Mike Summers, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and HHMI investigator, is the director of the Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The program, which is now more than two decades old, has built a reputation for graduating top-notch African-American science students who go on to earn Ph.D.s.
You argue that for underrepresented minorities, pursuing research careers isn’t just practical, it’s personal. How so?
Many African-American students have considered a career in medicine by the time they come to campus. But they often haven’t thought about research, which would give them the opportunity to do more than just help their communities one patient at a time. Because these are the brightest students in their class, maybe of their generation, they could be at the forefront of developing new technologies that could benefit an entire group of people. African Americans, for example, are at higher risk of dying from [complications of] high blood pressure and developing hypertension than white people. With a Ph.D, or an M.D.-Ph.D., these students could be involved in drug design or drug development. They could guide government policies to decide how research dollars are spent, they can make sure their communities are represented, and they can make sure that appropriate experiments are being done.
How can discovering new scientific knowledge affect students?
Students can collect some dirt, bring it into the laboratory, isolate a bacteriophage, and sequence its DNA. And sometimes it’s one that no one has ever seen before. The discovery isn’t necessarily momentous, but the students could go to a conference and be knowledgeable about a little piece of science. It’s their phage, and they can name this new organism after their school or themselves. There’s an incredibly strong sense of confidence and ownership that comes with that.
Why is it so important to build a culture of success among underrepresented minorities, instead of just focusing on individual students?
If you are the only black student in a class, and you get a C on an exam, you—and your professor—might assume that it’s all you can achieve or expect from yourself. But if you’re a black student in a class [with many minority students] and you get a C on your exam, but the African-American student next to you gets an A, that expectation changes. Maybe the professor calls the C student into his or her office and says, “What are your greatest difficulties? You can do better.” Over time, the campus climate changes for minority students who see other people like them who are doing well.
Can white students benefit from programs designed primarily to help underrepresented minorities?
Absolutely. Certainly, a white student graduating from UMBC will understand that just because a person is black doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have the potential to do extremely well in science, mathematics, physics, and other hard sciences. There’s also a saying that a high tide floats all boats. Meyerhoff scholars are distributed within small communities of learners, which means that everyone, including white students, is working with these hard-working high-achievers. They’re helping all of the students.