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AAAS President-elect Candidate Freeman Hrabowski on How to Nurture Young Minds in Science

headshot of Freeman Hrabowski
Freeman Hrabowski.

The 2022 AAAS General Election will open on April 7, 2022. Head here for more information about the general election slate and how to vote. Learn about President-elect candidate Freeman Hrabowski below.

Growing up as an African American child in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s and ’60s, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, Ph.D., was all too familiar with the challenges facing his community and his country. Despite his fear of being arrested (which did indeed happen — he was jailed for five days), he joined the Children’s Crusade, an anti-segregation march of more than 1,000 students that took place in 1963, when he was just 12 years old. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational speech about poverty and discrimination prompted Hrabowski to action and became a touchstone for his life’s work.

“[King] suggested that it will take everyone, people of different races, to solve these problems,” recalls Hrabowski. “From that time on, I began to see the relationship between mathematics, my own discipline, and problem-solving, and I began to connect math and science to solving the problems of society.”

Now, this AAAS Fellow is a President-elect candidate for AAAS’ upcoming General election. If elected, he plans to continue to emphasize the importance of helping the public understand the key role of science and engineering in sustaining a thriving, equitable society. Hrabowski, who has served as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) since 1992, has been synthesizing his love for solving math problems with his keen ability to formulate strategic solutions to support and encourage talented future scientists and engineers for decades. After graduating from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) with honors, he went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What he observed during his time as a student and part-time tutor to undergraduates inspired him to create innovative educational infrastructure to support and encourage young science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent. The dearth of Black students in his master’s and Ph.D. programs, the degree to which his past exposure to math impacted his academic achievements, and the widespread struggle of undergraduate students of color from the Chicago area in math, science, and engineering, all shaped his ideas about how education can best benefit students.

“I created, with some colleagues, a tutoring center, and I began to think about those issues — what will it take for students of color to succeed in these disciplines, especially as more and more were going to predominantly white universities?” notes Hrabowski. “My research over these past 45 years has focused on how to create a culture that would have more students succeed. My work at UMBC has been an experiment to figure out how to take students from all backgrounds and all races and help them succeed, especially in STEM, where so many Americans do not.”

If selected as President-elect of AAAS, he hopes to convey the message that it will take years to change people’s conceptions (and misconceptions) about why science is important, who does science and how we can ensure greater representation in the scientific workforce.

But taking the long view doesn’t mean settling or complacency; the dogged pursuit of change is still present. In his recent article in “Issues in Science and Technology,” he delves further into how he would move the needle.

“In 2011, I chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline. At that time, 2.2% of new Ph.D.s awarded in natural sciences and engineering were going to Blacks. Today, more than 10 years later, it’s still only 2.3%,” Hrabowski says.

Thus, one of his goals is to continue to cultivate and support the valuable resources of young minds. If only certain segments of the population are becoming scientists, he notes, that leaves an enormous untapped pool of talent that is not being identified and encouraged.

“The other part of science literacy is helping people understand what we may face in the future when thinking about issues from public health to climate change,” he adds. That is why he is excited about the prospect of leading AAAS.

“AAAS understands the importance of taking science to society, of highlighting the role of science,” he says. “And we have to be creative in doing more to educate the media, public officials, families, preschools through universities, the corporate community and the philanthropic community — all aspects of our society.”

When it comes to real-world applications of these ideas, the proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. In 1988, Hrabowski co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars program at UMBC with philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. Scholarships from the program provide financial assistance, mentoring and other support to high-achieving students pursuing advanced degrees and research careers in science and engineering.

Since 1993, the program has had more than 1,400 student graduates. As of February 2022, the program has a network of alumni who have collectively earned 378 Ph.D.s, more than 180 M.D. or D.O. degrees, and over 300 master’s degrees, primarily in engineering, computer science and related areas, from prestigious institutions. UMBC is now the nation’s leading producer of Black bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to complete Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering, and also the leading producer of graduates in these disciplines who progress from completing M.D.s to Ph.D.s.

And, crucially, these Meyerhoff alumni are paying it forward by reaching out to upcoming early-career scientists to support and broaden their opportunities, spurring a pipeline of new innovators and researchers who are ready to change the world.

“When we increase the numbers and the initiatives designed to help people of one color,” Hrabowski adds, “we will find practices that help us increase the number of students of all types.” He also notes the importance of supporting fellow future scientists, regardless of who they are.

“Men must be as concerned about the paucity of women in these disciplines as whites must be about the paucity of people of color in these disciplines,” Hrabowski says. The solutions come from not just one group understanding the problem but from everyone working to find a better way.

While Hrabowski is due to retire from UMBC this June, it’s clear he won’t be slowing down anytime soon. With support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he is working to replicate the Meyerhoff Scholars program at other universities. The program has been successfully replicated at Penn State and UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is supporting additional replication efforts at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.

“I’m looking forward to taking the lessons we’ve learned at UMBC to the next level, to working with national agencies and foundations in thinking about how to move the needle,” says Hrabowski.

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Katherine Lee