A new mural in the Sinsheimer Laboratories building celebrates diversity in science

A series of incidents of vandalism at the Sinsheimer Laboratories building that began in 2020 and continued into 2021 left black students on Science and Engineering Hill feeling unsafe and unwelcome. As one step in the healing process, a new mural by artist Paul Levin now brightens the first floor entrance of Sinsheimer Laboratories.

Juliana Nzongo, a microbiology and environmental toxicology student who served as the student representative on the mural committee, said reactions to the mural have been very positive. “Some people go there every week or every morning just to look at it, and a lot of people have said it brings a sense of peace coming into the building,” she said.

The students met with Levine twice before deciding he was the right artist for the mural. “It felt right to go with Paul Levin—I felt like he would represent Blackness in a way that could help Black students in the sciences feel a sense of belonging, like it’s their community too, because there aren’t many of us on Science Hill Nzongo said.

Lewin’s art, which has been featured on the covers of science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s novels, is inspired by Afro-Caribbean and African folklore, nature, science fiction, and Afrofuturism. The mural features various images related to science and nature, including motifs that appear in many of Lewin’s paintings.

“My art and life have always been inspired by science,” Lewin said. “The mural has a central figure, an ancient ancestral spirit, performing a ritual that celebrates the interconnectedness of all life on earth.”

Born in Jamaica, Lewin has been based in Oakland for many years and currently resides in Miami. He was one of several potential artists suggested to the commission by John Hota Leanos, a professor of film and digital media who had met Lewin in San Francisco.

“When John first contacted me in March of this year about the mural, I was really excited about the backstory,” Lewin said. “Listening to the students tell their stories was very impactful for me. I wanted to create an image with a strong representation of Blackness in the sciences that spanned multiple generations, from ancient Africa and other indigenous communities to current and future Black students at UC Santa Cruz.”

Ocean sciences professor Christina Ravello, who serves as associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the physical and biological sciences department, said the mural is just one step in the department’s efforts to create a more welcoming environment for students of color.

“The mural should be seen as part of a transformation process that we are working on, not as an indication that we are where we want to be,” she said. “The vandalism and other incidents, against the backdrop of everything that was happening nationally, was very stressful. It was a bad time.”

It began in June 2020 when campus buildings were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and researchers conducting pressing research and conducting basic experiments were allowed to use their laboratories at Sinsheimer, but access to the building was restricted. When the Black Lives Matter posters in Sinsheimer’s elevator were defaced and torn, the students felt threatened, especially since they were often in their labs when few other people were around.

“Someone who had access was saying, ‘You don’t belong here,’ and that made a lot of students feel insecure,” Nzongo said. “One of my good friends had to come over late at night to do some time points for her experiments, and we had to keep in touch via text to make sure she got home safely.”

Additional security cameras have since been installed on campus, including in the elevator. Ravello also said a growing number of science departments have conducted or are planning anti-racism training programs for faculty and staff.

However, Nzongo said the students feel angry and frustrated by what they see as a slow response to the incidents by the police and campus administration. “The students had a list of things they wanted to make them feel safer at Science Hill,” Nzongo said. “The mural was one thing we were able to get money and support for right away.”

The mural committee sought an artist to create a mural that “captures UCSC’s vision of scholarly excellence, innovation, and creativity that can only be achieved in an environment that is mindful of diverse identities and lived experiences and that approaches collaboration with cultural humility and mutual respect.”

Nzongo said she recently brought a group of high school students who were on campus for the COSMOS program to see the mural.

“They loved it and they all wanted to take pictures in front of it,” she said, “so it touched not just those of us on Science Hill, but others who, when they see the mural, stop and think about what it means to them .”

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