For Gary May, Ph.D., a quote by Jocelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon general, sums up preparing the next generation of leaders.
“'You can’t be what you can’t see’ really encapsulates what mentoring is about,” says May, who won the 2021 AAAS Lifetime Mentorship Award earlier this year. “People need role models, they need folks that they can ask questions.”
Without those role models and mentors, young people may turn away from STEM fields. For instance, despite comprising about 30% of the American labor force, minorities only received 11% of science and engineering Ph.D.s in 2017, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.
“The United States is not going to be competitive if we continue to under-utilize this human resource that's a growing part of the population, but not necessarily a growing part of the STEM professions,” May says.
Mentorship has played a huge role in May’s extraordinary academic career, which has included advising more than 100 Ph.D. students and creating several mentorship programs for students and early-career faculty.
How he got started
In college, May met one of his first mentors, Dr. Augustine Esogbue, who was the founding advisor for the National Society of Black Engineers chapter at the Georgia Institute of Technology and also was the school’s first Black engineering professor.
“He really took an interest in me, and I looked up to him as a father figure of a sort, in a professional sense,” May says. Later on, when May became the Chancellor of UC Davis in 2017, Esogbue flew out to support his mentee. “Even today, we're still very much in touch. These mentors can be lifelong relationships.”
May continued his engineering work as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. With a few others, he founded the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students.
“We were lonely,” May says. “We hoped to be able to encourage others to come to Berkeley in STEM fields, and try to give them a support system, give ourselves a support system, where we could share triumphs and tragedies. And encourage each other's success, to graduation, and careers.”
That support of fellow students expanded to include undergraduates in his last year as a graduate student at Berkeley, when he helped create the Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley (SUPERB) program, which still runs today as a nine-week summer research program with graduate student and faculty mentoring.
“One of the things that separates the students that win awards from the ones that don't, is these research experiences,” says May, recalling his experiences judging NSF fellowships. “For minority students, not having been exposed to such experiences gives them a disadvantage in competitive fellowships later in their life.”
Mentorship as a faculty member
As faculty at Georgia Tech in 1992, May created the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Sciences (SURE) program. Today, SURE continues to bring underrepresented students to Georgia Tech each summer to work on research with a graduate student and a faculty mentor. Since then, over 500 students have participated in SURE, three-quarters of those continued on to graduate school, and half of those graduate students attended Georgia Tech.
The SURE program is an example of May’s philosophy that mentorship and research can build off of each other—faculty spend time mentoring students, and those students also help with research.
“You can do good science and engineering research and still be an effective mentor for students—don't feel like you have to sacrifice one to do the other,” May says. “My advice, especially for young scholars of color, because we have an extra motivation to do mentoring and giving back, is don't feel like you have to sacrifice your research career to do mentoring. Continue to try to do both and do them well.”
In 1998, May founded the Facilitating Careers in Engineering and Sciences (FACES) program. FACES provided support for engineering academics with graduate fellowships, mentoring, professional development, and an early-career faculty grant. During its run through 2011, more than 430 students received Ph.D.s and more than 30 ended up as tenure-track faculty.
In 2011, May became the Dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. As dean, he co-founded the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Tech, which provides stipends for minority Ph.D. students and other support to encourage minorities to get Ph.Ds.
May’s career-long dedication to mentorship led to the AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, which is given in recognition of 25 years or more of mentorship of students underrepresented in STEM fields. He calls it a “nice bookend” to his previous winning of a Presidential Award for mentorship in 2015 and the AAAS Mentor award in 2007.
Nowadays, many of May’s mentees are now mentors themselves, helping more minority students who face other disadvantages. May recalls one of his former students, Cleon Davis, who was an “active kid” in elementary school and ended up in remedial courses. Cleon’s mother was “not happy with that,” May recalls, and advocated for her son who eventually rejoined the regular classroom.
“Fast forward 20 years later, he's getting his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech with me, and he's now a member of technical staff at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab,” May says proudly. “… you wonder how many Cleons are out there that don't get rescued and could be contributing to our science and engineering enterprise.”