Underrepresented Minority Scientists Encouraged to Seek International Collaborations to be Competitive

Young scientists from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities need to develop research communities not just at their home institutions and at professional conferences, but also on a global scale, experts told attendees at a recent AAAS-organized conference in Washington, D.C.

James Wyche
[Photograph by Michael J. Colella,

Science in the 21st century is increasingly an international enterprise, and young scientists in search of opportunity and impact will need global connections, speakers told an audience of some 700 students and faculty. James Wyche, director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resource Development, expressed enthusiasm for the globalization of science, but also concern that underrepresented minorities might be left out.

“We’re not on the global end of research collaborations,” he said. “We’re not preparing for a global workforce.”

Wyche spoke during the 30 October networking breakfast and plenary session at the 2009 conference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program. The 10th anniversary HBCU-UP conference, organized by AAAS and sponsored by NSF, convened from 29 October -1 November, and focused heavily on research presentations by students.

But throughout the conference, a number of speakers, including U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), stressed the idea of reaching beyond comfort zones to build networks and communities that could support young scientists while advancing important research.

Wyche continued the global theme. He said that few underrepresented minorities pursue study-abroad programs, though this is an important way to become involved on a global scale. As a young scientist’s career advances, he said, there should be efforts to conduct research, write papers and seek patents with colleagues beyond the United States.

"The HBCU-UP program is encouraging grantee institutions to support opportunities for their students and their faculty to attend workshops and conduct research activities nationally and internationally in collaboration with the NSF’s CREST [Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Engineering] program,” he said. These efforts “will facilitate broadening participation and promote a globally competitive workforce for the United States.”

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner had a similar message. “We need to be able to behave as a global community,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. In his opening remarks, Leshner told attendees that science doesn’t work in a vacuum, that it’s part of the broader society—and that scientists have to recognize that they work within that broader society.

He encouraged participants to listen to those around them—their friends, family, neighbors. “Science has to understand the public, not just the other way around,” Leshner said. “This will make science more useful and more used. They’ll tell you how they use science.”

Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS’s Education and Human Resources, also stressed the importance of community. “Research tells us that undergraduate research participation is important in supporting graduate interest by African American students,” she said. “The HBCU-UP conference is community-building, and it supports students’ interest in science, mathematics and engineering.”

Malcom added that the conference gives students from HBCUs a “critical opportunity” to present their work and get feedback on a national stage. About 360 undergraduate and graduate students gave poster and oral presentations at the 2009 conference. They discussed their research with other scientists from around the country, and some received awards for their presentations.

“After discussing their work with other researchers from other colleges and universities, most students have a much better understanding about the significance of their research and a bigger picture of how their research serves society,” said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS’s Education and Human Resources.

At one of the three poster sessions for students, Charlee McLean explained the chemical reactions that she used to create a specific, fast-acting fluorescent dye that could eventually be used to detect pathogens in blood samples. McLean, a chemistry major in her junior year from Morgan State University in Baltimore, won first place in the conference’s poster competition in the chemistry and chemical sciences category. Her work was funded by an NSF grant in the Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering program, a program for historically black colleges and universities.

Mario Turner

Beverly Karplus Hartline

For Mario Turner, a plant science major at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, attending a historically black university “feels like home.” The Georgia native enjoys the mentorship and accessibility to professors that he gets. Now a junior at Fort Valley State, Turner’s work in the lab studies how to make tomatoes tastier. His poster presentation at the conference identified a chemical pathway that degrades tomato flavor. If a gene could turn off that pathway, then tomato flavor might be improved, said Turner, who intends to pursue work in agribusiness after he graduates.

Beverly Karplus Hartline told HBCU-UP attendees about different career paths available to them and how an undergraduate education is only the beginning. “After graduation, you can go in many directions,” said Karplus Hartline, associate provost for research at the University of the District of Columbia, in Washington, D.C. During her 30 October talk, she highlighted professional science master’s degrees as one exciting career path, explaining that the programs combine science and management experience and are designed in concert with employers.

But Karplus Hartline said that none of the 151 programs for professional science master’s degrees is at a historically black college or university, and underrepresented minorities comprise less than 10% of enrollees in such programs. To help create these degree programs at HBCUs, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided funding for the HBCU Mid-Atlantic Professional Science Master’s Alliance, for which Karplus Harline is the principal investigator on the grant. The alliance will also serve to attract more students from HBCUs into the programs and inform minorities about the career opportunities available to degree recipients. Beyond helping students, the alliance will “serve the diverse needs of employers in the mid-Atlantic area, including the federal government,” Karplus Hartline said.

The NSF’s HBCU-UP program provides funds for colleges and universities to expand the participation of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Wanda Ward, acting assistant director of the NSF Directorate for Education and Human Resources, said that HBCUs have been “indispensable” in that they serve “students and scholars who were otherwise not served by higher education.”

Ward emphasized the NSF’s position that “diversity of intellectual perspective is needed to help us solve the most complex scientific and technological challenges of the 21st century.” Improving the quality of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at HBCUs, she said, contributes to a larger goal of broadening participation of underrepresented minorities in the nation’s workforce. She also noted that HBCU-UP is one of several NSF programs that serve as a platform for increased international engagement for students of color.

“HBCU-UP currently impacts access and quality of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education for more than 30,000 students majoring in these fields at HBCUs,” Ward said. “Since 1998, more than 16,000 STEM students have graduated from institutions supported by HBCU-UP, and 38% of these STEM majors had an undergraduate research experience.”

Ward encouraged students attending the conference to “master and exemplify” teaching, research, professional development, and mentoring, and urged them to serve the science community. “It remains our hope that the science you experience today is memorable,” she said.