Front Page

Next Story

NIH Record vertical blue bar column separator

Curiosity at the Core of Success
MLK Speaker Says 'Enthusiasm for Learning' Is Key Ingredient

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Although NIH is not in the business of spreading infections, scientists here have a bug they should pass along far and wide, according to Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and keynote speaker at NIH's 2002 observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. Hrabowski said the nagging curiosity that is common to researchers ought to be contagious — particularly to the nation's young people.


"In a society that places so much emphasis on athletics, so much emphasis on rap music and on pop culture, how do we create an environment in which children want to be curious and want to be smart?" he asked. "I believe it's that enthusiasm for learning that is at the core."

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III

Speaking on the day before what would have been King's 73rd birthday and a week before the national holiday in the civil rights leader's honor, Hrabowski related a story about the late Dr. Isidor Isaac Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944. Apparently when Rabi was growing up in New York City, the mothers of his friends in the neighborhood made a practice of questioning their children after school. "What did you learn today?" they would want to know. Rabi's mother, however, always sought something different from him. "Did you ask a good question today?" she would ask. Later in his life, when asked how he became such an outstanding scientist and scholar, he would reply that inadvertently his mother had been responsible. "Asking good questions made me become a good scientist," he reportedly said.

Similarly, Hrabowski said, he can recall his own upbringing and early education, growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s.

"When I was a child I used to get goosebumps doing math problems," he said, adding that his son, upon learning this tidbit about his father's childhood, has dubbed him a "'mega-nerd.' I tell him, 'But mega-nerds can pay their bills.' How do we help every child have that curiosity that drives them to work through the problem, and that sense of exhilaration when they finally figure it out? There's something very special about that."

Acknowledging how far the nation has progressed in the last few decades, keynote speaker Hrabowski (r) noted that in the sixties when he was young he never considered that he might be president of a predominantly white university nor would Americans have ever thought that NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein (c) and NIH acting deputy director Dr. Yvonne Maddox (l) would be leading NIH.

Hrabowski is a prime example of the positive impact strong role models can have on children, regardless of the child's impoverished environment and circumstances. As a youngster, he saw friends of his — the now well-known four little Alabama girls who were waiting for church to begin — killed by a hate-crime bomb. While still an adolescent, Hrabowski became a civil rights leader who, along with several other children, was once swept along to jail with King and other peaceful protesters. He recalled what King told his young followers who, understandably scared at being detained in such a way, peered out forlornly through jail bars.

"Today we celebrate the life of a visionary, someone who understood well the theme of this program, 'Unity in Diversity: We Shall Overcome,'" Hrabowski said. "I remember Dr. King telling us then, 'What you do today as children will have an impact on children yet to be born. Hold your head up and remember that you're special.' As I think about the significance of celebrating Dr. King's birthday, I can't help but think that nothing should be more important to us as a nation than the future of our children. It will be the children who will determine what life is like in the years to come...The very essence of his work focused on making sure that every child had dreams and had whatever it would take to reach those dreams."

Crowd Pleasers:
Members of the NIH Preschool Song & Dance Troupe perform with abundant enthusiasm.

NIH's annual celebration began with music, both intramural — the NIH Preschool Song & Dance Troupe performed to the delight of the audience — and extramural — UMBC's Gospel Choir sang the patriotic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and a popular favorite, "I Believe I Can Fly," which they dedicated to their president Hrabowski. In addition, a litany was read in several languages by NIH'ers, showing the diversity of the agency's workforce.

"As a civil rights leader, Dr. King clearly recognized the value of respecting the diversity of American citizens," said Lawrence Self, director of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity, who was marking his first MLK observance at NIH. "Throughout his life he struggled for equality, justice and fairness for everyone. I believe here at NIH that we understand the value of diversity, and I know we are committed to fostering an environment that respects the individual. Let us reaffirm our commitment to treat one another respectfully, with civility and decency."

Program planning committee chair Levon Parker of NINDS emceed the King observance.
It was OEO director Lawrence Self's first MLK observance at NIH.

NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein introduced Hrabowski as a longtime friend for whom she has tremendous respect. "I'm delighted to share with you in this celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to his special contributions to our society," she said. "I have great admiration for Dr. Hrabowski and for Dr. King as they turned their devastating struggles for human rights into efforts to benefit mankind."

In addition to serving as UMBC president, Hrabowski is an author who has documented success stories and strategies of young African American students, many from poor families that are often living in dire situations.

"Think about a little girl who grows up in poverty, surrounded by illicit drug activity, but who somehow gets from her parents and from her church and other role models in her life the notion that she can move from that environment through hard work to become a chemical engineer," he said. "Think about that vision and what it takes to go from one step to the next step. How do we pool resources so that any one of those children is as likely as any other to become a scientist? That's the challenge we face in our country."

NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman (l) greets Hrabowski.

Reflecting on recent world events, Hrabowski also pointed to the nation's history of success during challenging times. "Our diversity is our greatest strength," he said. "We are who we are today because people have come from all over the world and brought different perspectives and strengths from the beginning of this nation. We face problems, yes. But anytime this country has faced problems in the past, we have pooled resources and brain power and whatever it took and solved those problems. Therein is the hope of this country.

"We are at a defining moment in the development and evolution of our nation," he concluded, noting that in the sixties when he was young he never considered that he might be president of a predominantly white university nor would Americans have ever thought that Kirschstein and Dr. Yvonne Maddox would be leading NIH. "It is a moment when the world is looking to see exactly how we will face tomorrow. NIH represents one of the greatest ideas that has ever existed. Think about it. Billions of dollars devoted to the notion that all people should be healthy. The world looks at you, our nation looks at you. I challenge NIH to be the leader you have been for some time. Set the example for us all. Each of us has the opportunity, as an individual and as a group, to make such a difference in the lives of others. The work you do here is noble. Whether you are a scientist or not, you are devoted to saving lives. There's no issue more critical to any family than the health of its members. You're saving lives of people not even born yet."

Before the program concluded with the traditional singing of "We Shall Overcome," Maddox, NIH acting deputy director, echoed Hrabowski's sentiments on progress made in the nation, and at NIH, by diverse groups of people working in unity.

Members of the UMBC Gospel Choir perform.

"If we are honest when we look back at where we started," she said, "then we must admit that we have made tremendous strides toward freedom. I know that sometimes the haunting words of the old spiritual 'We Shall Overcome...Someday' seem to lose their meaning and feelings of hopelessness often arise. However, as Dr. King did, I too counsel us against despair, and encourage us to keep the faith in his cause...Many times, 'someday' seems far in the distant future, but I've learned that someday often comes sooner than you think, if not as soon as you hoped. Our responsibility is to plan for someday, to be prepared for someday, to be ready to meet someday head on. Because in reality, someday is often today."

Up to Top