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Flourishing in scientific careers – Black scientists on encouraging black students to take up science courses

While completing his master’s degree in zoology at the University
of Maryland College Park in 1984, Dr. David Jett’s advisor and several
faculty members told him that he was not Ph.D. material.

Discouraged by their disapproval, Jett needed months, helped by the
support of a close-knit group of fellow African-American science
graduates, to regain his confidence. In 1992, Jett received his Ph.D.
in toxicology from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and is
now a tenured assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“I wanted to show them that I had the makings of a Ph.D.,” says the
38-year-old Jett, who contends that racism by his white professors
colored their view of his Ph.D. potential.

Jett’s persistence enabled him to join a select group of African
American scientists. Though African Americans number 12 percent of the
population, only 5.6 percent of American scientists in 1990 were Black,
according to Bureau of Census statistics provided by the National
Science Foundation. And in 1992, only 3.9 percent of all doctoral
degrees in science were granted to African Americans.

Roosevelt Calbert, director of Human Resources Development at the
National Science Foundation, attributes the dearth of Black scientists
to a variety of factors including: the inadequate science requirements
and teaching in most K-12 urban schools attended by most African
American students; the lack of financial grants and scholarships
bestowed on Black students in science; and the scarcity of mentors who
can serve as role models and show African American youngsters how to
handle the competitive aspects of science.

Moreover, Calbert attributes the lack of minority male scientists
to peer pressure in which Black students interested in science are
mocked for “not being macho.” He also observed that many African
Americans opt to become medical doctors because of the opportunity to
earn more money.

“Some problems are financial. Another has to do with mentoring. Too
many Black students don’t have proper mentoring as undergraduates. And
often parents don’t offer enough support. Parents play a major role in
a student’s life who is interested in math or science,” says Calbert.

Jett agrees. Succeeding as a Black scientist takes “mentors,
finding the right environment that provides a level playing field, and
perseverance,” he says.

Jett Propelled by Parent, Mentor

While an elementary school student, Jett’s mother, a druggist, took
him to the, pharmacy where she worked and let him fill prescriptions
under her watchful eye. Showing an early bent for science, he started
watching nature and science shows in elementary school when other
children were watching cartoons. He took biology and chemistry in high
school in Silver Spring, Maryland, and his interest in science
flourished at Hampton University in Virginia. After earning his
master’s from the University of Maryland at College Park in 1983, David
Jett completed his doctorate in toxicology at the University Maryland
School of Medicine in 1992.

Dr. James Abram, who taught biology and zoology at Hampton
University, offered Jett a job as lab assistant after the gifted
science student earned an “A” in biology. That job helped pay Jett’s
tuition, easing his financial burden.

Abram taught him “what science was all about and what kind of
creativity it took to succeed,” says Jett. Mentors play an important
role because “science is a very competitive ordeal. You really need
someone to guide you, show you the easiest path of resistance, help you
evolve, and show you the ropes. On a more personal basis, you need a
mentor to keep you going when you’re tempted to give up,” he explains.

Jett, whose research contributed to the Environmental Protection
Agency’s ban against certain insecticides, believes that since there
are so few African Americans in most Ph.D. programs, Black students
have to work much harder than white students to network, form study
groups, and learn from the few Blacks who have doctorate degrees. To
encourage more Black students to become scientists, he would like to
see more high school science courses stress “hands-on, real world
problems.” He recommended that undergraduate courses for science majors
teach what scientists do in their competitive careers, including
learning how to write grants, proposals and papers.

Calbert also notes that affirmative action programs have proven
successful in attracting Black men to the sciences. “These programs
have given students hope and guidance, provided mentors, research and
lab experience.”

Mtingwa’s Science Flair

Attending Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta, Dr. Sekazi
Kauze Mtingwa (who changed his name from Michael Von Sawyer while in
college) expressed his initial interest in science while working on
projects for local science fairs. He spent four years in high school
developing one major project concerning whether a closed ecological
system with green algae could travel in space. In 1967 at one of the
first state Science Fair competitions that included white and Black
high school students, Mtingwa’s four-year project won first place in
biology. That science fair victory and his high grades earned him a
scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

When Mtingwa was a junior at MIT, the college hired its first Black
physics professor, Dr. James Young. Though Mtingwa was doing quite well
in science courses on his own, Dr. Young advised him which courses to
take for graduate school and what graduate schools were looking for in
a student, and offered encouragement in the pursuit of advanced
courses. Mtingwa took the advice and earned a Ford Foundation
fellowship to work on his doctorate at Princeton University.

Mtingwa, 46, says one of his most difficult burdens was being the
only Black student in his MIT undergraduate classes and one of two (in
a program of one hundred candidates) at Princeton University, where he
earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1976. Although he does not feel that he
experienced blatant racism, Mtingwa does believe that the faculty
“never quite treated you in the same way and never gave you the same
amount of time as others.” He does say, however, that several white,
Black and Japanese professors were very encouraging to him.

After graduating from Princeton University, Mtingwa worked at the
Fermi National Accelerator Lab from 1980-1988 and was involved in
building the system that produced the anti-proton particle, a type of
nuclear particle. Keen on making more of an impact on future minority
scientists, he turned to teaching full-time in 1989 at Clark Atlanta
University and is now a professor of physics at North Carolina A&T
State University in Greensboro. Part of his mandate as professor of
physics is to train more minority professors to become physics teachers
in secondary education. About thirty of the physics majors in his
courses are African American.

“We try to give them the tools, make sure they have the courses to
apply for fellowship, and provide encouragement. With affirmative
action being dismantled, there are enough obstacles out there,” Mtingwa

Starting With a Chemistry Set

When Dr. Anthony Johnson, now forty-two and the chairman of the
Department of Physics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in
Newark, was in fourth grade, he started experimenting with a chemistry
set–a Christmas present from his father, a bus driver, and mother, a
buyer for a department store.

From then on, Johnson was encouraged to pursue science as his
avocation. At Tilden High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., he took a rigorous
science program which included classes in chemistry, biology and
physics. Johnson’s physics teacher encouraged him to attend his own
alma mater, New York’s Polytechnic University. And at the Polytechnic
Institute, one of his professors, Donald Scarl, encouraged Johnson to
apply for an AT&T Bell Labs minority fellowship, which he was
granted in 1974.

At Bell Labs, Johnson was once again encouraged, by Dr. David
Auston to pursue experiments in high-speed lasers and optoelectronics.
“He let me go and find my way in this million dollar lab and allowed me
to make mistakes. It was important for my confidence,” says Johnson,
who worked on his Ph.D. at the City College of New York while spending
summers working at Bell Labs for a stipend. After earning his doctorate
in physics in 1981, Johnson conducted research in high-speed,
fiber-optic communication at Bell Labs for 15 years. His research in
voice, video and data communication, concentrated on linking multimedia
to home computers.

In 1995 Johnson accepted a position at the New Jersey Institute of
Technology hoping, he says, to launch more African Americans in
science. On a recent visit to an elementary school, he says, he was
struck by the openness and inquisitiveness of the elementary students.
But he was also struck by the reluctance and resistance of the high
school students he also visited.

“It’s not hip for a Black kid to show interest in science,” he
says, adding that reaching minority students in elementary school is
critical to generating interest in science as a career.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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