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Chemist Wants To Change The Color Of Science


College has long been a time to find and define your way in life with help from peers and professors. One faculty member at Spelman College is ready to help with the process and steer students of color into science, engineering, math and tech careers. Ari Daniel brings us this profile.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: I know a guy who tends to stick out and not always for the reason he'd like. Here's an example. The year was 1991, and John Dimandja, a graduate student in chemistry at the time, had been invited to give a talk at a conference in Anaheim, Calif.

JOHN DIMANDJA: In the evening, we had a speaker's cocktail hour. And another person who was there said, I'll have a Chardonnay. And I turned to look at him because I was like, are you talking to me? And he's like, I mean, chop chop. Maybe I was the first black person he had ever seen at a speaker's cocktail hour.

DANIEL: Then there was the time when he helped teach his first general chemistry course.

DIMANDJA: I walked in the class, and I could immediately see that - we're not used to this. But I spoke the language of chemistry. And I spoke it well. Within the first 10 minutes of class, they were treating me like they would treat anybody else.

DANIEL: When this kind of thing happens to Dimandja, he usually just shrugs it off. Take that guy who asked him for the Chardonnay.

DIMANDJA: Should I be mad at him? Maybe not because his truth up to that point needed to be challenged. And so I can't be mad at him for having a truth that has evolved. And if I know that I belong there, then I'm not offended.

DANIEL: Dimandja spent parts of his life in the Congo, Belgium and the U.S. And one place he knows he belongs is the field of chemistry. After receiving his doctorate, he ended up at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he became a world expert on a technique called 2-D gas chromatography. It's a way of pulling a complex mixture apart into its various chemical ingredients.

DIMANDJA: How all the urine tests for doping in the Olympics is done.

DANIEL: Dimandja analyzed urine samples from the firefighters involved in the World Trade Center recovery efforts after 9/11. If the levels of certain carcinogens were too high, they were advised to halt work until the compounds flushed from their bodies. The science was rewarding. But eventually, he wanted more. That's what propelled him to Spelman, a historically black college in Atlanta. He wanted to influence black students.

DIMANDJA: Hi, Chasity. Come on in.

CHASITY BARBER: Papa John's pizza is so good.

DIMANDJA: While you enjoy your pizza...

DANIEL: From time to time, Dimandja meets with the students working in his lab over pizza, including seniors Chasity Barber, Jai McQuilla and Nneze Akwiwu.

BARBER: Dr. Dimandja was the first person to actually care. He offers, like, encouragement.

JAI MCQUILLA: Chemistry doesn't always come extremely easy to me. But he always made it very, very clear, so I went onto my next courses with a little bit more enthusiasm.

NNEZE AKWIWU: If I think about giving up in school, he's always the person that I always come to. And he gave me that push that I needed. And he led me actually to change my mindset. And I can, you know, tell you now that I'm a better student because of that. Like, I believe in myself so much more than before.

DANIEL: Nneze Akwiwu wants to earn a PhD and become the first female president of Nigeria. They're ambitions that John Dimandja helped fortify. He encourages his students to dream big and imagine the best versions of themselves.

DIMANDJA: We know of many brilliant black chemists. But there has not been a black Nobel Prize winner.

DANIEL: How is that going to change in science?

DIMANDJA: By folks like me coming here and increasing the number of black scientists.

DANIEL: And Dimandja says that all people, regardless of color, can do science and be successful at it because above all, Dimandja is a scientist.

DIMANDJA: First and foremost - and that's really the only way I want to be looked at.

DANIEL: That's certainly how the federal Food and Drug Administration looks at him. This summer, the agency offered Dimandja a leadership position in its southeast regional laboratory. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.

KAHN: This story is part of the radio series Small Matters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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