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Reflections on Antonin Scalia’s Remarks

OGTV welcomes Dr. Anwar Dunbar to the OGTV Blog team and for his leadership support as we launch the "Open" Science Channel where our focus will be to engage the public in a discussion on science. OGTV firmly believes in the premise that "without Diversity it's not Science". We are committed to educate our audience at a time when science and technology are driving our nation to discover, innovate, and create solutions that will advance economies, and hopefully heal our world from diseases while exploring space for human existence and empowering the underserved and under represented to create an equal playing field for all mankind. 
Keith Moore, OGTV Founder.

Reflections on Antonin Scalia’s Remarks

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently made headlines with his comments about whether or not African Americans benefit as a whole by being admitted to the University of Texas, where they, “Don’t do well,” versus slower track schools where they, “Do well.” He further remarked that, “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the Black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they are being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Needless to say, Justice Scalia’s remarks weren’t well received. They sparked numerous discussions within the African American community and within education circles. As a Scientist and a Writer, I am inspired by Judge Scalia’s remarks to Step In The Ring of this national debate to speak about this topic and provide my perspective.
My main problem with Justice Scalia’s remarks is that they were too broad. Whether we still need it today or not, Affirmative Action’s original intent was to give previously excluded ethnic groups a fair chance to compete in all aspects of society. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement and Affirmative Action, African Americans clearly have the intellectual ability to do whatever our counterparts of other ethnic groups had done if given the chance. Just look at the long list of African American inventors and scientists which we unfortunately, only pay attention to during Black History Month. The legendary Chemist Dr. Percy Julian comes to mind, whom I unfortunately knew nothing about when pursuing my own Doctoral studies.
“When you look at Percy Julian’s career, you can say that if this man had not been black, he could have been a chaired professor at any Ivy League or Big Ten Institution. The breadth of his understanding of chemistry and his fire in the belly to produce so many results in such a short period of time, is Nobel Laureate stuff,” said Lehigh University’s Chair of Chemistry, Ned Heindel of Percy Julian in NOVA’s documentary Forgotten Genius. Coming of age prior to the Civil Rights era, Julian had to earn his doctorate in Europe during which time he isolated the key Alkaloids from the plant, Corydalis Cava. He later isolated Physostigmine from the Calabar bean.  Later in his career he used his knowledge of Total Synthesis Chemistry to revolutionize the generation of hormones industrially from naturally occurring plant-derived precursors. This allowed for greater access to medicines for treatment of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, by increasing the amounts produced, ultimately lowering the cost to patients.
Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book, Outliers, that, “One’s success is not necessarily something innate based upon their skin color or genetic origins, but something attributed to their culture, specific environments and circumstances.” In that regard, in the United States’ inner cities there are minds with the potential and ability pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) if given the chance. Due to neighborhood and environmental circumstances beyond their control however, these students either don’t get, or are unable to take advantage of potential educational opportunities which would allow them access to STEM training and careers.  The question therefore is how to best harvest their potential (maximizing the Capitalization Rate), an area of which our society has made small gains.
But there are also black middle and upper-classes in the United States with young minds that are well socialized and ready to compete in STEM fields. The challenge there is getting them interested in STEM. These are “Black” students who don’t necessarily need slower track schools.
Regarding my own path to my STEM career, there were no scientists in my family. That said, Life Science (Biology) became my favorite class when I first took it in middle school.  I followed that love into high school and then onward through to my college years, where I was educated at both types of schools: slower and fast track. I received my undergraduate degree in Biology from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), which, according to a periodical in the mid-1990s, was considered a “non-competitive” institution.  After completing my Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology, I started graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I worked for almost six long years pursuing my Doctorate in Pharmacology.
While I gained considerable expertise in Pharmacology at the University of Michigan, and wrote a thesis on the “Ubiquitination and Proteasomal Degradation of Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase,” I also learned some things in the areas of academic achievement and race. In 1999, I was a part of the inaugural class of the Program in the Biomedical Sciences (PIBS), an umbrella program encompassing multiple disciplines: Pharmacology, Genetics, Physiology and Microbiology among others.  A total of 66 students were brought in that year and three of us were African American. The rest were White and Asian.  After two years of coursework, students could choose the departments and labs where they would do their thesis research.
In the first semester a good percentage of the 66 students struggled with the coursework and wondered if they belonged in the program, many of them from Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), to my surprise. Once each of us chose labs and started our thesis projects, there was an assortment of outcomes. Some of my peers defended their dissertations within a year and a half of their candidacy, while others took four years or more. Some students actually left without their Ph.Ds. Of the three African Americans who started, two of us finished- one a Morehouse alumnus, and the third decided she wanted to go medical school instead. In hindsight, I would strongly argue that the individual fates of the inaugural PIBS class were not due strictly to our skin color, but other circumstances: individual tenacities, abilities to adapt, thesis projects, and graduate advisors.
My Graduate Advisor was Japanese American, who held us to an extremely high standard. He had a strong scientific pedigree.  After working in his father’s lab as a teen, he earned several patents before graduating high school. He went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Michigan for graduate school and then to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his Postdoctoral Fellowship, before starting his own lab in Ann Arbor.

After my Graduate Advisor agreed to let me work in his lab, it took me a little while to figure out what we were trying to accomplish, and how to approach my research as a professional. I struggled with all of it initially, not because I was an African American and slow, but because I was untrained and inexperienced in my new arena.  That being said, my Advisor knew that I could do the work, but he wasn’t going to hand me my degree or give me special treatment. As he said numerous times, he wasn’t going to pull punches, and he didn’t. He would only give me the chance to compete, and it was up to me to take it. There were plenty of opportunities to quit and there were several days when I wanted to, but I stayed in and he didn’t give up on me. In hindsight I’m thankful for the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology allowing me the opportunity to compete, and my Graduate Advisor’s willingness to teach me.

In his latest book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell visits the importance of choosing the right school, which is a part of this discussion. Dr. Thomas Sowell also discussed this from the conservative side in his book Inside American Education. I am in no way agreeing with Justice Scalia, but it is my belief that it is important for students and families to choose the right school(s) to suit their abilities; especially in STEM, where getting lost on the first day can end one’s journey before it begins.  That goes for students of all ethnicities.

Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the University of Michigan, a highly competitive institution which is on par with (if not above) the University of Texas which Justice Scalia highlighted, had I not attended JCSU, a school with small class sizes and lots of interaction with teachers. It is also a school where I was able to grow and thrive.  It’s worth noting that many HBCUs like JCSU are actually starting their own STEM departments where some students can go directly into the job market after earning their Bachelor’s Degree. Others can go on to pursue degrees at institutions like the Universities of Michigan and Texas. In other words, there are multiple paths to the so called faster track major institutions if that is one’s goal. The key is choosing the right path to get there, which is different for everyone.

In closing, all students should go to institutions where they will be able to properly grow, and their ability to compete (or lack of) shouldn’t be assumed and determined strictly by their skin color. Furthermore, and this can’t be stressed enough, African Americans who have started careers in STEM need to be visible to the younger generations as often as possible. This doesn’t just mean at major events like the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, but also in their schools and on the grassroots level.

Anwar Dunbar is a blogger with OGTV and will be a regular contributor to the Open Science Channel in 2016. Keep it Locked @ www.opengovtv.com



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