Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Increasing the Pool of Physicists of Color: Alabama A&M Graduates Four Ph.D.S, Has More in the Pipeline

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Increasing the Pool of Physicists of Color: Alabama A&M Graduates Four Ph.D.S, Has More in the Pipeline

Article excerpt

Increasing The Pool of Physicists Of Color: Alabama A&M Graduates Four. Ph.D.s, Has More In the Pipeline

by Garland L. Thompson

Almost unnoticed last May, as others prepared for summer break, Physics Department head Calvin Lowe and his colleagues at Alabama A&M University shared a proud moment: They had just awarded four Ph.D. degrees in physics to people of color.

Three went to African Americans -- Sheila Nash-Stevenson, a NASA electronics engineer from Huntsville; William George Bryant of Birmingham; and Michael Cradford Henry, of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands -- and the fourth to Hemata K. Jena, of Nanpur, Cuttack, India.

To put the achievement in perspective, an announcement by the university noted that, nationally, the awarding of Black physics Ph.D.s is minuscule -- an estimated five a year. Alabama A&M's physics department, which gained independence from its math department in 1979, began its doctoral program in the mid-1980s. This class, the largest-ever doctoral group, featured the program's firstever African American participants and its first woman graduate.

Expanding the Pool

A guest editorial in the Spring 1994 Journal of Negro Education explored the factors holding down the number of Black Ph.D.s awarded each year. The editorial, "New Sources for Minority Doctoral Starts," by William and Marian Brazziel, was mainly concerned, as its title suggests, with expanding the pool of available candidates for Ph.D. studies. But its cast of obstacle-forming culprits was familiar:

Limited financial support;

Lack of mentoring by senior faculty;

Limited contact with college administrators; and

Negative preconceptions among graduate admissions personnel.

Repeatedly, the Brazziels returned to the topic of financial support. They noted the importance of fellowships and research assistantships, but found that most are awarded to students from foreign countries. They also pointed to moves in Congress to set up "world class laboratories" funded by National Science Foundation grants to junior colleges across the country, an attempt to boost accession of minority students into the research establishment.

Lowe, a North Carolina A&T grad who took his master's and doctor of science degrees at MIT, also says National Science Foundation funding is critical. Alabama A&M hosts an NSF Center for Non-Linear Optics and Materials, and is in the seventh year of a 10-year funding cycle. "The center defines the intellectual focus of our department," Lowe said. …

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