Programs aim to increase number of black scientists

June 13, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

Responding to a scarcity of blacks earning advanced science degrees, the federal government, corporations and academia have created an expensive pipeline intended to sweep promising students toward careers in research and teaching.

Once they reach college, top black students are taking advantage of grants, fellowships and programs such as research trips abroad intended to cement their commitment to science.

Kimani Stancil, a budding black physicist whose race makes him a rarity, is weighing two scholarships to do his doctoral work in chaos theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A talented student who was a state chess champion at Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Stancil has benefited from a string of opportunities for minority science students.

He spent a summer doing research at Bell Labs in New Jersey and a summer at MIT. This summer he will work with lasers in the Kodak lab in Rochester, N.Y.

Mr. Stancil, 22, recently earned his bachelor's degree with a double major in physics and mathematics from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. As a Meyerhoff Scholar, his education was free. It was worth about $50,000, including extras such as a personal computer and summer internships.

If everything goes as planned, Mr. Stancil will emerge in six or seven years with a doctorate in physics from MIT. Nationwide, only seven blacks earned doctorates in physics in 1992.

Mr. Stancil, whose family lives in Bolton Hill, takes all of his opportunities in stride. The goal, he says, is an important one.

"We need more African-American scholars, basically," he said, pointing to a need to overcome negative stereotypes about young black males. "If we have more scholars, then changes can really occur."

The effort to recruit and nurture young black scientists is uncoordinated and not quantified. But it's clear the amount spent on the pipeline reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars. For example:

* The National Institutes of Health will spend more than $60 million this year on research and training opportunities for minority college students.

* In April, the Pew Charitable Trust put $3.5 million into a new program designed to attract 200 students a year into doctoral programs.

* Countless universities and corporations offer their own scholarship and training programs for minority students. Overall, for example, colleges award about 4 percent of their scholarship dollars on the basis of race, according to a study released in January by the General Accounting Office in Washington.

Results discouraging

Although the number of programs has grown in recent years, results have been discouraging.

In 1982, 1,047 black Americans received doctorates. Ten years later, in 1992, the number had shrunk to 951, according to the National Research Council.

In that decade, the total number of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities increased from 31,111 to 38,814. Foreign students from Asia accounted for the vast bulk of the growth.

In the sciences, the numbers are particularly grim. In 1992, the nation's universities awarded 896 doctorates in physics. Only seven went to blacks, according to the National Research Council. There were four blacks with doctorates in mathematics, five in computer science, and only 49 in all engineering fields.

"It's still a serious problem, the shortage of well-prepared African-Americans in science and engineering," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC.

Many of the brightest minority students have been rejecting the pursuit of doctorates and careers in academia, opting instead for medical school and the financial and social rewards of becoming physicians.

In 1992, for example, only 114 blacks received doctorates in life sciences. The same year, 850 blacks earned medical degrees.

"At this point, professional schools are quite a bit ahead of us because of the economic climate, the recession," said Shin Lin, associate dean for research and graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

Most of the nation's universities are looking to diversify both their student bodies and faculties. But with so few blacks earning doctorates, colleges are hard-pressed to find faculty candidates.

Hopkins' hires

Hopkins this year offered positions to one Hispanic and two black professors in the sciences. Only one, a black instructor in applied mathematics, accepted. The university also hired two black professors in liberal arts.

Before these hires, Hopkins had only two blacks on its Homewood campus faculty, neither in the sciences, a situation that black students protested two years ago.

Since then, Hopkins has set aside fellowship money for promising minority graduate students who don't make the normal cut in the admissions process. By this fall about a dozen minority students will be enrolled in doctoral programs, thanks to the fellowships, Dr. Lin said.

The university also chose to kick in an extra $3,000 in stipends to match offers to two top-notch black applicants being wooed by other universities.

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