Well, here I go again! I am off to pursue a new professional opportunity in South Carolina as an assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University, the oldest HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in the state. Returning to academia after a short detour as editor of the AAAS Minority Scientists Network (MiSciNet) gives me another chance to pursue my passion: helping minority students reach their full potential in science. This time, it will be through teaching, mentoring, and conducting research with those students.
My desire to help other minorities excel in science really began to gel when I was a graduate student at the Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. Several things happened at OSU that, when I look back on them, helped determine my career path. First, when I arrived for the Early Start summer program in June 1994, the department chair, Dr. Matthew Platz, had lunch with all of the African-American chemistry graduate students at the faculty club on campus. There were six of us at that time, out of a total of something like 250 grad students. During lunch, we talked about the retention of minority students in the department. I felt that Dr. Platz was sincere in his desire to see all of us excel in the program, and I respect him for talking with us about this issue--particularly because as I moved through graduate school, I began to realize that retaining minorities in science at majority schools is very difficult and, in fact, a serious problem in this country.
Then, 2 years after the lunch meeting with Platz, the minority graduate students decided to establish a National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) student affiliate chapter in the OSU chemistry department. We provided chemistry demonstrations for elementary and middle-school students in the Columbus area, and I prepared my first grant proposal--securing $300 from a major chemical company. I proudly served as president for 3 years and--after being nominated by Dr. Bruce Bursten, my thesis adviser--eventually won the 1999 OSU Leadership Award for my efforts.
After winning the Leadership Award, the vice chair of the chemistry department, Dr. Larry Anderson, told me that while he was cleaning out this office, he had come across the original application file of an OSU alumnus who was probably the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at the university. The individual's name was Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker Jr., and he earned his doctorate in 1941! I was so excited I ran over to the science and engineering library and obtained a copy of Baker's dissertation, so that I could read his vita and learn more about him.
For the next few months--in between lab work, TA-ing, and so on--I researched the biographies of all of the African Americans who had earned doctorates in chemistry from Ohio State. This was a therapeutic experience for me because "discovering" these pioneers provided me with a boost of confidence and pride. Moreover, I also realized that throughout the 1960s, OSU was the number-one producer of African-American PhD scientists in the United States (see Recommended Reading, below). The information I obtained was used to create a pamphlet that was edited by Dr. Anderson and distributed during a room-dedication ceremony for the first African-American astronaut, Dr. Robert Henry Lawrence, in January 2000.
Dr. Lawrence earned his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1965 from OSU, but he died in a tragic accident on 8 December 1967, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Participating in that room- dedication ceremony had a profound effect on me, not only because I had the chance to meet his mother, sister, and wife, but also because I was allowed to tell the audience what Dr. Lawrence meant to me. In my speech, I recited the dedication listed in his dissertation:
"This work is dedicated to those American Negroes who have spent their lives in the performance of menial tasks struggling to overcome both natural and man-made problems of survival. To such men and women scientific investigation would seem a grand abstraction. However, it has been their endeavors which have supplied both the wherewithal and motivation that initiated and helped sustain this effort.
During the period in which this work was performed, a momentous drive for human rights has been in progress in this country. It is my hope that in the conduct and completion of this work some of the barriers impeding the solution of our sociological as well as scientific problems have been removed."
Lawrence's words changed my life and set the stage for my current journey. They just confirmed for me what I was meant to do: Help other minority scientists.
After graduating from OSU, I accepted a postdoctoral appointment with Professor Isiah M. Warner in the department of chemistry at Louisiana State University. Dr. Warner provided me with additional mentoring and training. Moreover, LSU has a remarkable chemistry program and is currently the number-one producer of African-American Ph.D. chemists in the country (see Recommended Reading).
The next stop on my career path was as editor of MiSciNet--a bimonthly online journal that addresses career and training issues pertinent to the minority population. Although I believe that MiSciNet is a wonderful resource, I soon realized that I missed the "human touch." I told myself that the work I was doing at MiSciNet was benefiting minority students, but I did not have the chance to see that with my own eyes--at least, not very often. And I missed the opportunity to develop interpersonal relationships with minority students. After some time, I realized that my true home was in academia. So, here I am.
But why, you may ask, did I opt to teach at an HBCU instead of a majority institution? Well, I concluded that if I wanted to help minorities--particularly undergraduates--succeed in science, I should be where the students are. And most minorities earn their undergraduate degrees from minority-serving institutions, not majority schools. So, if we as a nation want to increase the numbers of minorities participating in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology fields, then government agencies, corporations, and private organizations have to continue to work effectively with these schools to create a more diverse scientific workforce.
I learned several important lessons while pursuing my doctorate at Ohio State that I carry with me today. Now, I am off to Claflin University to pass along my knowledge and love of chemistry to students just like me. What a wonderful opportunity!
James M. Jay, "Negroes in Science: Natural Science Doctorates, 1876-1969" (Detroit, Balamp Publishing, 1971)
S. N. Collins, G. Stanley, I. M. Warner, S. F. Watkins, "What is Louisiana State Doing Right?" Chem. Eng. News 79(5), 39 (2001)
Sibrina Collins was editor of MiSciNet from 2001-2002. She is now assistant professor of chemistry at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.