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Of Squid Cells and Other Slippery Subjects|
Black Scientists Association Marks 10th Anniversary
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
The recent 9th annual John W. Diggs Lecture, which marked the 10th anniversary of the NIH Black Scientists Association, tackled two seemingly unrelated, but equally slippery subjects: cytoskeletal motion in squids and recruitment of minorities to science. Perhaps the one person qualified to marry such divergent topics served as guest lecturer, Dr. George Langford, the Ernest Just professor of natural sciences at Dartmouth College.
In his talk titled "Molecular Motors and Memory: Building a Career in Biomedical Science and the Science and Engineering Workforce," Langford wove the challenges and triumphs he has experienced pursuing each matter over his 30-plus years in scientific research and research training.
"What are those molecular motors and how are they regulated?" Langford asked, describing several questions being posed by his research team. "How does this relate to the whole process of learning and memory? There's a lot of cell biology going on there. It's what is happening at the synapses that we are very interested in." Neuroscientists, he said, are trying to understand where in the brain memory is stored, how neurons make memory, how memory is organized and other such issues concerning motility in brain cells.
The cell biologist has spent almost as long asking questions and making observations about another complex, hard-to-grasp phenomenon: how to increase the movement of young people along the corridors of education and training toward careers in the sciences and engineering. At Dartmouth since 1991, Langford uses his position as Just professor to attract minority students to biological research. Just, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1907, was like Langford an African American biologist who conducted research on sea life for a time at MBL.
"One of the things that was very important about Just was that because of the difficulties of black scientists working in this country in the 1930s and 1940s, he did a lot of his research abroad," explained Langford, describing his role model and the scientist whose career helped shape Langford's professional path. "I have always thought of the twin tragedies of Just, that he could not obtain a position in a major research university in this country because of his skin color. It is because of Just that I'm able to hold a faculty position at Dartmouth, a position he would not have been able to hold during his lifetime. He also shouldered the whole burden of proving that blacks are intellectually capable of being scientists."
Familiar not only on a personal but also a professional level with efforts to get young people involved in research careers, Langford had served from 1998 to 2004 on the National Science Foundation's governing board, chairing its education and human resources committee from 2002 to 2004. During that period, he also vice-chaired a task force on national workforce policies for science and engineering, and moderated a panel that looked at ways to "strengthen student interest in science, engineering and technology and graduate increased numbers of associate and baccalaureate degree recipients well-prepared for employment opportunities and/or advanced study."
Langford said published reports produced by NSF highlight difficulties foreseen in replenishing the science research workforce for the balance of the 21st century. According to NSF's August 2003 report, The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential, "the future strength of the U.S. S&E workforce is imperiled by two long-term trends: Global competition for S&E talent is intensifying, such that the United States may not be able to rely on the international S&E labor market to fill unmet skill needs; and the number of native-born S&E graduates entering the workforce is likely to decline unless the nation intervenes to improve success in educating S&E students from all demographic groups, especially those that have been underrepresented in S&E careers." He showed data citing disturbing directions the nation is headed, including "flat or reduced domestic student interest in critical areas such as engineering and the physical, and mathematical sciences, as shown by data for bachelors' degrees; and large increases in retirements from the S&E workforce projected over the next two decades."
Langford applauded the efforts of the BSA and NIH, explaining that NSF identified as key the role that the federal government must play for its scientific enterprise to remain competitive and vital.
"I think it's admirable that [BSA] scientists are devoting their time and energy to issues demanding that there is representation from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences, particularly African Americans," said Langford, who since ending his appointed NSF term in May remains a consultant.
The yearly lecture honoring Diggs, a former NIH deputy director for extramural research who spent nearly 35 years in federal service and devoted his career to expanding the ranks of highly trained scientists and research administrators, has been a BSA staple since 1995. Diggs, who had met with and encouraged BSA founders shortly after the group began and had retired from NIH in 1993 to accept a post as vice president for biomedical research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, died of cancer in May 1995; the BSA established the lecture in his name that summer.
"Dr. Diggs was an exceptional role model both for his professional achievements and his personal commitment to helping other scientists at NIH," said NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington. "He was a leader, scientist and mentor in the best tradition of NIH. Throughout his career, he worked to improve education and career opportunities for underrepresented minorities and women."
BSA president Dr. Chad Womack, senior research fellow in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the Vaccine Research Center, opened the program by discussing the current status of black scientists at NIH and the association's goals to increase their numbers. Currently about 1 percent of African American scientists at NIH hold tenured (fewer than 10 individuals) or tenure-track (fewer than 5 individuals) posts.
"[We are working on obtaining] a bigger slice of the pie before the decade ends," Womack said, showing the data in pie-chart format. Near-term BSA initiatives include conducting a membership survey and establishing an informal scientific advisory board to catalyze creative recruitment and retention ideas, capitalizing on connections to Office of the Director resources and further developing professional relationships with outside science and research organizations.
The BSA also presented a number of awards to mark its anniversary, including the newly named Dr. Philip J. Browning Scientific Pioneer Award, which honors the memory of a cancer researcher who spent several years in the NIH intramural science programs at NHLBI and NCI. In a moving tribute by Dr. Michele Evans, deputy scientific director of NIA's intramural research program in Baltimore, Browning was remembered as a "perfect blend" of intellectual curiosity, scientific achievement, personal warmth and uncommon professionalism. An NIAMS and NCI grantee, Browning, associate professor of medicine, cancer biology and cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University, died at age 51 on June 22 after a 4-year battle with colon cancer.
The inaugural Browning Award was given to two tenure-track investigators, Dr. Kevin Gardner of NCI and Dr. Sharon Jackson of NIAID. Two graduates of Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C., Monique Cobb and Dexter Lee Mackey, are the 2004 recipients of BSA's Cheryl Torrance-Campbell Scholarship Awards. Founders Awards were given to Dr. Wayne Bowen, Thelma Gaither, Dr. Alfred Johnson, Dr. Steve Massaquoi, Dr. Roland Owens and George Redmond. Finally, nearly a dozen "Friend of BSA" plaques were also distributed, recognizing support and encouragement offered by individuals and groups who have assisted the BSA in achieving its organizational goals.
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