Environmental Factor, March 2007, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
UMBC President Speaks on Minorities in Science
By Eddy Ball
On February 20, a capacity audience gathered to hear Freeman Hrabowski, Ph.D., deliver the Institute's keynote Black History Month address at an event sponsored jointly by the RTP Chapter of Blacks in Government and the NIEHS Diversity Council. Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and a leader in efforts to increase the representation of minorities and women in the sciences. He spoke on "Beating the Odds: Preparing Minorities for Research Careers in Health Sciences."
In his opening remarks, NIEHS Director David Schwartz, M.D., described the celebration's keynote speaker as "an incredibly accomplished educator" whose leadership has made UMBC the single most important American undergraduate institution in producing African-American students who go on to get doctoral degrees in science. Hrabowski's recent honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, and honorary degrees from Princeton and Duke.
Hrabowski, Schwartz observed, is also a thinker who looks at problems globally. In addition to his work at the post-secondary level, he has also written two books on parenting and early education for minority children and is currently a consultant on projects in the Baltimore schools funded by the National Science Foundation.
Hrabowski opened his talk by referring to the comments of Harvard Professor of African-American Studies Henry Louis Gates, Jr. regarding progress for African-Americans since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Gates noted that while the black middle class has tripled since 1968 to 17 percent of the African-American population, the proportion of black children below the poverty line (35 percent) has remained constant. "There are now two classes in black America," Hrabowski observed, "the black middle class and the larger black underclass."
As the country undergoes demographic change in the first half of this century, Hrabowski continued, people of color - the fastest growing population - are the very people who are getting the least amount of education at a time when the country will need more scientists, doctors and engineers. In the inner cities, an estimated 50 to 70 percent of children do not finish high school. While the percentage of blacks with college degrees reflects the proportion of blacks in the middle class, 17 percent, African-Americans represent only two to three percent of people with doctoral degrees.
According to Hrabowski, the most pressing concern for the educational and scientific communities is how to convince female and minority students to make a commitment to pursue careers in science and become consumed by "the nobility of the work." The solution involves role modeling and mentoring. "It takes a scientist to produce a scientist," he said. "People gravitate to people like themselves [and] everybody needs support."
Getting through the first two years of a science curriculum and taking "ownership" of the commitment to science are difficult for any young person, Hrabowski explained, and 60 to 70 percent of students who begin as science and engineering majors change their majors by the end of their sophomore year. "It's an American story, and the same thing happens with Ph.D.s."
Minorities can find "this road to be particularly lonely" without support and people like themselves to emulate. For a long time, whites accepted the racial status quo in education and society, before they began to recognize the disparities that existed. Now, young African-Americans and Hispanics, women as well as men, need the opportunity to envision themselves in the role of the black or Hispanic professor, doctor or engineer who is teaching their classes.
Parents and public school educators must also do their part, Hrabowski argued. Public schools need higher standards for elementary and middle school teachers in math and science. Comparing the motivation of people of color from other countries to American minority students, Hrabowski pointed to the importance of family, community and school expectations of excellence and the involvement of parents in the schoolwork of their children.
As Hrabowski came to the end of his talk, he addressed the executive officers in the audience. "My challenge to NIEHS is that you look critically at self and tradition. Ask the question, 'How do we continue to pull in more people who have not been represented in this group?'" Diversity, he added, does not just mean color or race. Institutions, such as NIEHS, also need to strive for socioeconomic diversity.
(Learn more about this dynamic speaker's achievements in improving minority representation in science by reading the MiSciNet article "Fulfilling the Expectation of Excellence" by Clinton Parks.)