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Chemist and Social Justice Advocate Delivers MLK Week Keynote

Dr. Raychelle Burks is an associate professor of chemistry at American University in Washington, D.C. She is an analytical chemist who has worked in a crime lab. She writes a column called “Trace Analysis,” billed as science meets true crime. She has appeared in podcasts, on TV, and at genre conventions such as DragonCon and GeekGirlsCon as chemistry, forensic science, STEM, and pop culture get rolled into an interesting conversation. In 2021, BBC Science Focus Magazine featured her as one of “6 Women Who Are Changing Chemistry as We Know It.”   

With all her knowledge and expertise, and all her credits, she was once mistaken for a janitor, even as she sat at her desk in her office, working on her computer with papers spread out on the desktop. 

Dr. Burks relates that story in "Picture a Scientist," a 90-minute documentary from NOVA that reveals the history of discrimination against women in STEM (shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields). As she talks in that film, a graphic appears: doctorates in STEM fields awarded to U.S. citizens, 2016: white men, 47.9 percent; white women, 25.7 percent; black women, 2.2 percent. She also related that story to the Loomis Chaffee community on Thursday, January 11, as the Martin Luther King Pelican Day convocation speaker.  

The convocation address, followed by discussion in advisory groups, was one of a number of events at Loomis Chaffee this week celebrating and honoring Dr. King and his legacy.  

Dr. Burks has made significant contributions as a chemist while also advocating for social justice. As she said, she simply tries to make things better. One example that Dr. Burks shared related to roadside drug tests, which have been documented in article after article as having high error rates and leading to wrongful convictions.   

“To me it is a chemistry challenge, but it is also is a justice challenge, and that is why we do the work. It is impacting people’s freedoms. ... It can ruin people’s whole lives,” Dr. Burks told the students. “A lot of my projects are like that. I tend to gravitate toward what is the most problematic and how can we make it less problematic. That is a lot of what we do in my lab.” 

Before the event began, Dr. Burks said one message she wanted to leave for the students was that their contributions matter, no matter how big or small. “At any time,” she said, “the world seems to be in crisis to someone and it can be very immobilizing, and I always think of Tony Morrison’s words: that is the time to act. And it can be in small ways.” She mentioned the idea of “micro-affirmations,” small actions that still make a difference. “Sometimes that is the only thing we have power over,” she said. “It may not seem enough, but over the course of a week, over the course of a lifetime, it really adds up to be transformative.” 

Despite obstacles Dr. Burks has faced in her career as a Black woman, she spoke of the pure joy her career has brought her. And a good deal of that joy now derives from her work as a professor and in a lab with her research team. Dr. Burks initially pursued her career in a crime lab but came back to academia because she missed students. She showed photos of members of her team and spoke about each. 

“I love my job,” Dr. Burks said, “I love training chemists.”  

“When you come out of my lab,” she continued, “I know you are going to have the right sets of skills. It might sound arrogant for me to say, [but] I have made it my life’s mission that you are going to be a better chemist and capable of being a phenomenal analytical forensic chemist when you exit my lab. And not only are you going to be a good team member, you are going to treat people with dignity and respect. ... What is the life you want and how can I help you get it? That is the work of my life ... and I feel that is the joy of my life, to see the success.” 

Just days before Martin Luther King Day (Monday, January 15) is celebrated in many communities across the country, Dr. Burks reflected on the man whose life work focused on equality and justice in all areas of life. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. He was 39. 

“He was a human being in transition and transformation,” Dr. Burks said. “He was a person doing enormously courageous, important work.” 

Dr. King faced not only the external pressures of oppression and violence, but also the internal pressure “of having the personal courage to be better at everything you do when you’re tired, when it's hard,” Dr. Burks said. MLK also had the vision and leadership, she said, to realize that although he might not see the results he strove for, his actions would be meaningful for someone. “That inspires a lot of us today,” she said. 

Inspiration later in the day came in the form of music, dance, and poetry performed by students and faculty at an afternoon event honoring Dr. King. 

LC Steppers at MLK celebration 2024

The LC Steppers, one of many performances, celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Student/Faculty Presentations and Performances  

Slavery and Loomis Chaffee 

Presenters: PRISM President senior Cameron Rogers and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Interns senior Chelsea Ndzana-Zogo ’24, junior Dito Chipfunde-Nong ’25, and sophomore Joseph Hurd ’26 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson 

Performers: LC Chamber Singers 

“To My Mother,” a poem by Mahmoud Darwish  

Performer: Faculty member Ludmila Zamah 

“Reflection,” by Christina Aguilera 

Performer: senior Angela Ye 

“My Queen,” dance choreographed by Lauren Horn ’13 

Performers: LC Dance Company 

“Lift Me Up,” by Rihanna 

Performer: senior and PRISM President Anuva Kolli 

“Marking My Time,” by Elmiene 

Performer: senior Jaleen Kairys 

“A Flat,” by Wilner Baptiste (Wil B.), Kevin Marcus Sylvester (Kev Marcus) 

Performers: LC Orchestra 

LC Steppers 

Performers: LC Step Dance Team 


 

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