As an HHMI Professor, Warner will build a mentoring program to improve undergraduate performance in early science and math courses and to provide a support system for minority high school students and science teachers.
When Isiah Warner entered college in 1964, Louisiana State University was essentially closed to him. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional, but LSU was still virtually a white campus when Warner, valedictorian of his high school class, decided to accept a full scholarship to historically black Southern University, also in Baton Rouge. "I suppose I could have gone to LSU if I wanted to force the issue. However, I wanted to get an education, not to be a martyr," he explains.
Twenty-eight years later, Warner joined the LSU faculty as a research chemist. Holding an endowed professorship and later a Boyd professorshipthe highest honor for a professor in the LSU systemhe later chaired the chemistry department. Now he serves as vice chancellor of the university's Office of Strategic Initiatives, where one of his charges is to create an environment where all students can thrive.
That's exactly what Warner intends to do with his $1 million HHMI professorship.
There are many factors keeping minorities out of science, he says, including inadequate preparation in elementary and high school. "Schools are still segregated," he points out. "Most African Americans attend schools where a majority of the students are minorities, and they aren't encouraged to take math and science. My own sons were discouraged from taking math and science."
As an HHMI Professor, Warner will build a mentoring program to improve undergraduate performance in early science and math courses and to provide a support system for minority high school students and science teachers. His goal is to create a "mentoring ladder" involving faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduates, and secondary teachers and students.
Son of a housekeeper and a longshoreman, Warner is the first in his family to go to college. He says he's been a scientist since age two, when he conducted his first experiment: tasting kerosene in an effort 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's research group is currently one of the largest in LSU's chemistry department, which produces more African American Ph.D.s in chemistry than any other graduate school in the country. As a member of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science's Chemical Sciences Roundtable, he contributed to a 2002 report on "Diversity Models That Work." He serves on the National Institute of General Medical Science's Advisory Council. He has served on the editorial board of the journal Analytical Chemistry, and he won the Eastern Analytical Symposium's Award for Achievements in the Field of Analytical Chemistry. Yet Warner says, "my true love is working with students."