Erica Martin earned her undergraduate biology degree at Spelman College, a small, historically African American college for women in Atlanta. The 32-acre campus wasn't crawling with famous research scientists, and some specialized courses the M.D.-Ph.D. student wishes she could have taken—anatomy, for example—weren't offered. But Martin wouldn't trade her undergraduate years at Spelman for anything.
"We were nurtured and challenged there," she says. "We learned hands-on, with constant feedback. They taught us to pay attention to details and to think outside the box. Academically, it was as rigorous as any research university. It was also like a family. Everybody knew my name."
After Spelman, Martin finished two years of medical school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), when she switched to a neuroscience graduate program there, and is now in her third year of that program. After she earns her Ph.D., Martin will return to the university's medical school to complete her M.D. She wants to do clinically oriented research on the effects of ischemia, or reduced blood flow to the brain, which often occurs during cardiac arrest and stroke.
Medical school was quite an adjustment for Martin after four years at Spelman, where her largest class had 40 students. At UMB, she found herself in classes of 150. Some of her classmates from research universities had already taken courses in anatomy, histology, and electrophysiology.
But Martin took it all in stride. "Spelman prepared me mentally to do the work," she explains. "I understand how to use resources to find things out—how to learn. And maybe most important, it gave me self-confidence. So if a professor here doesn't know my name, I'll walk right up and introduce myself and ask a question."
Martin participated in a math and science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. For college, she considered two branches of the University of Maryland system, including the flagship at College Park, before settling on Spelman. "At historically minority colleges and universities, you are among other minorities who are striving to succeed," says Martin, adding that Spelman is known for its dedication to helping minority females succeed.
Martin almost went to College Park because she loved to play soccer and they had a good women's team, while at Spelman there was none. Instead, she chose Spelman and spearheaded a women's soccer program there. "So I got the best of both," she says with a grin.
A friend's younger sister now is facing the choice Martin made nine years ago. "She's considering Spelman or New York University, and I'm offering my advice, whether she wants it or not. I've told her she should go to Spelman."
With two undergraduate degrees from two very different kinds of schools—Morehouse College and the Georgia Institute of Technology—Keith Howard knew he wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. "The mentorship I received and my interactions with professors were much more meaningful at Morehouse than at Georgia Tech," he recalls.
For Howard, the tough choice after graduate school (at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee) was whether to teach at a historically minority institution like Morehouse or one where his African American face tended to stand out.
"I had offers from both predominantly white and predominantly black institutions," the mathematician recalls. "My final decision was based on where the resources were available that would enable me to further my research interest in mathematical modeling."
He chose Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, a school where only 12 percent of the 1,550 students are minorities. Not only did Howard receive the necessary resources from Kenyon, but he also knew the territory. Having worked there for a year as a dissertation fellow, he says, "I had already integrated myself into the department and the institution."