George Washington Carver was born a slave in 1864. By 1943, he died a renowned biochemist who helped revolutionize the South’s agricultural system by introducing the peanut to its poverty-stricken farmers.
Unlike their predecessors, today’s black scientists are not faced with the hardships of slavery. But as before, black scientists must still struggle with Carver-like dedication to succeed in fields where personal connections and politics can have as great an impact as skill. These hardships are taking their toll on the black scientific community, as a lack of mentors and role models continues to discourage their youth from joining the ranks of black scientists.
Prospects have improved for black scientists since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when blacks were given broader access to universities across the country — but they are still sparse among the faculty and graduate student populations of top research institutes, said Chad Womack, the former president of the National Institute of Health’s Black Scientist Association.
“The number of African American scientists receiving degrees in the life sciences, for example, is around 1 to 2 percent of the total,” he said. “Both from a percentage and numbers standpoint, it’s clear that the number of blacks who graduate from college, enroll in graduate school and go into science careers is exceedingly small.”
According to a National Science Foundation report, in 2001 just 2.1 percent of the total number of life science doctoral degrees were earned by blacks. Blacks also only received 4.3 percent of the total science and engineering doctorates issued. An examination of science department directories reveals that the proportion of black scientists at the University reflects this national trend.
These numbers illustrate the difficulties facing blacks who are pursuing careers in science because they must overcome challenges at every stage, Womack said. Starting in elementary and middle school, Womack said black students are faced with pressures from many sources that make it difficult for them to begin on a path that leads to a successful science career.
“It’s very tough for African American youth to maintain an academic focus, excel in school and maintain their integrity, their identity,” Womack said. “I think it has a lot to do with cultural expectations both from inside and outside the African American community.”
STRUGGLING TO BREAK THROUGH
The strongest factor deterring blacks from entering science is the belief among many black youth that “science isn’t available to them,” Womack said. Growing up, young blacks don’t consider science a viable profession, much less the lucrative career that Womack believes it to be. This perception, Womack said, is fuelled by society’s emphasis on blacks who excel in professions stereotypically associated with the race: athletics, music and civil rights activism. The perception comes at the expense of blacks who succeed in fields, such as science, which are not typically associated with blacks, Womack said.
“That’s an unfortunate stereotype placed on black children at a very early age, so they are turned off of science by the time they reach high school,” he said. “Most (elementary and high school) curricula don’t expose children to minorities outside of stereotypical views.”
Womack himself wasn’t exposed to prominent black scientists until he started college, at which point many students may have already chosen to focus on fields other than science.
Should a black student brush aside stereotypes and decide to pursue a science career, they may lack the skills to compete effectively due to an inadequate education, Womack said.
“Science is very competitive and requires students to have specific backgrounds and skills from a very early age,” he said. But most blacks receive their education through a public school system that is underfunded and understaffed.
“With this fact comes an understanding of all the challenges facing blacks in getting the education needed to compete (in science),” Womack said. “It’s easy to see why you don’t have a lot of blacks in science.”
Upon reaching graduate school and postdoctoral work, blacks studying science face a new set of challenges in trying to develop skills and make connections in a world where black peers — and the support of a large community of black scientists — are conspicuously absent.
Engineering Prof. Mark Lewis speaks from experience about the difficulties of starting a career in science for black students. Studying for his doctorate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Lewis found black colleagues to be few-and-far between; he was only the fifth black student to receive a doctorate in industrial engineering from the school. Today, Lewis is an assistant professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University — the first ever black faculty member in the department.
“My education experience was very isolating,” Lewis said. “Most of the time I was working with people from other countries or non-African-Americans.” This feeling is shared by many black graduate students who are working in fields in which blacks are disproportionately underrepresented, Lewis said.
“Everyone doesn’t want to be a lone wolf — it’s tough for every black person to be a pioneer,” he said.
A LACK OF INSPIRATION
Compounding this lack of peers is an absence of black scientists in high-profile positions who can serve as inspirations, role models and mentors, Womack said.
“One of the biggest problems with coming through the ranks is that you end up in this conundrum where you’re alone and you don’t have a lot of guidance,” he said. Blacks, therefore, miss out on invaluable advice and connections provided by an established “old boys” network, said Levi Thompson, a black professor in chemical engineering and associate dean of the University’s College of Engineering.
“Those who have access to these lessons have an advantage over those who don’t,” he said. And this advantage could mean the difference between getting a high-level faculty position or being rejected.
“Consider two candidates for a faculty position, one who has been tutored (on the ins and outs of scientific research)… and one who hasn’t,” Thompson said.
If a black student overcomes the odds, receives his doctorate and embarks on a career in research, he or she may still be held back by their minority status, Womack said.
“What I find interesting is that, when you look at the back end of the pipeline, those African Americans who have made it to a certain point … still aren’t thriving,” Womack said. He attributes this fact not to black scientists being less skilled, but to the same lack of community that isolates them during their education.
“What does it take for an African American to succeed (in science)? A whole lot of politics,” Womack said. “When you’re at my level, it’s not about how strong your background is; it’s all about who you know — those doors opening for you at those institutions and the kinds of mentorship you need to succeed.” Underrepresented minorities like blacks don’t have a community with a shared cultural background or the numbers needed to compete in the politics of science, he said.
The negative forces acting at every stage of a black scientist’s development—during their education, as well as once they have embarked on a career—lead to a lack of high-profile blacks in science, Womack said. This absence is particularly damaging for the potential scientists of the next generation because “they aren’t getting the benefit of seeing blacks performing at the highest level,” Womack said.
As a result, young blacks choose other careers, and the cycle of black underrepresentation in science continues, Lewis said.
“It’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing,” he added. “ It’s a question of (young African-Americans) not seeing people like us in front of the classroom.”
To this end, much of the effort to attract blacks to science has focused on helping black scientists succeed and achieve prominent positions by providing a stronger community. The Black Scientists Association is one such organization. The BSA aims “to build social and professional networks that will have mentors to help African Americans develop their careers in science,” Womack said. “That kind of thing is very important — a nationwide network for black scientists, where they can feel at home … and talk to people who can understand and share their needs and priorities.”
In addition, the NIH and the NSE have programs that specifically target minority youth interested in pursuing scientific research, Lewis said.
And the University’s efforts to address the issue are varied, Thompson said.
Thompson, who is the associate dean of undergraduate education for the University’s engineering school, said the efforts include outreach programs to encourage black students to attend engineering schools, as well as initiatives designed to improve graduation rates for black students once they reach college.
Thompson cites the Dual Degree in Engineering Program as a specific example of the University’s interest in increasing black representation in science.
“Through this program, students from historically black colleges and universities … can transfer into Michigan Engineering after completing rigorous mathematics and science curricula,” Thompson said.
However extensive the efforts to increase black participation and success in science are, no one involved denies that there is room for improvement.
Womack said he believes that in addition to active recruitment of minorities by organizations such as the NSF and NIH, the black community should do more to encourage young blacks to pursue careers in science.
“There needs to be a national call to action among black leaders, black organizations like the NAACP and other education-oriented organizations to focus on the importance of education in general and science and math in particular,” Womack said.
For his part, Lewis would like to see the University take a more active role in recruiting underrepresented minorities as professors in science fields.
“The goal should be set high,” he said. “(The University) has to be more proactive. We can find people at MIT and Stanford when they’re in their second or third year, and talk to them earlier and convince them to come to Michigan.”
For Womack, the benefits and pleasures of science ultimately outweigh the challenges he had to overcome as a black scientist.
“I really enjoy the discovery of research,” Womack said. “Science affords me the possibility to see how Mother Nature operates on a fundamental level, an opportunity to use that to develop drugs that can help people.”
In science, Womack sees a unique opportunity for blacks to thrive despite the pressures they face.
“The future looks bright for African Americans in science,” Womack said. “The paradox is, although the numbers (of blacks in science) are low, the scholarship and grant opportunities are amazing for African Americans. If you do well in science, you can go through school pretty much free and come out to do something that will excite you.”
Often referred to as the “First Negro Man in Science,” Banneker invented the first clock ever built in the United States. After teaching himself mathematics and astronomy, he published a popular yearly almanac of his meteorological and astronomical observations. Banneker was also instrumental in designing the architecture of Washington, D.C., reproducing the plans from memory when the original architect resigned.
McCoy, an inventor and engineer born of slaves who escaped to Canada, created the first automatic lubricating devices for engines. Thanks to his inventions, trains, industrial machinery and other engines could run continuously instead of needing periodic stops for lubrication. McCoy also held over 50 U.S. patents.
In 1883, surgeon Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open heart surgery ever attempted. He created the first biracial hospital in the U.S. and helped establish a medical society for black doctors, the National Medical Association, which is still active today.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver earned fame as an agricultural chemist and botanist. Early in his career, he abandoned pure research to help black farmers improve their lives. He championed agricultural advances such as crop rotation, helped combat malnutrition, and developed myriad industrial and practical uses for simple crops such as peanuts.
Imes was the second African American to receive a doctorate degree, and he earned it at the University in 1915. Imes later went on to become the first black physicist to have his research papers published. Imes then later worked as a physicist and engineer in New York.
Just, a biologist, studied the reproduction and life cycle of marine invertebrates. By examining the eggs and sperm of these simple sea creatures, Just furthered the understanding of the processes of fertilization and growth. He also identified important biological functions of cell cytoplasm, publishing more than 60 scientific papers in his lifetime.
Julian, an organic chemist, synthesized drug compounds for glaucoma treatment, for memory improvement in Alzheimer’s patients, and for arthritis. As the first black man to serve as research director in a large industrial laboratory, he developed methods to synthesize, from soybeans, progesterone, testosterone and other medically useful hormones in large quantities.
Charles Drew established the first blood banks in the 1940s for medical transfusions and pioneered methods for preserving blood plasma for transfusions. Drew began his career as a surgeon and later became the first black American to achieve a Doctor of Science degree in medicine. During World War II he established a blood bank in London.
A University alum, Moore became the first black woman to recieve a doctorate which when she earned hers in 1972. Moore’s career also includes working as an engineer with the Ford Motor Company to improve the manufacturing process of their cars. She also worked with Bendix Aerospace Corporation as a theoretical analyst.
Jemison became the first black female astronaut in 1992. A physician who provided medical care in third-world nations such as Cuba, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Jemison completed NASA’s astronaut program in 1988. She then flew in a joint American and Japanese space mission, SPACELAB J, during which the astronauts conducted experiments in materials processing and life sciences.