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Scholars in Packard/AAAS Program Travel a Demanding Route to Success 2005-07-26 11:23:06
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Scholars in Packard/AAAS Program Travel a Demanding Route to Success

Marcus Jones
Marcus Jones

Janelle Saulter
Janelle Saulter

Alicia Nicki Washington
Alicia Nicki Washington

The lunch was done, the dishes had been cleared away, and the convivial chatter settled into an expectant quiet. It was then that some 50 young science and technology scholars, all past graduates of historically black colleges, were given a rare opportunity to openly air frustrations about their pursuit of a Ph.D at a major research institution.

After a cautious start, the open-mike session picked up momentum. Despite years of civil rights gains and diversity efforts, said one student, there are still only an isolated few African Americans in many S&T graduate programs. There are still too few African American faculty members. Still too little support for minority students. Still too many extra obstacles and demands placed on them. Still, sometimes, harassment.

Trailblazers often must surmount unusual challenges, said session moderator Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity. Some of the young scholars embraced that role; others, however, clearly were impatient with it.

"It's not fun being a trailblazer in 2005 because there are a lot of things we shouldn't have to deal with anymore," said one. "We don't want to carry the burdens of our race."

"I don't want to be a trailblazer," another added later. "I want to do my research and find laser treatments for cancer."

The young scientists and engineers each belong to the elite Graduate Scholars Program, founded initially by the Packard Foundation in 1992 and managed by AAAS since late 2003. During the program's annual meeting 14-16 July at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., the students talked not only about their challenges, but about their aspirations, their strategies for success in school and career, and about their ground-breaking research across the spectrum of science and technology.

The conference was organized by Linda Akli, a AAAS senior program associate who directs the Graduate Scholars Program, and by AAAS staffers Chickona Royster and Abdulaziz Yousuf.

"The annual meeting permits me to network and maintain professional relationships across the sciences," said Marcus Jones, who in May received his Ph.D in microbiology from New York University School of Medicine. "The annual meeting also provides a forum for me to address concerns about the lack of diversity in the sciences, or to address other issues that arise because I am a minority in the sciences. Finally, because of the lack of diversity in the sciences, it is refreshing to see so many professional minorities congregated here."

"This meeting gives us the tools to go back in to do our work," added Janelle Saulter, who just received her Ph.D in medicinal chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "When we meet here, we collaborate, we talk, everybody's going through the same experience. So it gives you a renewed spirit. There's so much support here—there's this friendliness, a sense of family. Seeing that people who look like you are pursuing greatness, it's just very important."

To be sure, graduate school is challenging for most students, no matter their race, class or economic background. Chubin, in introducing the panel, reminded the scholars that with general attrition rates of around 50 percent in graduate schools, the AAAS scholars are "survivors and future leaders."

The Graduate Scholars Program is important because recent studies by AAAS and others have shown that the U.S. science and engineering labor pool is getting older and that interest in these fields among younger people has waned. In order to keep that labor force strong and globally competitive, many experts say, it will be essential to recruit and cultivate future scientists and engineers from the broadest possible pool of talent. Currently, however, African Americans comprise only a small percentage of the students earning advanced degrees in the science, technology and engineering fields.

Students in the Graduate Scholars Program are in the vanguard, each funded by a five-year, $100,000 scholarship. Since its inception, some 147 fellowships have been awarded: to date 41 of the scholars have gone on to receive Ph.Ds. Another 3 scholars are expected to receive Ph.Ds by December 2005 and another 62 scholars are still in the Ph.D pipeline.

During the open-mike session, and in other sessions during the conference, the scholars and other speakers made clear that while there has been progress nationwide in making graduate programs more diverse and more welcoming to minority students, much remains to be done. There remain pockets in American academia where students who've arrived from historically black colleges and universities still find barely concealed hostility from faculty and fellow students.

One scholar, the only African American woman in a mechanical engineering program, described how a colleague had made a facetious remark about the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but it was clearly aimed at her. She was frustrated at her inability to counter such attitudes.

"You have to put someone in their place in a polite and appropriate way," said A. Nicki Washington, who just received her Ph.D in computer science at North Carolina State University.

"You don't want to become the 'angry black woman', though," said the other student.

"You don't have to become the 'angry black woman,'" Washington replied. "If I've got something to say, I say it. You've got to know the time and place to draw the line—and if you don't draw the line, it'll keep happening."

In another panel, speakers promised that there are great potential rewards for those who are able to surmount the challenges and walk away with a Ph.D.

Michael Smith, who works in research and development for the France Telecom office in San Francisco, told the young scholars that he sympathized with their workload. "When I was doing graduate studies, I just put my head down and finished," he said. "I worked my 16-hour days, 18-hour days, just like a lot of you are doing."

But the Ph.D has enabled him to live and work in various locations around the world, and to work in a variety of fascinating projects. In private industry, he said, employees with Ph.Ds are seen as experts and leaders; they are slotted early into positions like chief technology officer or vice president of product development.

Sometimes, Smith said, only a lack of self-confidence holds a student back. "I fully expect to you to be vice president of this, CTO of that," he told the AAAS scholars. "You have the background and the capability to do that."

Marcus Jones has taken a post-doc position with The Institute for Genomic Research, focusing on anthrax. Janelle Saulter's research has shown considerable promise in treating sleeping sickness and malaria. A. Nicki Washington has taken a job with Aerospace Corp. based in Chantilly, Va.

Several speakers emphasized that the Graduate Scholars Program confers not only opportunities, but also obligations.

"What are you going to do with the critical thinking skills you have, and how are you going to use those skills to make a difference?" asked Barry Gold, program officer for Conservation and Science Programs at the Packard Foundation. "We are at a critical point in the history of this country where people who have the training you have must step up and play a leadership role."

Shirley Malcom, who oversees the Graduate Scholars Program as head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, made a similar point.

"It's not just about what you know and what you know how to do," Malcom told the young scholars. "It's about what kind of person you become. As members of this community of scientists and engineers, we have special opportunities but also special responsibilities.

"The kind of investment that has been made in you, we ask you to make in others."

***

Read what the scholars have to say about the AAAS Graduate Scholars Program.

Edward W. Lempinen

25 July 2005

 

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