Representation Matters


Even today, students obtaining PhDs in science and engineering are homogeneous. How do you combat this inequity? Data obtained from the NSF.

Representation matters. It’s a cold reality: an important influence on what young students do with their lives is if someone like them is in their dream career. If a young black boy from the Southside of Chicago sees its their whole community is obsessed with basketball, it’s likely he’ll develop hoop dreams. Unfortunately for science and technology, the inverse is also true: young brown boys and girls won’t become academic experts if they don’t see a relatable expert while they grow up. As you can see, the newly-deemed experts in science and technology are by and large racially homogeneous.

So why, as a 2nd year PhD student, am I an exception? By the prayers of my loved ones, and through the tough love of PhD-based pipeline programs.

I stepped on the red clay hills of Morehouse College during New Student orientation, horribly tired from my experience in the drumline at Band Camp. I only felt hurried confusion: unable to understand which meetings were important and which were marginal, I visited all of them. It was a bit of a harrowing experience, and acrid heat felt alien on my skin business . My parents made me fell as welcome as possible, but it helped little, when I knew in a few days they would travel back home.

Enter Rahmelle Thompson, a doctorate of veterinary medicine and the newly inducted director of the John H. Hopps Defense Research Scholars Program. I entered the small room on the third floor of the biology building and met a short, vivacious motherly figure aching to meet the new students. I timidly went to the front and introduced myself. She could tell, like all the other students there, that I was nervous. And, she uttered words I remember to this day: “It’s okay, I’ll be your second mother.” Little did I know then how true that statement would become.

Any parent wants to make sure his or her child is taken care of in college. Although Mother Morehouse proudly indoctrinates the importance of brotherhood into each of her students, the school does even more: it builds entire second families. Dr. Thompson, in fact, did become my second mother: even after I had left for my second institution, coming back to visit meant another set of errands to run, important people to meet, a pressing meetings to attend. At the same time, she asked for our advice on the program’s development, and cared for us like we were all her own children. She’s still one of the first people I visit when I’m in the city.

As one of the twenty-three inaugural scholars in the program, we found solace in other students that were interested in math, science, engineering, and technology. It was a bit jarring for me, however, that so many of my future classmates were as interested in the science as I was; most of the black students I remembered hated the school system they were forced to be a part of. I asked How will I fare against these exceptional anomalies? Who will care if I fail? Can I do all these things I dream to accomplish? Who, like me, has done it before?

Representation matters.

To keep myself grounded, I made the Hopps Scholars program a professional priority. Fortunately, the program sent us through the wringer from the beginning. Our weekly meetings introduced us to the basics of succeeding in PhD programs, from graduate school applications to looking for jobs after graduation. The program willed us to conduct summer research every summer were involved in the program, and research while in school in Atlanta-based research institutions, including Morehouse, Spelman College, Emory University, and Georgia Tech. The program also willed us to present our research in a variety of locales, both in oral and poster presentations.

A few of my brothers visiting the First AME Church of Los Angeles.

A few of my brothers visiting the First AME Church of Los Angeles.

The program brought me and my colleagues, free of charge, to MIT and to the National Institute of Technology to complete research, to conferences stateside and abroad to present said research, and across the country to explore graduate opportunities.

Now, it might seem that such a program was wholly positive, but it’s a more complex issue. In my experience, I’ve never seen a program like it which propels black males toward terminal degrees. In fact, America hasn’t seen it before or since. At our zenith, the program held just shy of 100 black male students intent upon getting the doctorate. In the event that our year all received our PhD’s at the same time, we would be responsible for increasing the amount of PhD’s by 2.5%*. That was disappointing, and empowering, at the same time.

As expected, people we interacted with reacted… abnormally… to our program. I remember one visit in Seattle when he had a bit of time to wander the city after research and corporate tours and visits. We visited a few restaurants and gift shops, donned in our business attire. ‘Amazing!’ the shop owner asked. I should have caught her incredulity there, but she went further. ‘Are you all a basketball team?’

I should have expected as much. I’m just shy of 5’8”, and our median height was probably a few inches taller than I was. I’m what you would call an ‘energy’ player on the court: all passion, no skill. Why couldn’t we be seen as the scholars we were? These strangers weren’t trying to be offensive; they only deduced what we were, based upon what is typical. For forty black traveling college students, what else was possible? Unfortunately, these experiences were more of the norm instead of the exception.
Incredulity, confusion, and amazement were the main emotions we experienced from the people we interacted with. We experienced every emotion, except for unambiguous acceptance.

Representation matters.

The Hopps Scholars program, and pipeline programs like it, are important for another whole set of reasons. The people who make decisions about which programs are high priorities, which research projects are funded, and which scientific issues are pressing concerns of our age. A cold reality in the United States is, the representatives who wield such power is of a wholly homogeneous racial background.  It isn’t just in doctorates in science and technology: it’s relevant in Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of the United States Congress. There’s an obvious disconnect here.

I speak to my colleagues from other universities about Hopps, but most of my peers never had the chance for such an opportunity. Such organizations gave our community a competitive advantage for the graduate school experience; other underrepresented communities should have the same opportunity. Unfortunately, our public priorities disagree. organizations which correct inequities in our society, which would contribute to the economic, scientific, and social fabric of our community are under attack. The national news is rife with information about public school closings in Philadelphia and Chicago. Programs like Hopps do their best to change that, but cutting programs like Hopps by a quarter of its funds threaten to destroy the country as we will know it.

I won’t beat around the bush: the Hopps Scholars program is the seminal reason why I am where I am today, working towards a doctorate at one of the greatest public universities in the world. It’s also why, in my minimal free time, I choose to give back to my community: I understand it took multiple villages to raise me, and in return, communities must see my position of opportunity to contribute to villages locally and abroad.

  • I’ve worked as a tutor for the GRE and the SAT for over half a year as a part of Sherwood Test Prep, teaching students basics, tips, and tricks of getting into college and graduate school.
  • As the president of the Black Graduate Engineers and Graduate Students, I’ve contributed to the Bay Area Science Fair by teaching students of all ages the importance of engineering and science disciplines on our everyday lives.
  • I’ve also participated in the Bay Area Scientists in Schools initiative, by teaching elementary school students the importance and basics of green energy.
A few students learning about thermodynamics, and making ice cream from our NSBE/BGESS team.

A few students learning about thermodynamics, and making ice cream from our NSBE/BGESS team.

I promise I’m not bragging; I wish we could all do more to give back.The truth is, these matters of representation require soldiers willing to take the hardest step: to show up, and be seen. What will you do to fight these inequities?

*Check out the statistics for doctoral recipients for the past few years here.


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