Son of a housekeeper and a longshoreman, Isiah Warner has been a scientist since age two, when he conducted his first experiment: tasting kerosene to find out why it produced light in a kerosene lamp. A quick trip to the hospital interrupted his investigations, but he was back at the lab bench by the age of 10, when his parents gave him a chemistry set.
Warner, who grew up in rural Bunkie, Louisiana, spent his summers working in the cotton fields to earn extra money for his parents and playing with the chemistry set when he got home. But as an African American in the Deep South in the early 1960s, he had few role models to show him how to turn his backyard chemistry experiments into a career.
A high school English teacher was among the first mentors to encourage his interest in science. She pointed him toward a summer chemistry program at Southern University, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A few years later, when Warner was a freshman at Southern, the chair of the chemistry department convinced him to major in that subject. "At points in my life when I've been in a quandary, there have been people showing me the way," Warner says. "Those were my mentors, and without them I wouldn't be where I am today."
Now a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), Warner is a prolific analytical chemist who has also won accolades for his teaching and mentoring. In 1997, Warner received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from President Bill Clinton. With help from his 2002 HHMI professor grant, Warner set up a formal mentoring program aimed at first-year science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) undergraduates who show promise but are struggling with their courses. Warner assigns them to a faculty or graduate student mentor who, in turn, is guided by Warner and other faculty members on how to support a young student. "The first year of an undergraduate STEM major is a critical time," Warner says. "If they do not do well that first year, it is often very difficult for them to recover, and many students drop out of STEM as a result."
Warner sees that work as "paying forward" the mentoring he received in his youth. The beneficiaries include biochemist Michael F. Summers, an HHMI investigator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who went to Warner for advice when he wanted to set up his own program to boost African Americans' participation in science. "Isiah has been an outstanding mentor and role model, not just for the large number of minority students he has mentored, but also for nonminority faculty who want to have a positive impact on the retention and mentoring of minority science students," Summers says.
Teaching students how to be good mentors is built into Warner's program. Undergraduates reinforce their scientific skills and commitment to research by mentoring younger students. In the past few years, the program has been extended to reach students in Louisiana's community colleges and high schools. Many of the participating students in the undergraduate, community college, and high school programs come from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Warner and his colleagues have been pleased that their mentored students' rate of graduation with STEM degrees has been about double the LSU average.
With a recent renewal of his HHMI professor grant, Warner will add an international dimension to his initiatives. Mentored STEM undergraduates and other LSU students will have the opportunity to do research at HHMI's KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) in Durban, South Africa. "Our students often need to expand their horizons, and research abroad is an excellent mechanism for doing so," Warner says.
Isiah Warner is also Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives, Louisiana State University and A & M College, and Boyd Professor of the LSU System and Philip W. West Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Louisiana State University.
RESEARCH ABSTRACT SUMMARY:
Isiah Warner has created a "hierarchical mentoring" model that fuses research, education, and peer mentoring to give undergraduates an opportunity for advancement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. With his new HHMI grant, Warner will extend the mentoring model to international settings and introduce a research minor to the LSU undergraduate curriculum.
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Photo: James Kegley