The world is in desperate need of Black scientists. In a rich history of scientific innovation and research stretching from George Washington Carver to innovators like Lonnie Johnson and to the current crop of young scientists, stark disparities still exist in the representation of Blacks in the sciences and growth rates have stagnated. Science in general has a diversity issue, and as the economy becomes more innovation and tech-based, the ability of communities to prosper is limited by the human capital of their “scientific class.” Black communities experience this disparity acutely already, comprising less than 7% of the scientific workforce, and one of the most alarming issues in our communities is the lack of a true pipeline to develop Black male interest in the sciences and train and assist them. The Black male achievement gap and the Black scientific training gap are serious obstacles to the future of Black science.
There are a handful of undergraduate programs designed to address the deficit of minority researchers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Many are designed in part based on the template of UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which has introduced over a thousand young students of diverse backgrounds into the sciences and prospective careers in STEM. However, if Meyerhoff and programs of its ilk are broad tools designed to address overall diversity within STEM, then a newer program at Morehouse called the John H. Hopps Research Scholars Program is a scalpel based on those tools designed to address a specific disparity within it: that of Black men. In the spirit of its renowned namesake Dr. John Hopps, it is intended to help young Black men navigate the difficulties in simply obtaining higher education while also giving them elite-level training opportunities.
Hopps has taken in over a hundred young Black scholars and molded them. It guides some young men who had never seen the inside of a lab and places them in environments like NASA and MIT. The program takes young men with little travel experience and exposes them to universities in the farthest reaches of the country. Hopps Scholars have even studied abroad in places like Budapest and Cape Town. Hopps also provides financial scholarship support, a vital tool in the support of vulnerable youth and a benefit that has meant the difference between graduation and dropping out for many students. It has built foundations of entrepreneurship and innovation in a community needing them sorely and above all, has sent over three-quarters of its scholars into graduate study in the sciences.
My history with the John H. Hopps Research Scholars Program began eight years ago, as I spent the summer preparing to embark on my journey at Morehouse. Like many young and gifted Black men and women, I had been pushed towards medicine as a career and had my sights set on a pre-med track in college. The letter that I received, asking me to consider pursuing research degrees in research science in addition to or in lieu of a professional degree in medicine, was also an invitation to the inaugural class of the Hopps Scholars Program. That letter changed my life and brought me into communion with this inspired group of men.
Through my four years at Morehouse as a Hopps Scholar, I was gifted extraordinary opportunities as a budding young scientist. I worked on projects doing meaningful research every semester and summer from senior year on. I traveled to poor communities in the South to study health disparities. I studied genetics in kudzu plants. I worked in South Africa and took trips to top universities across the United States. I was also given the chance to mentor several classes of scholars that enrolled after me, an experience that probably helped me grow as a man as much as it helped the mentees. When I came to Morehouse, science was a small thing; observations in a microscope or on lab benches. When I left, science was the world. It was the up and down. It was the sky above us and the soil beneath us. Hopps breathed life into my dreams of science and gave me a path.
However, eight years after those first letters went out, despite numerous successes in placing young Black men at some of the most prestigious graduate and research facilities in the world, the Hopps Scholars program sits at a crossroads. The program is funded by the Department of Defense, but as funding priorities and the funding landscape have changed, so have the long-term financial prospects of the program. Facing more pressure to place students in Defense facilities and federally-funded labs, Hopps faces a future without secure funding past May of next year. Enrollment has dropped to less than 30 students, many of whom will struggle to continue pursuing rigorous research without support. The changing federal landscape means that it is past time for members of the Black community; businesses, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, philanthropists, and concerned citizens to take up the burden and help support programs like this while also helping them spread their aims.
The future of science is now. With tech-based startups, genomic revolutions, bioinformatics, apps, 3D printing, cloud computing and an economy shifting to human innovation as its engine, there has never been a greater need in the Black community and greater global community for Black scientists, inventors, programmers, statisticians, engineers, researchers, and mathematicians. Programs like the Hopps Scholars provide the first steps in connecting the Black community with the new scientific world and in erasing disparities faced by Black men. However, they need long-term investment and a continued interest from the Black community in order to fulfill their missions. In eight years Hopps has added dozens of young Black paragons into the fold. Imagine another eighty. Black STEM involvement is a critical issue of our time, and while the outlook is currently dark, history shows us that if one sparks enough candles in that darkness, then there will be light.
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