Black History Month is the time of the year when we honor the important contributions that individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X have made to our nation and the world. A name that I would like to add to this list is Ernest Everett Just, commonly known as "EE." An African-American biologist who paved the way for black men and women to pursue and excel in the sciences, his life story is particularly relevant today as we try to address our country's lagging competitiveness in the scientific arena.
Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines are the principle drivers of the global economy and continue to serve as the primary source of innovation. Unfortunately, according to the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) A Gathering Storm, we are not producing enough individuals trained in STEM disciplines to remain competitive with other nations. That is why policy makers around the country and in our nation's capital are so focused on providing the tools and resources needed to encourage and support students who are interested in pursuing these academic fields. In fact, the staggering data in the NAS report has led to a commitment to put the National Science Foundation funding on a doubling track.
Doling out dollars isn't the "cure-all" though. As the demographics in the United States evolve, we as educators must work to increase the number of minority students in these disciplines, disciplines where they remain under represented. Efforts have been underway to improve minority representation for several decades. In fact, in the late 1960's, I was among a small group of graduate students that participated in some of the first programs designed to address the lack of minority representation.
When I compare my experience in the sciences to that of EE, I realize there has been improvement, just not as much as we'd like. EE, born in 1888, received his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College in 1907 and completed his Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Chicago in the 1920's. Although imminently qualified, he was denied an appointment at any of the major research universities in the US, which are historically white, because of racial discrimination.
Through the efforts of individuals like EE and as a result of the ensuing civil rights movement of the 60's, my career trajectory has been quite different. I directly benefited from EE's determination to demonstrate to the world that African Americans are capable of groundbreaking scientific discoveries that move science forward. Though there were obstacles along my career path, I had the privilege of working in the Department of Physiology, School of Medicine, at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the best research universities in the country. I went on to be appointed to the National Science Board by former President Bill Clinton in 1998 and was named the inaugural Ernest Everett Just Professor of Natural Sciences at Dartmouth College, an endowed professorship named in his honor at his alma mater.
As I have moved through my career, I have taken several plays out of EE's playbook, many of which are still applicable in today's environment. But, perhaps the most profound strategy I lifted from EE's career was leaning on and leveraging the wisdom and experience of key mentors. He was fortunate to have FR Lillie as his thesis advisor and long-term mentor. I too benefitted from long term mentors, specifically Shinya Inoué.
When talking about her mentor Anne Mansfield Sullivan, Helen Keller said, "It was my teacher's genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me." Though there is much work to be done to attract minorities to and propel them in the STEM disciplines, I believe the silver bullet is a conscious effort on behalf of all educators to provide passionate mentorship to prospective scientists.
By comparison, the scientific community has made progress but much change is needed before we will see the numbers improve to the extent that will have real impact. Racial bias lingers and differences in the day-to-day experiences of minority scientists persist. Stereotype threat continues to derail careers and compromise performance. Even the best mentors fail to realize the need to provide culturally competent guidance to ensure minority postdoctoral fellows who leave their labs start their careers with the same level of productivity as their white counterparts. These challenges are urgent and must be addressed sooner rather than later to maintain our country's competitive positioning in the global community.