Madison Hahamy, Contributing Photographer

The Yale Black Postdoctoral Association within the School of Medicine, just the third official group of its kind to be formed in the nation, is nearing its one-year anniversary. 

The group was founded by three postdoctoral students: Brionna Davis-Reyes, Chrystal Starbird and Aileen Fernandez. They said it fills an essential need of creating community and sharing resources — such as grants and jobs — at an academic stage that Fernandez called “isolating” due to the competitive nature of many postdoctoral programs. Now, the group founders are hoping to continue expanding the group.

“In a period where we were dealing with the pandemic … and also a time when people were actively discussing racial justice in the context of the national climate and bringing up what that mean[s] in terms of my experience as a postdoc thus far at Yale, [we found] like-minded people,” Starbird said of the group’s formation. 

Postdoctoral scholars are individuals who have obtained a doctoral degree and engage in temporary research or training to acquire certain skills for their intended profession. At Yale, postdoctoral positions are one year long and can generally be renewed annually for a maximum of six years.

While diversity, equity and inclusion groups can be found across postdoctoral departments, Starbird noted that the work happening in each group was separate. The YBPA would allow for the concerns and needs of Black postdoctoral students to be addressed “in a specific, but effective way.”

The group’s founders themselves span different departments: while both Starbird and Fernandez do cancer research, Davis-Reyes works in neuroscience. And while the three founders said that the group is a support system focused on shared values and experiences, their events emphasize the different interests of its 37 members.

For example, Starbird spoke of an event hosted by viral STEM educator Raven the Science Maven, where she told the group to be “unapologetically yourself in science.” The YBPA hosted another seminar on natural hair and the law, discussing legislation such as the CROWN Act in Connecticut, which bans natural hair discrimination in the workplace. Other seminar topics include professional, health and wellness development. 

Fernandez noted that the group, which has been around for less than a year, also successfully raised over $7,000 for food gift cards for New Haven residents and sent science kits to local third and fourth graders.

All of these efforts would not have happened without the three of them deciding to come together, Davis-Reyes said.

“Having a group like this, with a lot of cooperation, communication and strong leadership, it’s work,” she said. “It’s not necessarily an easy job, but it can be done with [people working together].”

Moving forward, the group hopes to see its membership grow, both in terms of Black postdocs and in terms of allies to their community, according to Starbird. 

And while the group currently works well with the Yale Postdoctoral Association and has the support of administrative officials within the Yale School of Medicine, she hopes to see the group incorporate itself into the broader community even more.

“It can hopefully act as a model to expand similar initiatives into other universities because it has been so instrumental and helpful to me at Yale,” Davis-Reyes said. 

As a student interested in obtaining a joint MD/PhD, Jaida Morgan ’23 said that organizations like YBPA were helpful for STEM undergraduates thinking about doctoral plans because it fostered community among underrepresented groups on campus. As President of the Black Pre-Health at Yale undergraduate organization, Morgan hoped to collaborate and attend events sponsored by YBPA in the future.

“I know for me one of my biggest fears in applying to MD/PhD programs is me holding myself back thinking I can’t do this because there’s not a lot of representation and not much support,” Morgan told the News. “Having an organization like YBPA on a campus like Yale is really helpful, because you can see a lot of other Black students pursuing what they want to do … [and] you have a group to support you and help you find your way.” 

Black postdoctoral organizations can also be found on the campuses of Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of Alabama, among other universities.

Madison Hahamy is a junior from Chicago, Illinois majoring in English and in Human Rights. She previously wrote for the Yale Daily News and served as Senior Editor for The New Journal.