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Home-grown scientists; national labs scramble to produce more U.S.-born scientists of color

National labs scramble to produce more U.S.-born scientist of color

Most people associate the Los Alamos National Laboratories [LANL]
as the place where the first atomic bomb was built. Officials at LANL,
however, assert that their new mission is more in the realm of
environmental cleanup, rather than nuclear destruction.

During the summer, LANL, like other national laboratories around
the country, engages in another mission — expanding the number of
U.S.-born minorities in science and technology fields.

Many experts perceive the scarcity of U.S.-born students of color
in the scientific pipeline as a national crisis. Although they cite
efforts by government and industry to educate students of color, they
say that these efforts are not producing anything near the numbers that
are needed to bring about equity any time soon.

And the abundance of foreign scholars entering the pipeline only
adds to the problem. Today, according to Michael Chapman, the immediate
past-president of the National Association of Scientists and Engineers,
50 percent of the Ph.D. students in this country are foreign-born.

“This is ,going to kill the country. It’s simply bringing in cheap
labor. This practice is good in the short run, but in the long term,
it’s a disaster. We have to educate and train our own. We have to be
masters of our fate,” Chapman says.

And that problem is particularly acute where U.S.-born minorities
are concerned. Monica Palacios, associate director of the Center for
the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education, says
that one of the primary problems is that American society is not
investing in its youth.

“Companies want to hire people from all over the world rather than
train students who were born and bred in the United States,” she says.

Palacios says that the reason companies do this is because they can
underpay people from other countries. She says there is a direct
correlation between the dearth of people of color in science and
technology and the amount of foreigners obtaining Ph.D.s in U.S.

Dr. John Alderete, president of the Society for the Advancement of
Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences, said that the issues
regarding the shortage of people of color in science and technology are
quite complex. But regardless, he characterized it as “a bleak
picture,” saying that U.S. companies don’t actually believe in higher

“They go after undergraduates and hire them after they get their
degrees. Once they have jobs, we lose them. That’s why they don’t get
their Ph.D.s. Instead of recruiting [at the baccalaureate level], the
companies should be encouraging [students of color] to get their
Ph.D.s,” says Alderete.

Changing an Image

But LANL appears to be changing its image — and may be helping to
improve the pipeline flow as far as American-born minorities are
concerned. Like other institutions, LANL hosts summer programs. But
learning the finer points of nuclear bomb-making techniques is not
required reading. Instead, LANL’s summer interns are taught the latest
technology — including technology that will assist in cleaning up
their communities.

Robert Marquez, a chemistry graduate student at New Mexico State
University has been associated with LANL since 1995. The practical
application of his studies involves work in Juarez, Mexico, known as
the ladrillo — or brick project. Its objective is to help lessen the
toxicity of the brick-making process — a crude process that
historically has greatly contributed to the pollution of the Juarez-El
Paso, Texas, metropolitan region.

“In making bricks, they have traditionally burned whatever they
could find — including wood and tires — which produce thick, black
smoke,” he says.

Marquez, who is of American Indian and Mexican heritage, has
created a clay filter that, when attached to the traditional kiln,
virtually eliminates the toxic emissions that are normally produced.
Other methods have been tried, but they have not been adopted by the
local workforce because they are too costly and too alien to the
traditional process of brick-making, he says. With the filter,
everything else remains the same, except that pollution is virtually

Marquez was recently recognized for his work at a recent meeting of
the Science and Technology Base Programs/University Programs, which
works with students affiliated with LANL, Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, and Sandia National Lab. The objective of STBP-UP is
basically to increase the number of people of color, students from
HBCUs, and women at these laboratories.

Elana Clemons, who recently graduated from Hampton University and
also participated in the STBP-UP program at LANL — along with more
than 100 other students — said that her work, which involved the
experimental use of lasers, was very exciting. She did note, however,
that because of the nature of the classified work that goes on at LANL,
many of the participants don’t know the goals of the big project of
which their work is but a small part.

Nevertheless, she says, “it’s exciting to work on projects that are labeled `top secret.'”

Because of her satisfactory work at the lab, Clemons, who is now a
graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has been
invited back to LANL next summer.

Generally, some of the work the students are involved in deals with
nuclear waste disposal, decontamination, demilitarization, weapons
inspection, and the safe disposal of obsolete military ordinance, such
as land mines. The specific work that most of the students are involved
in, according to Pam Bivens, an official with the STBP-UP programs, is
“stockpile stewardship.”

“They’re involved in the restoration of the bombs that are on
stockpile and the destruction of bombs that are no longer needed,”
explains Bivens.

Complicated Issues

In discussing minority participation in the sciences, Palacios
exclaims, “We’re grossly underrepresented.” And specifically referring
to Latinos, she says, “We’re but 3 percent of the total workforce ….

“Lots of money has been directed at the problem, but there’s little
difference,” she continues, adding that if the goal is to achieve
actual equity, the existing government and industry pipeline programs
for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans “have failed ….
The pipeline has to start reaching students at a young age.”

As a result of this failure, Palacios says that people in the field
speak of “a digital divide” — people with computers and people without.

Alderete, who teaches at the University of Texas Health Science
Center at San Antonio, further cautions that an issue like this cannot
be understood easily. He says that part of the problem is that students
of color who are studying science and technology are not attending the
top Research I institutions.

Although many people believe that foreign students I who do attend
these major research institutions — are getting educated in U.S.
schools because their governments are paying, Alderete says the reality
is, “It’s being paid for by the U.S. taxpayer.”

And standardized testing plays a large role in getting accepted to
Research I institutions, says Alderete, who notes that many students
from other countries test very well.

However, he adds, “There’s no correlation between these tests and the quality of thesis, work, or publications.”

Although programs such as STBP-UP are considered excellent, some
experts are concerned that such programs are not properly designed to
hire participants upon graduation.

Chapman agrees that there is a problem with inadequate pipeline
programs from both the government and private sector. He says they’re
great for exposure, but a good program is one where the company hires
at the end of a student’s higher education — after the Ph.D. has been

“It’s not helpful if companies do not have a true commitment,” he
says. “They have to begin hiring people who look like me and you.”

Chapman also agrees with Alderete that companies recruit students
of color too early. He says that one of the reasons companies recruit
students after they receive their bachelor’s or master’s degree is that
not all jobs in the field require Ph.D.s.

“They’re hot and heavy to fill positions,” says Chapman. “A Ph.D.
is not needed unless the person goes into research and development.”

In terms of obstacles to getting advanced degrees, according to
Chapman, not a lot has changed in the past decade, and that is why the
numbers for minorities remains very low. Many minorities also take jobs
right away because it means instant money as opposed to having to wait
for another two to six years of education.

What is not helpful at this time, according to Chapman, is the
backlash against affirmative action and so-called “preferences” for
minorities. It simply gives companies cover not to be aggressive in
their hiring of minorities, he says.

Additionally, Chapman says that although the number of African
Americans entering science and technology increases every year, that
doesn’t mean there has been a great improvement.

“The numbers were small [a generation ago], and they’re small now,” he says.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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