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Underrepresented Minorities in Science : A Black Scientist Shares His Keys to Success


As one of the few African Americans to rise to the level of senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I am often asked, "What were the keys to your success?"

The first key is that I have a very supportive family, who values education and encouraged my interest in science from a very young age, by buying me little science kits, taking me on nature walks, and enrolling me in summer science enrichment programs.

Keys two and three go hand in hand: networking and mentoring. It is important to seek out good advice and then follow it. My first job in science actually arose from my active participation in the biology club at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). This gave me the opportunity to meet the chair of the biology department, the late Martin Schwartz. He informed me of summer research internships within the department and encouraged me to apply. This marked the beginning of my scientific career.

Another instance of how networking affected my life was in my search for a graduate school. My research supervisor at UMBC, Paul Lovett, encouraged me to apply to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and advised me to contact his colleague there, Philip Hartman. Several African-American Ph.D.s had already graduated from Hartman's laboratory, and he eventually became my dissertation supervisor at Johns Hopkins.

I have continued Hartman's tradition of mentoring African-American scientists. Although I have had postdoctoral fellows from Finland, the United Kingdom, India, China, and Ethiopia work in my research group, about half of my fellows have been African American. I believe that highly talented black scientists are attracted to me for the same basic reason that I was attracted to Hartman, even though he is white and I am black. One of the greatest fears of black scientists is that any faults we have will be attributed to the entire race, or more precisely, that if we mess up, that department will never hire another black person. My observation is that having a mentor who either is, or has dealt with, a successful black scientist provides a comfort zone that enables greater intellectual risk taking and eventually leads to improved scientific productivity by African Americans.

In my role as a mentor, I have also been involved with the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at UMBC since its inception in 1989. This is a program dedicated to increasing the number of people from underrepresented minority groups in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Each first-year Meyerhoff scholar is given a scientist mentor. My first mentee is about to complete his Ph.D. in mathematics, my second is about to finish medical school, and my third will soon be applying for M.D.-Ph.D. programs.

I have always felt that my own future in science is inextricably linked to the success of other minority scientists. For this reason, I was a founding member of the NIH Black Scientists Association (NIHBSA) and currently serve as the chair of its Career Enhancement Committee.

Our goal is to eliminate or compensate for barriers to the achievement of black scientists. For example, social barriers--such as different musical tastes, nonrandom housing patterns, and nonrandom mating patterns--result in black scientists generally having fewer friends outside their laboratory with whom they can discuss scientific matters than their white or Asian counterparts do. Black students and postdoctoral fellows therefore tend to get a higher percentage of their scientific advice from their research supervisor. This can lead to a perception by the supervisor that black scientists lack independence, which is lethal when it comes to getting letters of recommendation for principal investigator (PI) positions.

To help level the playing field, the NIHBSA has established a mentor-matching program for black scientists at NIH. We match students with postdocs and postdocs with PIs. We have also established a Web site and e-mail list for the exchange of scientific and career development information. We have vertically and horizontally integrated the NIH black community into a self-help network.

These social barriers can get in the way of important career opportunities. For example, they can lower the probability that a black research group leader will be invited to give a seminar for a research department at NIH other than his or her own. These lab and branch seminars for NIH insiders are the "entry-level" seminars that can lead to both NIH-wide presentations and presentations at national conferences. We have therefore established a network among the black PIs at NIH to invite each other to give seminars to each other's departments. It has been part of my mission as co-chair of the NIHBSA's Speakers Bureau to increase the visibility of all outstanding African-American scientists, by inviting and nominating them to present their work at NIH. NIHBSA members have also made a special effort to present scientific seminars at minority-serving universities, often at personal expense. Most of us learned early in our careers that we cannot inspire minority youth if they do not know we exist.

The final keys to success as an African-American scientist are hard work and professionalism. I know that I have to shatter stereotypes of African Americans if I am to move forward professionally. This is why I am compulsive about being on time for meetings and seminars, even if it means showing up 15 minutes early and bringing a journal article to read. I usually am at work by 8:00 a.m. and typically leave after 7:00 p.m. I extensively practice any oral presentation. I generally triple-check each document that I send out, for spelling and grammatical errors (in addition to accuracy).

In conclusion, I would encourage any African American who has the aptitude and desire to be a scientist to stick with it. I believe that many of the challenges faced by black scientists today could be made easier simply by having more of us.

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