Minority Science Brain Drain

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Support for this story — and for others in the Women in Science: Sounds of Progress series — comes from the National Science Foundation.
18-year old Ramsay High school graduate Lakeisha Lockhart has all the characteristics of an excited student, readying herself for college, going through all the motions to get on that track to a graduate degree.

She says she’s always been interested in biology and research and her mom was instrumental in getting her motivated in that direction.

“She made sure that I studied and set an aside time for studying. Usually, when I don’t study, she’s always saying you know you got a test this day and this day. So I tried. I study just because she’s there. And I have to learn to do it on my own. It just takes me realizing that I have to study and that, I’m not going to be able to just listen to the teacher and absorb everything.”

Lakeisha is a college freshman, and after she graduates, plans to go to graduate school in a science or research-related field. But the odds are not in her favor.

In a report published last year, the National Center for Education Statistics said African-Americans and Whites studying biology and chemistry graduated from college at about the same rate: 3.9 percent for black undergrads, 4.2 percent for whites. But the disparity grows as students progress towards more advanced degrees.

The study shows whites attend graduate school at almost twice the rate as blacks in those same biology and chemistry fields.

Another study — the National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates — found that African-Americans lag far behind on obtaining graduate degrees in science, technology engineering or math – STEM programs.

As part of her own graduate work, Ramona Hart is trying to figure out why it’s so hard for black STEM students to walk through that graduate school door.

“Just trying to get a sense or an idea for those who are going to graduate school what has helped them to get to that level and to make that decision. And if they’re not, if there’s something that eventually could be done to change their mind about attending graduate school. Because there’s so few African-Americans attending graduate school in the science fields. Most of them get their undergraduate degree; they don’t keep going – and that’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Getting that information has been difficult every step of the way.

For more than a year, Hart had been in contact with one predominantly black school and everything seemed to be going well. She set up specific times to interview students and spoke for weeks with university officials, making sure they understood the goals of her research.

But when Hart went to get final approval for the research to begin, the school pulled the plug. They were ‘skeptical’ – their word. Of what, she was unsure.

“I tried to reassure them with all the aspects of confidentiality. The institution wouldn’t be used, wouldn’t be named. The students would not be named. And, still, they still denied the process. And this is after I had everything set up with the program director and the program manager and they were all interested in the research. So, that was a major, major setback. (You say skeptical, though. Like they didn’t trust you?) They said that, from their quote, was that they had gotten burned from research in the past. And it was jeopardizing to the institution.”

Hart tried again at another school and was shunned. It was after her third attempt that she finally got the green light and did her research, which involved talking to students one by one.

Some of them didn’t want to be identified, such as this senior who was adamant about one major point…

“Money has a lot to do with graduate school, to me. (What about opportunities that maybe people don’t understand, that the students don’t understand?) I see that a lot of students don’t try to go out and try to find ways where you can get money to help you with graduate schools. They don’t try to find the different assistance. You know.”

In a recent discussion at one of the school’s science clubs, students tried to put their struggle – monetary or otherwise – into words. But even before the conversation started, there was one biting question – the 800-pound lily white elephant in the room: ‘Why are you – two white people: researcher and reporter – interested in African-American affairs?

“Neither of you are African-American, so you would not have those type of personal experiences that African-Americans go through.”

It was a polite – if terse – question by student Candace Davis, who sat quietly at the back of the classroom.

“Just being an African-American is an experience in and of itself. Because you don’t blend in; you stand out. And just about any environment you do, but you stand out more so in an academic environment. And you really are a sore thumb in a predominantly Caucasian academic environment, which is what you get into when you get into graduate schools. Sometimes we don’t want to stick out; we just want to fade in to the background and blend in. But you do tend to stick out.”

Davis says as a black student she fears being singled seen as someone who’s receiving special attention by the teacher because of the perception that she’s meeting some kind of quota.

She says that kind of peer pressure is daunting and only a minority can know what that’s like.

“I mean, I knew why she was asking that.”

Again, Ramona Hart.

“I think as the students’ say, it is a bit of a stigma because the field is predominantly white.”

Hart says that lends itself to a mentoring problem, where African-Americans don’t have enough role models to push black undergrads into graduate science studies.

Senior Ashley Lidge agrees.

“Because they may feel like, you know, well I really don’t see that many of my kind there. So, is it saying that we can’t do it? You hear what I’m saying? Maybe. (On a scale of 1-10, one being less likely, ten being more likely, where do you rank on the scale of following through with grad school in later years?) Actually, I don’t want to rate myself as ten, but I’ll go about an eight or a nine because I really feel like I want to be a professional student. Because I want to go as far as I can.”

There are some programs available to African-American students that are trying to fill that void.

Since its inception twenty years ago, the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has helped hundreds of minority students move forward into Master’s and Ph.D. programs.

“When I was given the opportunity as I introduced them to other friends who are in other fields – pursuing Ph.D.s, pursuing Master’s Degrees and all sorts of fields so that they could see that they too could achieve this.”

Dr. Adrian McFadden is an alumnus of the program, and a mentor now to those in grade school who are thinking about their plans later in life.

“Although it was early on in their life – in middle school you’re not necessarily thinking of being a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering – but I wanted to introduce that to them so that they had role models for all these fields and all these levels of achievement, so that they too could understand in their heart that they were able to do that and could set their expectations higher.”

But the progress is slow. The Meyerhoff is only one program, yet there are thousands of African-American students, male and female, who may need help finding or accessing money, preparing for school or meeting someone who can empathize with their situation.

Ramona Hart says it’s just not there.

“I think as faculty and as administrators for science programs, I think that essentially we are failing these students.”

And that’s what’s included in Hart’s dissertation and defense… the pages and pages she’s been entering into her computer… data that’s been gathered over the course of her investigation.

Schools failing students.



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