Did you know that chemistry changes with skin color?
I don’t mean the amount of or type of melanin a person might have in their skin, determining how dark- or light-skinned they turn out to be.
I’m talking about the actual atomic/molecular structures and processes of chemistry because those are totally different now if you’re black.
At least, that’s according to one young chemistry professor at Rice University who is teaching a new class beginning this semester called Afrochemistry, “the study of black-life matter.”
As in, Black Lives Matter. Get it? I just slapped my knee so hard I kicked a hole in the front of my desk. Dr. Brooke Johnson, who earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton and now works for Rice, is quite the wit.
I haven’t studied chemistry since high school at Missouri Military Academy and, if I’m being truthful, I did not do well in that class. In fact, I had to crib — ie, cheat — a lot. And even then I still was only able to earn (if that’s the correct word) a gentleman’s C. Let’s just say I made myself appear to put out a good-faith effort at passing and I had a very generous instructor in Maj. Waldo Roberts.
When I saw today that Afrochemistry was a thing, I thought back to 1986 and couldn’t remember learning about any racial aspects to chemistry. But, being committed to bringing my readers even uncomfortable truths, I did a little digging. Here’s what I learned about eumelanin, one of the most common melanins and also responsible for dark skin color:
Eumelanin has two forms linked to 5,6-dihydroxyindole (DHI) and 5,6-dihydroxyindole-2-carboxylic acid (DHICA). DHI-derived eumelanin is dark brown or black and insoluble, and DHICA-derived eumelanin which is lighter and soluble in alkali. Both eumelanins arise from the oxidation of tyrosine in specialized organelles called melanosomes. This reaction is catalyzed by the enzyme tyrosinase. The initial product, dopaquinone can transform into either 5,6-dihydroxyindole (DHI) or 5,6-dihydroxyindole-2-carboxylic acid (DHICA). DHI and DHICA are oxidized and then polymerize to form the two eumelanins.
Furthermore, “In natural conditions, DHI and DHICA often co-polymerize, resulting in a range of eumelanin polymers.”
Are you still awake? Because I nodded off out of boredom/bewilderment sometime around “the oxidation of tyrosine.” Stuff like this is exactly why I had to cheat and charm my way into a C that I didn’t deserve.
That’s when I did a double-take on Professor Johnson’s position at Rice.
It took a minute to sink in, but despite Johnson’s doctorate in chemistry, she doesn’t work in Rice’s renowned chemistry department. Johnson works in the university’s DEI department.
In Chem 125, Johnson will instruct her undergrads – who are expected to pony up around $78,278 for the privilege of attending during the 2022-23 academic year — on how to “apply chemical tools and analysis to understand black life in the US,” along with her “personal reflections and proposals for addressing inequities in chemistry and chemical education.”
In other words, Tom Lehrer can teach you more about chemistry for free in 85 seconds than Professor Johnson can for thousands of dollars over an entire semester.
But forget all that sciencey stuff.
“What does it look like to do science on one’s own terms?” is a question raised in the flyer promoting Chem 125.
Another is, “What does justice look like in chemistry?”
And you thought Johnson would teach quaint chemistry principles like covalent bonding or the atomic structures of the known elements?
Chem 125 is not a chemistry class. Rice – which, with its reputation as a serious research school, ought to know better – should have named Johnson’s class Agitprop 101.