Our organization, Black in Immuno (@BlackInImmuno), was formed in September 2020 to celebrate, support, and amplify Black voices in immunology when social media campaigns like #BlackInTheIvory illuminated the shared overt and covert issues of systemic racism faced by Black researchers in all facets of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Black in Immuno was cofounded by a group of Black immunology trainees working at multiple institutions globally: Joël Babdor, E. Evonne Jean, Elaine Kouame, Alexis S. Mobley, Justine C. Noel, and Madina Wane. We devised Black in Immuno Week, held November 22–28, 2020, as a global celebration of Black immunologists. The week was designed to advocate for increased diversity and accessibility in immunology, amplify Black excellence in immunology, and create a community of Black immunologists who can support each other to flourish despite barriers in academia and other job sectors. The week contained live panels and scientific talks, a casual networking mixer, online advocacy and amplification sessions, and a series of wellness events. Our live-streamed programs reached over 300 individuals, and thousands of people kept the conversations going globally using #BlackInImmuno and #BlackInImmunoWeek on social media from five continents. Below, we highlight the events and significant takeaways of the week.

Black in Immuno was formed in September 2020 to celebrate, support, and amplify Black voices in immunology. At the time, social media campaigns like #BlackInTheIvory highlighted the disproportionate isolation, stress, and barriers Black researchers faced in all facets of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics, and this helped kick off the series of “Blackademic” groups to build communities for Black people in their given field. Black in Immuno was cofounded by a group of Black immunology trainees working at multiple institutions globally: Joël Babdor, E. Evonne Jean, Elaine Kouame, Alexis S. Mobley, Justine C. Noel, and Madina Wane. We worked to bring on a series of allies, mostly trainees, to help us with our goals of advocating for Black immunologists: Dr. Berenice Mbiribindi, Amy Fan, Dan Abebayehu, Elena Lin, Nick Asby, Dr. Heather L. Caslin, and Dr. Irene Salinas.

The inaugural Black in Immuno Week launched as a global celebration of Black immunologists, providing a vehicle by which we could solidify this community. The event took place from November 22–28, 2020, and featured virtual seminars, panel discussions, and social media events to highlight the scientific achievements and journeys of Black scientists in immunology (Table I). Our programming included both structured, recorded live-streamed events (i.e., career panels, TED-style scientific talks, networking events, and wellness workshops) and asynchronous conversations mediated through social media to amplify the achievements that Black immunologists have made as scientists, advocates, and community members. In this article, we outline how these fruitful discussions led to the empowerment of the Black immunologist community and Black excellence in research.

Table I.

Black in Immuno Week: traversing the immune system

Session 1. Keynote Address: Moderated by E. Evonne Jean 
  • My journey through science: from microbial pathogenesis to immunoparasitology: Keke Fairfax, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Utah

 
Session 2. Early Career Panel: Moderated by O'Jay Stewart 
  • Marilyn Allen: Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland

  • Ariel Calderon: Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University

  • A'dryanna Jenkins: Undergraduate at Penn State University

  • Ashton Trotman-Grant: Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto

  • Jada Suber: Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

 
Session 3. Innate Immunity Talks: Moderated by Dan Abebayehu 
  • How to give babies more time in their mother's womb to develop: Antonia Cuff, Doctoral Researcher at Imperial College London

  • Overcoming barriers, pushing limits, and dispelling the imposter myth: De'Broski Herbert, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania

  • The impact of viral peptides on NK cell function: Berenice Mbiribindi, Ph.D., Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University

  • Innate immune drivers of influenza severity: Juliet Morrison, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside

 
Session 4. Career Panel: Moderated by Evelyn Campbell 
  • Avery August, Ph.D.: Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, Professor of Immunology, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Presidential Advisor on Diversity and Equity at Cornell University

  • Bianca Baker, Ph.D.: Associate Director of Medical and Clinical Affairs for Dompe Pharmaceuticals

  • Yaw Bediako, Ph.D.: Research Fellow and Head of Advancement at the West African Center for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana

  • Layal Liverpool, Ph.D.: Trainee Digital Journalist at “New Scientist” in Berlin, Germany

  • Caleph Wilson, Ph.D.: Industry Field Application Scientist

 
Session 5. Adaptive Immunity Talks: Moderated by Faith Uwadiae, Ph.D. 
  • HIV and SARS-CoV-2: Assaying my way through two pandemic viruses: Ane Ogbe, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Researcher at Oxford University

  • Microbes and Tregs: The invisible connection to reversing food allergy: Azza Gadir, Ph.D., Director of Research and Development at Seed Health

  • CXCR4 regulates BCR editing and Ig λ recombination: Michael Okoreeh, Ph.D., M.D./Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago

  • Training the immune system to fight cancer: Avery Posey, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems and Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and a member of the Parker Institute of Cancer Immunotherapy and Research Institute at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center

 
Session 6. Immunology Crossover Talks: Moderated by Joël Babdor, Ph.D. 
  • How to learn new (viral) languages: Bryan Bryson, Ph.D., Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard

  • α-gal syndrome: the food allergy disruptor: Oniyinye I. Iweala, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina

  • Profiling NKT cell responses in cancer patients to identify novel immune biomarkers: Tonya J. Webb, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Microbiology and Immunology Department and ABRCMS Director

  • Cell-free biosynthesis of conjugate vaccines: Asher Williams, Ph.D., Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University

 
Session 7. Immunotech Panel: Moderated by Joël Babdor, Ph.D. 
  • Bryan Bryson, Ph.D.: Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard

  • Oniyinye I. Iweala, M.D., Ph.D.: Assistant Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina

  • Tonya J. Webb, Ph.D.: Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Microbiology and Immunology Department and ABRCMS Director

  • Asher Williams, Ph.D.: Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University

 
Session 8. Immunology Wellness: Moderated by Elaine Kouame 
  • Catherine N. Kibirige, Ph.D.: Research Associate at Imperial College London

 
Session 9. Yoga Session 
  • Amber Wallin: Hot Mess Yoga

 
Session 10. Black in Immuno Party 
  • DJ ToniB: @ToniBNYC

 
Session 1. Keynote Address: Moderated by E. Evonne Jean 
  • My journey through science: from microbial pathogenesis to immunoparasitology: Keke Fairfax, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Utah

 
Session 2. Early Career Panel: Moderated by O'Jay Stewart 
  • Marilyn Allen: Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland

  • Ariel Calderon: Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University

  • A'dryanna Jenkins: Undergraduate at Penn State University

  • Ashton Trotman-Grant: Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto

  • Jada Suber: Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

 
Session 3. Innate Immunity Talks: Moderated by Dan Abebayehu 
  • How to give babies more time in their mother's womb to develop: Antonia Cuff, Doctoral Researcher at Imperial College London

  • Overcoming barriers, pushing limits, and dispelling the imposter myth: De'Broski Herbert, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania

  • The impact of viral peptides on NK cell function: Berenice Mbiribindi, Ph.D., Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University

  • Innate immune drivers of influenza severity: Juliet Morrison, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside

 
Session 4. Career Panel: Moderated by Evelyn Campbell 
  • Avery August, Ph.D.: Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, Professor of Immunology, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Presidential Advisor on Diversity and Equity at Cornell University

  • Bianca Baker, Ph.D.: Associate Director of Medical and Clinical Affairs for Dompe Pharmaceuticals

  • Yaw Bediako, Ph.D.: Research Fellow and Head of Advancement at the West African Center for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana

  • Layal Liverpool, Ph.D.: Trainee Digital Journalist at “New Scientist” in Berlin, Germany

  • Caleph Wilson, Ph.D.: Industry Field Application Scientist

 
Session 5. Adaptive Immunity Talks: Moderated by Faith Uwadiae, Ph.D. 
  • HIV and SARS-CoV-2: Assaying my way through two pandemic viruses: Ane Ogbe, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Researcher at Oxford University

  • Microbes and Tregs: The invisible connection to reversing food allergy: Azza Gadir, Ph.D., Director of Research and Development at Seed Health

  • CXCR4 regulates BCR editing and Ig λ recombination: Michael Okoreeh, Ph.D., M.D./Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago

  • Training the immune system to fight cancer: Avery Posey, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems and Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and a member of the Parker Institute of Cancer Immunotherapy and Research Institute at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center

 
Session 6. Immunology Crossover Talks: Moderated by Joël Babdor, Ph.D. 
  • How to learn new (viral) languages: Bryan Bryson, Ph.D., Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard

  • α-gal syndrome: the food allergy disruptor: Oniyinye I. Iweala, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina

  • Profiling NKT cell responses in cancer patients to identify novel immune biomarkers: Tonya J. Webb, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Microbiology and Immunology Department and ABRCMS Director

  • Cell-free biosynthesis of conjugate vaccines: Asher Williams, Ph.D., Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University

 
Session 7. Immunotech Panel: Moderated by Joël Babdor, Ph.D. 
  • Bryan Bryson, Ph.D.: Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard

  • Oniyinye I. Iweala, M.D., Ph.D.: Assistant Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina

  • Tonya J. Webb, Ph.D.: Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Microbiology and Immunology Department and ABRCMS Director

  • Asher Williams, Ph.D.: Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University

 
Session 8. Immunology Wellness: Moderated by Elaine Kouame 
  • Catherine N. Kibirige, Ph.D.: Research Associate at Imperial College London

 
Session 9. Yoga Session 
  • Amber Wallin: Hot Mess Yoga

 
Session 10. Black in Immuno Party 
  • DJ ToniB: @ToniBNYC

 

Dr. Fairfax opened Black in Immuno Week by highlighting her entire educational journey from grade school to her current position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Utah. Her first encounter with university-level science was at the University of Michigan during a 10-wk summer science experience. She then detailed how these opportunities allowed her to pursue a bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago, where she worked on hookworms, and continue to her Ph.D. at Yale University in immunoparasitology, leading to her current position, where she works with Schistosoma mansoni.

Schistosomiasis is endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. Schistosomiasis is a chronic infection leading to liver inflammation, fibrosis, and damage because of granulomatous inflammation around the eggs and not the adult worm. This infection leads to a type 2 inflammatory response marked by increases in IL-4 production. Dr. Fairfax's research aims to unravel how maternal helminth infections alter immune responses of the offspring born to these infected mothers. Her talk covered recently published results (1), and she expertly explained her journey in science, her scientific inquiries, and her advocacy work (described later) to a well-attended opening session.

Black people are particularly minoritized in science, making the field even harder to navigate with ongoing issues of systemic racism that permeate into each part of their lives. Effective mentorship is critical for any successful academic career, especially from those with similar identities who can speak from a common situation. Because Black in Immuno Week was centered around amplification and celebration, we organized career panels to showcase the breadth of scientific achievement of Black immunologists across the globe and to provide avenues for mentorship and solidarity that not everyone in the community may be receiving. We set up a series of panels that provided a platform for discussing how individuals reached the current point in their careers. We highlighted the work of Black immunologists at all career stages by organizing both an early career panel (#BlackInImmunoJourney) and a more conventional career panel featuring postgraduate professionals (#BlackInImmunoCareer). The early career panel included doctoral candidates and undergraduate students who told their success stories in academia thus far, and the career panel encouraged trainees to pursue fulfilling careers.

We opened the early career panel with the question “What does Black in Immuno mean to you?” All panelists agreed that Black in Immuno was an enriching experience. Seeing other immunologists who looked like them gathered together was refreshing and encouraging. Throughout the panel, they expressed their sense of pride in themselves and in the community, as well as their joy in representing themselves and not all Black people in their departments, board rooms, and classrooms across the globe as the only Black person in the room. When asked about how they had reached their success, strong mentorship and advocacy efforts were key. Mentorship and advocacy took on many different forms: encouragement to apply for programs and grants and identifying with the background of your mentor and people in the community, peers, and sponsors. As a mentee, it is vital to set reasonable expectations with your mentor and clearly define the relationship to ensure intentionality.

The panel then turned to the social justice movements that have been getting a lot of attention in the United States and worldwide. Panelists voiced their exhaustion because, for Black people, it is impossible to block out the murders of people like George Floyd and the racist incidents highlighted by #BlackInTheIvory. When asked about resources that Black immunologists can tap into, the panelists highlighted programs such as the National Institutes of Health Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program and annual conferences, including the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), which specifically helps increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in academic research. This session ignited a vital conversation around the emotions, work, and advocacy related to being a Black immunologist and the joy in knowing you are not alone.

The career panel (#BlackInImmunoCareer) featured those with established careers in academia, industry, or science writing. The forum began with everyone's journeys through science to their current positions. Despite the many different paths taken by panelists, major themes emerged throughout the conversation: 1) it is okay to be a little afraid of new transitions; 2) networking and selling yourself is critical; 3) your skills can be universally applied; and 4) make sure to do what makes you happy and will impact not only science but also your immediate surroundings.

We had asked all the speakers about how they got to their current positions and how much planning goes into finding fulfilling spaces for Black immunologists. Dr. Liverpool spoke to the transition from a hands-on research job to journalism. Her interest in scientific communication and outreach pulled her toward communicating complex immunology to lay audiences. Dr. August was captivated by an immunology course in graduate school, which led to a cascade of opportunities leading to his current academic faculty position. Dr. Bediako started on track for a very academic journey from undergraduate to his current research position but is now starting a biotechnology company aiming to become the “Genentech of Africa.” Even though he enjoys training students, he realizes a need for innovative research that will serve the African continent and beyond. It took Dr. Baker some introspection to understand that her critical thinking and communication skills were more fulfilling than bench science. She had some apprehensions about switching to medical science liaison work but reached out to her mentors to find the support and sponsorship she needed. Dr. Wilson knew he did not want to pursue an academic career but loved immunology. He sought opportunities to do translational research that helps people improve their science from bench to commercialization. He understood that his interpersonal skills and vast knowledge of science would be best suited for getting innovative technologies into the market.

When asked about the most crucial skills learned during a doctoral degree, all panelists agreed that the “soft” skills are imperative for everything beyond the degree. Being able to communicate clearly, think critically, and have self-awareness for one's strengths and weaknesses are essential. They dispelled the “dark side” myths for those who want to leave academia, highlighting that there are not enough academic jobs and not everyone is happy in academic environments. Still, degrees are conferred in academic institutions, driving the intense pressure to stay. Black immunologists deserve the necessary support to transition to the most fulfilling jobs, showing how more Black representation in multiple sectors will benefit the world.

The first scientific session of Black in Immuno Week focused on innate immunity, targeting the body's first line of defense to improve health and treat diseases. The talks encompassed exciting research on innate lymphoid cells, viral immunology, and parasitology. In addition to sharing their science, the speakers shared encouragement for Black immunologists, and Black researchers in general, and let us know how important their voices are.

Dr. Mbiribindi (Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University) showed how MHC could modulate NK cell function. She studied this in the context of EBV, which is generally tolerated by those that are immune competent but is the cause of many diseases and cancers worldwide in immunosuppressed individuals. EBV increases MHC class I molecules on somatic cells’ surface, and there is a subset of NK cells that identify and attack cells infected with EBV. Dr. Mbiribindi’s project investigated the interaction between somatic and NK cells through HLA-E, an MHC class I molecule, and NKG2A, an NK cell receptor. She concluded that EBV peptides would prevent the inhibitory function of NKG2A signaling, therefore activating NK cells (2).

Miss Cuff (Doctoral Researcher at Imperial College London) explored the role of IL-22 production by group 3 innate lymphoid cells in the establishment and maintenance of the placenta during fetal development. By identifying interactions between group 3 innate lymphoid cells and fetal placental trophoblasts from human samples, she will uncover the immunologic basis of placental and fetal development to encourage the full-term development of fetuses and healthy births.

Dr. Morrison (Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside) discussed influenza severity and host-targeted viral therapies. She hypothesized that there are different molecular markers of mild and severe influenza infections that can be leveraged for targeted viral treatments. She investigated gene signatures between mild and severe influenza and found that decreased lipid metabolism and coagulation signaling genes were markers of severe influenza in mice. During severe influenza in the mouse lung, small peritoneal macrophages, a novel cell type, were found to be decreased, pointing to these cells as targets when treating pneumatic viruses.

Dr. Herbert (Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania) presented “Overcoming barriers, pushing limits, and dispelling the imposter myth,” which not only covered his science on hookworms and respiratory disease but his journey to his current position at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He was keen on highlighting that we all have a place in science and in the world, using the building of a road as an analogy; some people might build the road, whereas others can only enjoy driving on it, but we all must work together expressing our needs to get the work done. He chose the University of Cape Town, South Africa for his postdoctoral training, where he investigated helminths and their influence on mammalian coevolution. He discussed his work with the repair protein trefoil factor 2 (3), IL-33 signaling in allergic asthma and hookworm (4), and dendritic cells and ST2+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) (5). His closing words called for all Black immunologists, no matter where they fell on the research spectrum, to be “uniquely you,” to know that we have been made to thrive against all odds, and that our “contribution to humanity awaits sharing [our] perspective.”

All the speakers expertly answered questions, but the one that resonated with all was “What does it mean to be Black in Immuno(logy)?”. The consensus was that surrounding yourself with individuals that call out microaggressions, stand in solidarity, or engage with the Black community was integral in helping them navigate a system that is not inclusive of Black cultures. Having mentors and sponsors that continue to advocate for an individual, even when they are not in the room, is imperative in changing the narrative within immunology.

Adaptive immunity is the second line of defense given the time it takes to mount a robust response, which relies heavily on T and B cell responses. Dysregulation in these cell types can lead to disease, but the more we understand these systems, the better clinical treatments we can develop. The speakers in this session were experts in BCR editing in immune tolerance, chimeric Ag receptor T cells, food allergy and microbiome, and viral immunology.

Dr. Okoreeh (M.D./Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago) investigated how chemoreceptors in B cell development shape immune tolerance. The generation of BCR specificity occurs randomly through recombination of variable, diversity, and joining gene segments and can pose the risk of producing self-reactive B cells. He found that B cell–specific CXCR4 deficiency impaired immature B cell formation. Furthermore, the absence of CXCR4 led to specific loss of Ig λ, and not Ig κ B cell formation, during receptor editing (6). Together, his findings confirmed a role for CXCR4 in regulating immune tolerance.

Dr. Posey (Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems and Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and a member of the Parker Institute of Cancer Immunotherapy and Research Institute at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center) explained how to train the immune system to fight cancer. He showed how genetically engineered T cells expressing anti-CD19 receptors recognize malignant B cells. He also engineered chimeric Ag receptor T cells to recognize cancer-specific glycans without targeting healthy tissues in liquid and solid tumor environments (7). Taken together, his technologies should provide cancer treatments to patients with increased safety and efficacy, a vital need.

Dr. Gadir (Director of Research and Development at Seed Health) shared an exciting account of her work on the microbiome's role in food allergy, a significant public health concern. A persistent allergic response results from the immune system perceiving food products as a threat. Dr. Gadir showed that fecal matter from healthy infants and microbiota monotherapy could prevent the development of food allergy in both mice and humans. Importantly, this protection correlated with the induction of RORγT+ Tregs. She later confirmed that microbiome-induced RORγT+ expression in Tregs was required to suppress allergic responses (8). Her work highlighted that environmental exposure and diet during weaning influences microbiome–immune system cross-talk, imprinting Treg populations to generate long-lived tolerance.

Dr. Ogbe (Postdoctoral Researcher at Oxford University) took us through her journey working with HIV and SARS-CoV-2. Novel treatments, such as broadly neutralizing Ab (bNAb) therapy, have been shown to mediate viral control in HIV-positive patients, leading to promising outcomes. She developed an activation-induced marker assay to identify Ag-specific T follicular helper cells and to assess their role in bNAb induction during HIV infection (9). Dr. Ogbe is currently working on the Real Clinical Trial, which will start recruiting this year to assess the effect and mechanisms by which bNAbs mediate HIV control in humans.

In the second part of her talk, Dr. Ogbe highlighted the cross-reactive nature of T cell responses to coronaviruses, which poses a challenge in quantifying the immune response to SARS-CoV-2. She argued the need for a sensitive immunological assay to discern T cells that are cross-reactive to other coronaviruses by developing and validating samples from SARS-CoV-2 PCR+ health care workers. Using this assay, she found a robust T cell response against peptides derived from the spike protein in PCR+ and seronegative patients, suggesting a cross-reactive nature of the T cell response against spike peptides.

In summary, the adaptive immunology talks showed the necessity to leverage the immune system for treating elusive health issues ranging from food allergy to cancer. Black immunologists are at the forefront of radical science that will alter health care for millions of people.

Immunology has always been at the forefront of technology, but not all immunologists started in immunology. The immunotechnology talks and panel highlighted cutting-edge technologies from physician scientists, chemists, and engineers and reflections on being interdisciplinary Black scientists.

Dr. Iweala (Assistant Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina) discussed her work as a physician-scientist on galactose-α-1,3-galactose (α-gal) syndrome, an allergy to α-gal. The syndrome can develop in individuals who previously tolerated red meat and is a leading cause of anaphylaxis, making it a major public health concern (10). Her research group found that Lone Star tick saliva increased anti–α-gal Abs in α-gal knockout mice. They also investigated the cellular and molecular mechanism behind α-gal syndrome by looking at differential gene expression in humans and the stimulatory effects of α-gal on human basophils in vitro (11). These studies revealed that α-gal exposure is associated with type 2 immune responses.

Dr. Webb (Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Microbiology and Immunology Department) showcased how to profile NKTs for the discovery of immune biomarkers in cancer patients. She explained that NKTs are essential in anti-tumor responses but are often depleted in cancer patients, so she developed a novel platform to address this. Using beads conjugated with NKT activators, such as anti-CD28 Abs, Dr. Webb's group stimulated and expanded circulating NKT cells in cancer patients. This modality was not effective for circulating NKTs in mantle cell lymphoma patients, but the group could expand patient hematopoietic stem and progenitor cell–derived NKTs (12, 13). Dr. Webb is now using this system to identify biomarkers of NKT function in breast cancer and lymphoma and to better understand NKT development for informing immunotherapy strategies.

Dr. Williams (Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University) explained how she had developed conjugate vaccines against enteric bacterial infections using cell-free systems. Catalytic components were combined with bacteria crude cell lysates to synthesize eight Food and Drug Administration–approved carrier proteins in a cell-free system. These proteins were then conjugated to polysaccharide Ags from Francisella tularensis bacteria. The resulting bioconjugate stimulated Ab responses following immunization in mice. Dr. Williams explained that these cell-free reactions could be freeze dried, allowing long-term storage and production at the point of care. Furthermore, this high-yield method can be tailored rapidly to different Ags, making the production process versatile, cheaper, and more accessible than current systems.

Dr. Bryson (Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] and a member of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital [MGH], MIT, and Harvard University) demonstrated how his group uses natural language algorithms to predict the biological consequences of viral mutations and their effects on interactions with Abs. Driven primarily by graduate student Brian Hie in collaboration with Professor Bonnie Burger, the group developed a model predicting the impact of different amino acid sequences of influenza virus hemagglutinin (14). The model was assessed using experimental data from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and was able to identify mutations in which hemagglutinin was likely to remain functional but inhibited Ab neutralization compared with wild-type virus. This work demonstrates that by applying natural language algorithms developed initially in other fields, we can gain new insights into pathogen–host interactions. Furthermore, the model is available as open-source code and can be applied to other viruses of interest.

The session finished with a panel exploring the speakers' personal experiences in building their careers in immunology. Finding supportive communities, networks, and mentors, as well as maintaining interests outside of work were highlighted as essential factors in navigating a research career and continued well-being. Several speakers emphasized the importance of following personal scientific interests, taking advantage of new opportunities to build skills, and communicating these skills to prospective employers or collaborators. Building trust with the public and understanding the commercial landscape were raised as two critical aspects of developing new immunology technologies. Speakers also reflected on recently increased engagement in conversations on anti-Black racism and the importance of combining this with institutional change to make meaningful progress.

Although much of Black in Immuno Week's planned content was focused on live-streamed synchronous events, most of our engagement came from asynchronous social media campaigns that sought to amplify and support Black immunologists worldwide. These social media campaigns often complemented our sessions; other times, they served as an independent call to action. Below, we outline how we used both events and hashtags to center the conversation around the wellness practices and advocacy efforts that enable Black immunologists to thrive in their personal and professional lives.

To begin, Black in Immuno Week showcased the introductions of Black immunologists globally using the hashtag #BlackInImmunoRollCall. Dozens of students, established career scientists, and science newcomers introduced themselves to the world on Twitter with pictures and videos talking about what they do. This initial social media campaign was a great way to introduce everyone, garner support, and amplify Black immunologists.

Wellness and self-compassion.

Alongside the intense pressures from work and studies, Black researchers face significant, undue stress from racism. As discussed at the panels earlier in the week, this stress has been further amplified by a global pandemic and high-profile anti-Black incidents of 2020. These events have a significant impact on the mental health of those inside academia that are not always acknowledged. Supporting the well-being of Black researchers is essential to ensuring they remain and thrive in the field of immunology.

Dr. Catherine Kibirige, a Research Associate at Imperial College London, ran a workshop explaining her personal mental health struggles, the impact of mental health on different stages of her research career, and challenges in accessing support. She emphasized the importance of recognizing mental health difficulties, being encouraged to seek appropriate support, and exploring individualized options that work for everyone. Dr. Kibirige provided practical advice and resources about daily steps anyone can take to look after their well-being. She further spoke about the support her institution provided, highlighting the essential role institutions and employers have in supporting the mental health of their Black researchers. This workshop helped us further understand the need for work–life balance in academia.

In this regard, academia is riddled with the toxic notion that working over 40 h a week is required to be a successful scientist. The #BlackInImmunoWellness hashtag pushed back against this narrative by showcasing Black immunologists' talents and interests outside of the laboratory and outside of work. People demonstrated their artistic, culinary, writing, and other abilities using various media to celebrate their achievements and identities beyond work and science. The amount of self-care and mental expression of students, faculty, and staff highlighted the need for interests outside of science and how that generates better experiments in the laboratory. This campaign led to our next event centered around advocacy work, which many Black immunologists engage in regularly.

Advocacy.

Black in Immuno Week dedicated a day to advocacy (#BlackInImmunoAdvocacy), which featured five DEI-focused student and postdoctoral organizations on our social media accounts: Penn Immunology Graduate Group Diversity Committee, Stanford Black Biosciences Organization, Black Excellence In STEM, West African Research Collective U.K., and Graduate Research Initiative Team. The Penn Immunology Graduate Diversity Group works to recruit underrepresented students and faculty by providing programming, support, and advocacy through application fee waivers, graduate student recruitment events, partnering with professional mediators for anti-Black racism discussions, and support networks. Stanford Black Biosciences Organization was established in 2016 to build a community among Black bioscientists and the greater Black community at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. Black Excellence In STEM is an organization for students and postdoctoral fellows from the University of California San Francisco that improves the experience of Black trainees through mentoring and networking. The West African Research Collective U.K. targets doctoral students and early career researchers of West African heritage in the U.K. and their sister group the African–Caribbean Research Collective. This new organization was created to provide the necessary space for its members in Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to overcome systemic barriers in academia and beyond. They amplify their researchers' work and support each other through cross-disciplinary, virtual interactions during their academic journey. Graduate Research Initiative Team is a grassroots graduate student–led organization at the University of Chicago that is working to recruit and retain students from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds in STEM. They have a three-pronged system focused on recruitment, retention, and sustainability as they work with the Biological Sciences Division, Physical Sciences Division, Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering, and Psychology Departments. They further break down their teams to womxn, underrepresented minorities, disabilities, and LGBTQ+ to include their group's intersectional identities.

During her keynote address, Dr. Fairfax described her role as Director of DEI at the University of Utah. She has established a number of DEI initiatives, including a summer research program that, in its first year, focused on recruiting Black undergraduate students and will later expand to Hispanic undergraduate students. She is also planning on an R01 grant submission to the National Institutes of Health, with the goal of training two Ghanaian scientists. Dr. Fairfax stressed the need for global collaborations and for training immunologists in countries affected by diseases such as schistosomiasis, keeping research that affects local populations in the hands of those who need it most.

A common goal for all of these organizations and individuals is to cultivate a space for Black researchers, recruit necessary talent and diversity in STEM, and retain Black researchers in the academic environment, which will challenge inequity at all levels. These groups provide nondiscriminatory spaces meant to represent the myriad of Black identities to impart Black researchers with the necessary support to continue their academic journeys and express their science in spaces that have not been historically inviting. Their efforts, and those of countless others, fuel us to recognize the unique plight of Black immunologists, working together to support them in their continuing quest to solve the mysteries of science and advance biomedical research.

The success of the inaugural Black in Immuno Week will drive the continued success of our organization. We have filed with the United States Internal Revenue Service to receive 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which will allow us to continue bringing unbridled immunology content to Black immunologists, allies, and the general public. Black in Immuno Week will be a yearly event, eventually moving to an in-person conference. This year's virtual meeting will occur November 14–20, 2021, focusing on bench-to-bedside immunology.

This year, we are expanding our programming beyond a week-long event to allow for more continuous engagement and celebration of Black immunologists. First, we are building an opt-in Black in Immuno Database that will feature profiles of all Black immunologists from various careers and stages in their journey. You can also look forward to journal clubs and seminars that will allow people to present immunology research from papers published by Black first or corresponding authors. Finally, we will host several socials, inviting everyone to come together and decompress.

Beyond building a community of Black immunologists and allies, Black in Immuno seeks to connect with scientific institutions to create antiracist work environments and to connect Black immunologists with career opportunities. Through the Black in Immuno Partnership Program, institutions have committed to a self-directed action plan that creates inclusive environments and dismantles anti-Black barriers. Black in Immuno Partners will have access to Black immunologists through recruitment events, training days, and workshops via our Black in Immuno Hub. Black in Immuno Partners are also highlighted on our announcement board, which collates job and fellowship opportunities. Our community will continue to grow and be unshaken as we amplify and uplift the talents and excellence of Black immunologists.

This work was supported by the Immune Deficiency Foundation (1001) and the Imperial College London (1002).

Abbreviations used in this article

     
  • ABRCMS

    Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

  •  
  • bNAb

    broadly neutralizing Ab

  •  
  • DEI

    diversity, equity, and inclusion

  •  
  • α-gal

    galactose-α-1,3-galactose

  •  
  • MGH

    Massachusetts General Hospital

  •  
  • MIT

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  •  
  • STEM

    science, technology, engineering, and math

  •  
  • Treg

    regulatory T cell

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The authors have no financial conflicts of interests.