so I’ve been moved to reject that in all areas of my life and work smart.
Between your research and your advocacy, what do you do to relax and unwind?
I enjoy spending free quality time with close friends & family, Brunching, being in nature, and immersing myself in the musical, visual and movement arts in LA. Despite the stereotypes, Los Angeles is dope and full of many opportunities to explore diverse interests when you cultivate the right community. I’m so grateful to be always meeting amazing people and having the dopest experiences that challenge and expand my mind, body and soul. I also love Yoga, culinary arts (cooking and eating), watching obscure documentaries and wanderlusting in new countries. I’m currently very much into Afro-surrealism, so a lot of my current recreational activities are centered around that.