New Heights in STEM

Kimberly Gardner at the White Board

Bison STEM Scholars make commitments early on to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

It began with a simple conversation between two forward-thinking top administrators at Howard University. President Wayne A. I. Frederick (B.S. ’92, M.D. ’94, M.B.A. ’11) and Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony K. Wutoh were discussing ways that Howard University could open the pipeline that funneled too few African Americans into high-level research careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Those conversations resulted in the Bison STEM Scholars Program (BSSP) that now has 31 sophomores and 29 freshmen headed toward Ph.D.’s or combined M.D./Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering or math. Plus, a new cohort of at least 30 students will begin classes this summer.

Accepting its first cohort of students in fall 2017, Bison STEM scholars receive full tuition; room and board; a stipend for books; admission to a summer bridge program tailored just for them; individual and small group tutoring; small and large study groups; mentoring by professionals in their field; internships and a study abroad experience before the start of their freshman year.

The Impact on Research

Students are selected from the highestachieving ranks of schools from across the nation and from around the world. They must be committed to earning a Ph.D. or a combined M.D./Ph.D., meaning their life’s work will focus on research in STEM fields.

“The goal is to address the significant absence of African Americans in particular, and people of color in general, who pursue careers in STEM and earn a Ph.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D. Far too few pursue these degrees, and when they do, few end up doing research,” said Ronald Smith, the program’s director.

There are life-saving and life-enhancing reasons why people of color are needed as researchers, Smith said.

“Diseases that are more prevalent in the African American community are less likely to be the subject of research when we are not the principal investigators,” he said. “New diseases that impact our community get little or no attention. When you have fewer people of color doing research, that means you have fewer people who are devoted to finding solutions to problems that impact our communities. It puts our intellectual capital behind those problems that disproportionately impact us.”

There’s a second reason more people of color need to earn high-level degrees in those fields, he said. “Those degrees qualify people to become professors. Who’s going to prepare the new generation of STEM professors of color?” Students of color need professors who look like them and who know that they can excel in high-level math, chemistry, physics and other challenging STEM-related disciplines, said Smith. Too often, capable students are discouraged in STEM disciplines by instructors and even fellow classmates who equate color with lack of ability, he said.

The Bison STEM Scholars program builds on Howard’s tradition of producing the greatest number of people of color in STEM fields. More African Americans who earn a Ph.D. in a STEM field got their undergraduate degree from Howard University than any other school, Smith added.

Caroline Harper, Ph.D., a political scientist and educator, who has studied the color gap in STEM fields called such programs as BSSP crucial for students of color, specifically, and for the world in general. “It’s not that they don’t have the interest or aptitude,” said Harper, who earned her doctorate in political science from Howard in 2013. “Too few students of color reach the benchmark for entry into STEM. For a university like Howard to reach out to students is something that will change the trajectory of their lives.” A diverse pool of researchers adds valuable and diverse experiences and perspectives to problem solving, Harper added.

A Successful Start

BSSP is patterned after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County—a program Provost Wutoh was familiar with due to the years that he spent there as a student.

Several factors already spell early success for the program at Howard. Among them:

* From the second cohort, 18 of the 29 students earned a 4.0 GPA, and the other students aren’t far behind.

* Two years into the program, the inaugural class has maintained an average 3.6 GPA.

* Of the 31 students in the inaugural class, 25 students received summer research internships from all over the country, including Stanford University and Harvard University; as well as in Mexico, Ghana and other international locations.

* A top research scientist at Harvard University was so impressed with his intern, he asked to visit Howard to meet the other students and learn more about the program.

Smith and Joshua Kennedy, BSSP program manager, attribute the program’s success to the quality of students selected and the wraparound support that starts before students begin fall classes, which includes a bridge program and a two-week summer intensive research project in Germany. “Not many freshmen start college with a completed research project and international study abroad experience,” Kennedy said. “It gives them a leg up, and I think it shapes their perspective early on for what STEM looks like. For many students, it’s their first time being abroad.”

The program is very selective. The first class of 31 came from a pool of more than 440 applicants. Other classes have been similarly competitive. BSSP seeks students who not only want to do research, but also want to use their skills and talents for improving life, both nationally and globally.

“We have great young people who are not only intellectually gifted, but they’re well-behaved, polite, focused and hardworking, and they’ve developed the discipline needed to be successful,” Smith said.

“That’s a long, arduous track to a Ph.D. and a M.D./Ph.D. It takes a lot of effort. “I’m not surprised with our students’ success,” Smith said. “I expect each of our students to do so well that they won’t have to pay for graduate school.”

 

Like-Minded Achievers

Kimberly Gardner, Sophomore, nutritional sciences major

Eight schools, including two Ivy League universities, invited Kimberly Gardner (B.S. ’21) to join their ranks. Gardner chose to become a Bison STEM Scholar because of the web of support that would surround her and the like-minded student achievers that she met the day she interviewed.

“I was blown away by the amount of intelligence in the room,” Gardner recalls. “Just the thought of being part of a future that everyone in the room would contribute to was mind-blowing. Everyone there wanted to get a Ph.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. That was so amazing to me. I’d never been around so many people of color striving for the top. Now, it’s my everyday life.

Like other STEM scholars she believes she’s excelling not just for herself, but for Africans Americans as a whole.

“It’s a constant reminder that we are more than what the media portrays,” she said. “We are more than the small towns or big cities that we come from where we know people who didn’t make it. We’re literally standing on our ancestors’ shoulders and we cannot fail.”

That first day at Howard left an indelible mark on her.

“It’s the first time I’d been told I can be more than I envisioned,” said Gardner, 19, a native of Jamaica who’s majoring in nutritional science, with a goal of doing research that leads to healthier eating, especially for children and people of color.

It’s almost surprising that Gardner would be taken aback by a stellar crop of top students. Her academic history is a road map crowded with high achievement since childhood. Among Gardner’s accomplishments: She studied two summers during high school at Cornell University and she earned a scholarship while in high school to take Saturday classes at the School for Visual Arts, a college in Manhattan. She graduated near the top of her class from the Ronald E. McNair Academic High School, where she met another McNair and Howard grad who would become her mentor—2017 Rhodes scholar Cameron Clarke (B.S. ’17).

Clarke emailed remarks about Gardner from Oxford, England, where he’s studying public policy. “Kimberly is one of those students who you just know is going to be great,” Clarke wrote. “She’s incredibly bright and self-motivated, and a very capable and resilient young woman. But more than that, Kimberly is just an incredibly genuine and compassionate person ... I have complete faith that she is going to be a successful academic and community health advocate.”

Gardner is already proving to be a success. She was one of a select group of students from all over the world who was chosen to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) last October, where students discussed how to turn ideas into reality.

“I want to be an expert; that’s my goal,” she said. “The only way to be an expert is to remain curious and in a constant state of learning, and always try to be exemplary.”

Howard’s Hallowed Ground

Earl Tankard, Sophomore, computer science

Earl Tankard Jr. (B.S. ’21), almost didn’t apply to become a Bison STEM scholar. When he got an email inviting him to apply he put it aside since he’d already been accepted to Howard University.

“I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to write yet another essay. I’m tired,’” he recalls.

His mother, Yvette Tankard, encouraged him to take a closer look. “This is more than a scholarship. This could be game changing,” she told him. So, Tankard wrote another essay. And he’s glad he did. He is now one of 30 students who make up the first class of Bison STEM Scholars.

The 20-year-old from Marlboro, New Jersey, is majoring in computer science. He plans to earn a Ph.D. and do research in the areas of big data analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence. He already has a head start on his goal. Last summer he interned at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., which has already invited him back this com- ing summer.

Academics, especially courses in mathematics, have always been easy and fun for him, Tankard said. He was that kid who flew through calculus while others crawled through algebra. “I just always liked to solve problems. I still do,” he said. “And I especially like knowing multiple paths to a solution. I want to blend my love of problem solving with outside-the-box creative thinking.”

But even an admittedly nerdy young man like Tankard can get overwhelmed by a rigorous academic schedule. What does he do to adjust? He turns to mentors and friends in the program who serve as an in-house support network for one another.

Additionally, a conversation he had with his grandfather when he was around 11 years old guides him still. The young Tankard admired his grandparents’ lifestyle. They traveled often and enjoyed life despite being retired. One day a curious young Tankard asked his grandfather how they could afford their lifestyle. “Grandson, you have one choice in this life: Play now and pay later, or pay now and play later,” Tankard recalled his grandfather, the late Reginald Osborne Jr., telling him. Tankard could hang out and play with his buddies all the time and suffer the consequences later, or he could put time and effort into his studies so that he could reap the benefits later.

Tankard knew that the day he walked Howard’s hallowed ground after being named a Bison STEM scholar that he’d made the right choice. “It just felt like home,” he said. “I felt like I could be my full self here and grow—not just as a student and scholar, but as an entrepreneur and professional.”

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