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Mentor With a Mission

The lack of minority scientists in this country has been well documented, and the aquatic sciences are no exception. For the first 53 years of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), this racial neglect continued relatively unimpeded until Benjamin Cuker (pictured left) created the ASLO Minorities Program in 1989. Dissatisfied with his field's white male, "old boy" network, he wanted to create a system that would welcome minorities.

After all, it was Cuker's family experience that steered him into his current career. His father was a professor at Wayne State University who kept his family in urban Detroit during the "white flight" of the 1960s. As a result, he was one of a small number of whites attending a predominantly African-American high school. Consequently, Cuker gained a different perspective of African-American culture from that of most of his fellow white academicians.

After receiving his B.S. and M.S. from the University of Michigan, Cuker received his doctorate in 1981 from North Carolina State University in zoology with a minor in ecology. He then taught for 7 years at Shaw University, a historically black university in North Carolina. In 1988, he joined the faculty at Hampton University in Virginia and proposed the ASLO Minorities Program to ASLO's board of directors. Because Cuker felt he was meant to help minority students become aquatic scientists, the society's president at the time, Claire Schelske, created the Committee on Undergraduate Minorities in Limnology and Oceanography and appointed Cuker as the chair. This led to the beginning of the ASLO Minorities Program, which Cuker still oversees (see box).

The ASLO Minorities Program

The ASLO Minorities Program (reviewed by MiSciNet) prepares members to enter and thrive in graduate school. To this end, ASLO mentors help undergraduates develop important networks with graduate school administrators and professors. In addition, members present their research at symposiums, such as the annual ASLO meeting, and attend field trips, workshops, and seminars by prominent aquatic scientists.

The program is currently operating under a 5-year grant from NSF that ends in 2004. There are approximately 400 current and former student members from over 100 schools, 73% of whom are undergraduates. The majority of the graduate students were undergraduate members who returned as peer mentors. During the program's 13-year existence, a dozen doctorates and many master's degrees have been awarded. Among them is Dionne Hoskins, an assistant professor of ecology at Savannah State University in Georgia, who returned to the program as a faculty mentor.

Although the majority of student members are African American (63%), there are a number of Hispanic students (24%), Native Americans (8%), and Pacific Islanders (5%). Cuker hopes these numbers will eventually reflect the diversity of America's minority populations. He also wants to increase the percentage of men in the program (38%), but he realizes this discrepancy is a reality of the crisis in higher education in many minority communities.

True to his casual demeanor, Cuker prefers field research to bench work. 'This preference is apparent when he talks about his Multicultural Students at Sea Together (MAST) Program. For 3 weeks every summer, 15 people live, work, and sleep on The Chesapeake, a 16-meter sailing vessel. These students conduct research, visit marine and scientific sites, and learn about sailing. The hardships and closeness they experience go beyond research to create a familial environment--the kind of relationship that Cuker encourages among his students. The MAST students also learn about the role of American minorities in maritime history. "I wanted minorities to have a sense of place in the profession," Cuker says. He believes people will want to learn more when the subject matter is related to them.

Ultimately, Cuker wants more graduate aquatic science programs at historically black colleges and universities. Currently, only two such programs exist: one at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and the other at the University of Puerto Rico. He recently won a $1.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for a joint program involving Hampton University, Old Dominion University, and Virginia Institute of Marine Science (at William and Mary University). He hopes the new program will be as successful in increasing the number of minority doctorates in aquatic sciences as the chemistry program at Louisiana State University or the math program at the University of Maryland. Cuker believes adequate facilities combined with this integrative approach will provide minority students with the competitive advantage they need to thrive.

Clinton Parks is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and can be reached at