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An elite group of young scientists finds a network of strength in AAAS's Graduate Scholars Program
There were times during her first year of graduate school that Kim Lewis didn't know if she was going to make it. Applied physics is always difficult, of course, and all the more so at a major research center like the University of Michigan. But the challenge was compounded by a sense of isolation. She'd earned her undergraduate degree at Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans; at Michigan, most of the students were white, many had come from more prestigious schools, and more than a few seemed to think that she didn't belong.
Today, just a few weeks before she is to defend her thesis to receive her Ph.D. at Ann Arbor, Lewis says that some of the credit for her success should go to a novel scholarship program founded by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and recently taken over by AAAS. There was one other Packard Scholar at Michigan back in 1998, Lewis says, and they joined with other such scholars scattered around the country to form an essential academic and cultural network.
More than 50 young scientists from the Graduate Scholars Program held their annual meeting 15-17 July at AAAS headquarters in Washington D.C. They attended a Capitol Hill briefing and reception, made scientific presentations and heard a series of distinguished speakers including AAAS President Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York; Norman Francis, president of Xavier University of Louisiana; and Alan I. Leshner, AAAS's chief executive officer.
But the meeting was just as important for something that didn't appear on the agenda: The chance for the scholars to renew old acquaintances, make new friends, swap stories and solidify a network that could last throughout their careers.
"There's an isolation once you get to Big 10 schools or Ivy League schools, where most of the time we're the only minority in the program," Lewis said in an interview before the meeting. "So, having this network of people you can contact through email, or see at least once a year, is good because you can share stories about how we passed exams, or techniques we used to pass our preliminaries or our orals. And its also instills confidence and character-it tells us we're supposed to be here, we belong here, we can do it."
The scholars program was established by the Packard Foundation in 1992 to help graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) pursue doctorates in the sciences, engineering and mathematics. The program awarded 15 scholarships annually, each for $100,000 disbursed over five years. Since its inception, some 147 scholarships have been awarded; to date, 37 of the scholars have gone on to receive their Ph.D.s, and most of the others are still working toward that goal.
That makes the Graduate Scholars an elite group within the community of African Americans who are pursuing doctoral degrees in science or engineering. But it's a small group, overallin 2001 and 2002, African Americans represented just 3.4 percent of the doctorates earned in those fields.
Those numbers mean that isolation is almost inevitable. Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, knows the effect first-hand; as a young African-American woman, she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights crucible years of the 1950s and early '60s. She earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of Washington, a masters in zoology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a doctorate in ecology from Penn State University.
And often, in those years, she was either alone or among only a small group of African Americans in the sciences at those schools.
Things have changed, Malcom told the Graduate Scholars, but in many ways they've stayed the same. "Although there are likely to be more students from all different kinds of backgrounds around you, graduate school can still feel isolating," she said. "Faculty aren't always as supportive as they might be and research isn't always going well. Sometimes it seems that you are treated like you're invisible and other times as though every eye is on you."
"The lack of faculty diversity really comes through when you're a graduate student in a program like this," Malcom added in an interview. "You have to become something you've never seen."
Kim Lewis and Don Ahmasi Harris found a similar experience when they arrived at Michigan some three decades later, in 1998.
Lewis credited her time at Dillard with helping to build her sense of inner strength. Harris had chosen Morehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for its tradition of providing a strong foundation to young black men. Both were in applied physics, and both were Packard scholars.
At Michigan, however, they quickly found that many study groups weren't open to them. Lewis felt excluded in part because she was from a historically black university which was not well known or highly regarded by her classmate; Harris felt the exclusion was more directly a matter of race. Either way, they had to create their own network.
"That's a reality of graduate school," Harris said in a telephone interview before the scholars' annual meeting. "We were in study groups together, at first, because it was next to impossible to get into other study groups. And then, after a while, we realized that we had the same tools that they had, and in many cases we did better than they did.
"We only started doing better after we realized that it doesn't matter where you went for undergrad-we're all in the same place now. And that means we're qualified to be here. You know, physics is physics. The same physics that's at Morehouse is at Harvard or Yale or the University of Texas. The resources might be different, but the science is the same…. [But] it took a good semester to really internalize that."
Lewis has specialized in condensed matter physics and solid-state electronics; her scholarship has focused on electrometers, or highly sensitive transistors, especially a device called a single-electron transistor that has potential applications from chemical sensors to quantum computers. She's due to receive her doctorate in August, and its likely she'll be one of only a handful of African American women nationwide to get a Ph.D. this year in science, engineering or math; she's considering post-doctoral offers from Rensselaer Polytechnic and Louisiana State University.
Harris' research has concentrated on molecular spectroscopy, exploring how bio-molecules found in the body interact with lighta process responsible for the body's creation of Vitamin D, for example. He's expecting to earn his Ph.D. next year.
"No matter what, the first year of graduate school is hellno matter where you go, no matter what you're studying," Harris said. "During that first year, you have a feeling that you're alone, that you're the only one struggling with the material, the only one staying up all night and working on these homework things, or trying to understand a concept. And in the Packard annual meetings, it's good to find out that you're not the only one going through that, and that it's normal. Because if you think it's abnormal, that's when people start thinking 'I'm not smart enough to do this.' And that's when they usually discontinue their education in the early years.
"The annual scholars meeting really helped in that process. You see other students and you say, 'That first year really kicked my butt.' Well, it kicks everyone's butt. But it helps to hear that from another student. So for me, this meeting every year has proved to be a great source of encouragement."
The Packard Foundation, based in Los Altos, Calif., and AAAS struck a five-year agreement last year to transfer management of the scholars program to AAAS. The association also has undertaken a study of the program's effectiveness in increasing the proportion of underrepresented minorities with Ph.D.s in the science and engineering workforce.
AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal Science,. AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 10 million individuals through 262 affiliated societies and academies of science. The non-profit association is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more.
Edward W. Lempinen
21 July 2004