This year’s group of “emerging scholars” is a force to be reckoned with. The audacity of their excellence inspires everyone around them, and we at Diverse cannot help but marvel at this extraordinary ensemble of academicians. This diverse group of young (under-40) crusaders is pushing the boundaries of research, technology and public policy in ways never imagined and reaching new heights of accomplishments.
The Class of 2009 includes a physiologist who devised an artificial pancreas to produce the insulin that diabetics’ bodies cannot reject; a saxophoneplaying physicist who examines the existence of invisible matter; and an electrical engineer and former NASA researcher who works in the area of humanized intelligence and robotics.
Although our scholars are accomplished, accolades and achievement are a small fraction of what makes them so exceptional. Looking beyond the awards, Diverse reporters discovered stories of challenge and perseverance as well as hobbies and family traditions that tell us more about how these scholars round out their days.
This year’s crop of award-winning scholars was chosen by Diverse staff and in some cases nominated by colleagues. Some of our scholars benefited from a mentor; others sought inspiration elsewhere. Some attended minority-serving institutions, and a few are graduates of Ivy League schools. All are trailblazers. All are exceptional. Read all about them on the following pages.
Serving Up Relevant Scholarship
While in graduate school, a professor of Dr. Yohuru Williams’ told him that his scholarship was his ticket to the classroom and that he had a responsibility to make it relevant and have value. It’s something Williams never forgot.
But Williams never thought he’d be teaching, much less contemplating the relevancy of his research. Growing up, people frequently suggested he enter the legal profession, often commenting on his impressive speaking abilities. And whether it was a result of watching too many episodes of “L.A. Law,” as he confesses, or the high school internship at a law firm, Williams was essentially law-school bound when he entered the University of Scranton, and he planned to major in political science.
His history classes, however, became his passion, while the political science courses began to feel like a chore. It wasn’t long before a professor recommended Williams pursue a doctorate, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Yet Williams has not abandoned his interest in law. His primary area of research is African-American history, but more specifically African-Americans and the law. The Black Panthers have been the subject of several of his books and scholarly articles because of their encounters with the legal system, prompting him to write his first book, Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Black Panthers in New Haven.
“They became one of the organizations most identified with the idea of armed self-defense. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale carrying around copies of the pocket Constitution … They really embody everything that I study — the law, the Constitution and American democracy,” Williams says.
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of Africana Studies at Brandeis University, says Williams is one of the most exciting scholars of his generation.
“He’s written the first local case study of the Black Panthers with his first book. It’s a groundbreaking study that shows the ways in which the Panthers really evolved out of local struggles for community empowerment in New Haven,” says Joseph, author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.
Williams has also written extensively about race and capital punishment and is currently working on a book titled Six Degrees of Segregation, Lynching and Capital Punishment in the United States, 1865-1930.
He says he finds the legal aspect compelling because it has been African-Americans and other minorities that have forced the United States to live up to the principles championed in the country’s founding documents. Furthermore, says Williams, the criminal justice system remains “the last bastion of segregation in America,” where Blacks and other minorities are often punished more harshly.
“For me, the best way to contribute to that discussion was to try to write a book that makes the case that our justice system has not been color blind. And we have to express that imbalance before we can talk about having free justice in this country,” Williams says. While he has become a prolific writer, Williams “lives for the classroom.” He was twice nominated for teacher of the year when he was a professor at Delaware State University. His current project while on sabbatical accommodates his passion for teaching and professional development. He is serving a one-year stint as a vice president at the American Institute for History Education, where, among other things, he will develop and create new teaching methodologies for middle and high school teachers.
Through his research Williams will continue to shed light on the African-American experience, but he believes that the relevancy of his work also involves helping to train the next generation of scholars. He encourages aspiring academicians to be persistent in their scholarly endeavors.
“At the end of the day, it’s believing that you have something to offer the world. That’s what got me through, and it’s what I always tell graduate students that I’m blessed to work with,” says Williams. “To let them know that no matter what they encounter, this journey is for a reason.”
— By Hilary Hurd Anyaso
AMERICAN INDIAN STUDIES
Diverse History in the Making
When Dr. Ned Blackhawk steps into the classroom, he never uses the term “discovery” when addressing the history of European contact with the indigenous peoples of this continent — and it’s not because he feels the pressure to be politically correct. “I try not to use the term simply because it is so loaded,” Blackhawk says. “I prefer ‘encounter,’ which suggests multiple worlds rather than singular ones. We live in an amazingly diverse world. Our society has always been diverse.”
The idea of diversity resonates beyond Blackhawk’s research and teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His life has and continues to be informed by diverse views, people and places. In addition to growing up in a multiracial Detroit community, his family made sure to connect Blackhawk to his Western Shoshone tribal roots with summer visits with his grandmother, Eva Charley, in Reno, Nev.
During his high school years, he dreamed of traveling, but plans for college needed to come first. Blackhawk’s mother graduated from Antioch College in Ohio, and his father was one of the first Native Americans to enter graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno. However, wanting to make his own way, Blackhawk dropped in on a college campus in Canada.
“I ended up in Montreal at McGill University,” he says. “It was one of the craziest and best decisions of my youth. I literally arrived on campus without a place to stay since I had mistakenly assumed that all freshmen received dorm assignments as they did in the United States.”
Though he initially set his studies on international relations, Blackhawk found himself drawn closer to history. “Over time I came to see history as a politicized subject, and I became particularly aware of the absence of indigenous people and their history in Canada and the United States,” he says.
This issue of indigenous history became a living reality for Blackhawk when two Quebec Mohawk communities resisted the development of a golf course on their ancient burial grounds. The Oka Crisis, as history recalls it, was a military standoff that lasted 78 days during the summer of 1990. Eventually, the Mohawk prevailed and the golf course was never developed. Watching Mohawk history collide with the present had a deep impact on Blackhawk’s sense of Native identity and pride. And in the years since he has come to understand the need for greater inclusion of indigenous histories in the classroom because misunderstandings and conflicts between Native people and Whites are not issues of the past.
Though he is part of a very small group of tenured Native American history professors, Blackhawk is recognized by his peers for making significant contributions to a field of study that is in dire need of diverse Native perspectives. Dr. Ben Marquez, a UW political science professor, says Blackhawk’s first book, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Harvard University Press 2006), has established him as a leading authority on Native history and won him a half dozen professional awards.
“Blackhawk’s ability to interpret the web of social relations among Native peoples, military power, and European encroachment in North America is superb, and offers important insights on the complex and often tragic history of indigenous people,” Marquez says.
With a wife and two children, Blackhawk has come full circle in realizing that his research is making needed impressions on his students. “I try to challenge people’s perceived understandings about American history, and expose students and readers to the cycles of change and disruption that accompanied European settlement and expansion in North America. Indians are, of course, central to such a reassessment.”
— By Mark Anthony Rolo
ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES
Building Academic Bridges
With a dual appointment in the African-American Studies department and the Asian American studies program at Northwestern University, Dr. Nitasha Sharma is well positioned to produce scholarship that bridges the two disciplines. Sharma’s forthcoming book, based on her anthropology dissertation, Claiming Space, Making Race: South Asian American Hip Hop Artists, examines the influence that African-American-inspired hip hop culture has had on young musicians of South Asian descent, developing what some scholars see as fertile ground in ethnic studies — cross-cultural and comparative inquiry on U.S. racial and ethnic groups.
In her third year as an assistant professor at Northwestern, Sharma is regarded as a skillful and popular teacher. Her courses have included “The Racial and Gender Politics of Hip Hop”; “Race, Crime, and Punishment: The Border, Prisons, and Post-9/11 Detentions”; and “Cracking the Color Lines: Asian and Black Relations in the U.S.” Sharma has also done considerable work on mixed-race populations, including those in the U.S. and Trinidad. The African- American Studies department has awarded its Outstanding Teaching Award to Sharma in both her first and second years.
In addition, Sharma’s dual appointment has attracted the attention of Asian American studies scholars as well as Asian American student groups nationally and has resulted in numerous speaking engagements for the young professor. “(These individuals and organizations) really want to have the framework to understand the collaborations that my appointment symbolizes,” she says.
Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, the chair of the African-American Studies department at Northwestern, says department members were excited to collaborate with the Asian American studies program to offer Sharma a dual appointment in 2006.
“We thought we would be quite enriched and be made a stronger department to have her as a member of the faculty. And we were right,” Hine says.
“Nitasha is especially attractive in the way that she complicates our understanding of how race is constructed … And she is very good at demonstrating the impact of African-American culture and history on diverse populations around the globe,” Hine adds.
Sharma’s personal background may help explain her rise as a young scholar. She knew as a youngster growing up in Hawaii that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her parents, both professors. Her father, a retired University of Hawaii history professor and Indian immigrant, and mother, a still-active University of Hawaii anthropologist in Asian studies and Brooklyn, N.Y., native of Russian Jewish descent, met and married in the United Kingdom and settled in Hawaii. “I wanted the life that my parents had. They had summers off and traveled around the world; they were frequently at home during the week days … The talk at the dinner table was largely about academic life and their work,” Sharma says.
While undecided as a college student at the University of California- Santa Cruz on what she would pursue as a scholar, Sharma found the racial climate at her campus polarized and stifling, given her sensibilities and upbringing in multicultural Hawaii. “I had a really different framework coming from Hawaii in the way that people identified and formed communities. I was used to very mixed communities where people could acknowledge differences and still seek alliances and commonalities. Whereas in California in the 1990s, identity politics were so strong I wasn’t used to that,” Sharma explains.
Sharma found refuge in hip hop music and culture, an interest that eventually led her to consider the impact of hip hop on South Asian Americans. “It was later in grad school I thought I could study hip hop academically even though I faced a lot of resistance against that from professors…I saw (hip hop) as a potential place of alliance,” she says.
Dr. Ronald Takaki, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the nation’s pre-eminent scholar on multiculturalism, recalls meeting Sharma when she was a University of California at Santa Barbara transfer student doing much of her Ph.D. work at the Berkeley campus. “I found Nitasha in my Ph.D. seminar, and I was surprised to see her there. She said ‘I came all the way to UC-Berkeley to study with you,’” he says. An appreciative mentor, Takaki takes considerable pride in the direction Sharma’s career has taken. “What Nitasha Sharma wants to do is build bridges between these different studies of different groups. (She’s) trying to build academic bridges,” he says.
— By Ronald Roach
Sharing the Knowledge
Between Enron and the Wall Streetinduced credit crisis that has thrown the world economy in turmoil, business ethics and entrepreneurship professors like Dr. Laquita Blockson are in short supply.
Blockson, who gave up a lucrative career in corporate America for academia, hopes her research — on the marriage of business and social responsibility — can inform and influence responsible business practices.
“People have a negative perception of what business does and some perceptions are valid,” Blockson says. “But businesses can and do contribute to society in a number of positive ways. A lot of my work speaks to how businesses can engage within society in a way that allows them to be not just relevant but also socially responsible.”
Blockson’s groundbreaking research, including a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation-grant-funded collaborative effort with a number of colleges across the country, has focused on high-growth firms owned by Black women. As a Black woman, she has particular interest in studying this often overlooked group’s entrepreneurship behaviors. Past research focused on profitability as the main indicator of a business’ success. But Blockson finds Black women tend to define success much more broadly.
Other factors were “equally as important or more important than economic success … so while economics was important, it was not the sole or primary factor,” says Blockson.
These business owners consider themselves successful if they are providing a legacy for their families, serving as a role model and hiring within their communities, providing stability in their neighborhoods, achieving worklife balance, and fulfilling a spiritual calling or passion.
Though not an entrepreneur herself, Blockson fits the mold of many of the business women she studies. Like them, she sees her work within a broader context. Blockson says her goal is for her research to “help influence the current and next generation of minority and women entrepreneurs. But also I want to influence business in general to operate in a more socially responsible manner.”
She’s making her mark through the academy, thanks to the business professors at Florida A&M University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Fascinated by numbers as a little girl, she loved tax season since the first time she filled out her 1040 as a teenager and wanted to be a certified public accountant. But through her FAMU professors, she saw other possibilities.
“It was great to have so many minority professors. I thought, wow, I can see myself in their shoes,” Blockson says. FAMU professors told her, “Yes, definitely become a professor! But, once you graduate [from FAMU], get some real world experience first. Then come back [to doctoral study],” Blockson recalls.
Though her research and teaching responsibilities keep her busy, mentoring the next generation of minority professors and serving the community are just as important for her. During her Ph.D. dissertation process, Blockson relied on a supportive network of peers she met through The PhD Project, which aims to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in academia and business.
Blockson has been recognized for her work encouraging the next generation of minority professors and entrepreneurs. The Academy of Management recognized her with its 2005 Best Mentoring Practices award for her role co-founding the Management Faculty of Color Association. Inspired by the support she received in The PhD Project, Blockson, along with Dr. Ian Williamson of the Melbourne Business School, cofounded the organization in 2001 to offer social and professional support to Black, Hispanic and Native American business management faculty. Earlier this year, the College of Charleston’s Office of Multicultural Affairs named Blockson business faculty of the year.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson, who met Blockson through The PhD Project, lauds her work’s blend of disciplines and emphasis on social responsibility. “She’s one of a few people who really tries to integrate business and social issues in the same research. When you’re able to cross those boundaries, you’re doing something unique in the academy,” says Robinson, who is now the assistant director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development at Rutgers Business School.
“Her work has consistently done that in ethics, community and economic development, and entrepreneurship in terms of African-American women,” he adds. “All those issues cross the gap between what’s thought of as business scholarship and research about sociology or urban development. It’s great work and makes a social impact in the world. It’s not just research for research’s sake.”
— By Robin Chen Delos
Exploiting One’s True Potential
Underachiever is not a term one would use to describe Dr. Carlos Rinaldi Ramos. Late in 2007, at 32, he was feted at the White House with the government’s highest honor for young researchers: the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. A year ago, Rinaldi was promoted to full professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.
But in high school, guidance counselor Carmen Sánchez-Quintana scolded him for not living up to his potential. “She said, ‘You could have been the top student in the class if you’d worked on it,’” Rinaldi recalls. “I promised her I would get a 4.0 in college. Then I went to college in Puerto Rico and, every semester, I would go back and show her my transcript. And I kept my promise.” And more.
The undergrad valedictorian went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Straight out of MIT, he snagged an assistant professorship at UPR-Mayagüez. He delayed a promotion to seek a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development grant for nontenured assistant professors. In 2006, the NSF rewarded him twice: with a $411,521 CAREER grant and a $1.15 million Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team grant.
Both fund Rinaldi’s research into magnetic nanoparticles, fluids composed of tiny magnets “about a thousand times smaller than the diameter of your hair,” he says. The particles can be moved around in a magnetic field and used as contrast agents in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Rinaldi and his co-investigators hope magnetic fluids will be used to treat cancer.
“In targeted drug delivery, it can be used to concentrate the particles in a certain part of the body to minimize the area affected by (chemotherapy),” Rinaldi says. “Imagine the particles are in a tumor and you apply a magnetic field to them. In an oscillating magnetic field, particles respond by dissipating energy and heating the tumor — and, hopefully, destroying it. It’s called magnetic fluid hyperthermia. It’s something that’s been shown in animals. We’re looking at it so it’s suitable for clinical trials on humans.”
Rinaldi traces his passion for research to his undergraduate days. Thanks to an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates and an MIT summer research program, he spent two summers at Cornell University and MIT. The research bug bit.
Rinaldi spread that passion to include academia as well as the community. He runs a summer program for precollege teachers who spend several weeks in UPRM labs learning about research. Then the teachers take the experiences back to their classrooms. Rinaldi also leads a summer NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates — the same program that inspired him as an undergrad.
“The whole department is extremely proud of all the contributions he has made to the department — and not only related to his research endeavors, which are pretty unique for a young faculty member,” says Dr. David Suleiman Rosado, director of UPRM’s chemical engineering department. “He has been a true mentor with the graduate students.”
Rinaldi also zealously prods students to go to graduate school. In a field where Hispanics and women are scarce, his advisees are mostly Hispanic women. UPRM’s chemical engineering department has a rare demographic: 70 percent of the undergrads are women.
“Hispanics are underrepresented as scientists, but if you look at the projection in population, half the population in 50 years is expected to be Hispanic,” Rinaldi says. “If we don’t get these really bright students getting advanced degrees in science and engineering, the United States will have a hard time keeping its role as a leader in science and engineering.”
He prods because he knows the impact of a mentor’s faith. Sánchez-Quintana, his high school counselor, remembers her faith that inspired Rinaldi to a perfect grade-point average in college: “He was like a pearl that is buried under a lot of soil that people can’t see.” Rinaldi remembers. The dedication for his doctoral thesis began like this: “This thesis is dedicated to Carmen Sánchez for making me realize that I am solely responsible for achieving my true potential.”
— By Karen Branch-Brioso
Professor, Activist and ‘Homegirl’
The most surprising finding by Dr. Frances Contreras in interviewing teachers, parents and students in eight school districts across Washington state is what little progress has been made in Hispanic educational attainment.
“I’ve witnessed the same story of previous generations in the current generation,” notes Contreras of her research on achievement gaps for a study commissioned by the state Legislature.
The problem: many minority students today are dissuaded from higher education, just as Contreras was advised by a guidance counselor not to attend a four-year university fresh out of high school.
The Southern California native says, although she took as many Advanced Placement classes as possible in high school, earned a grade point average over a 4.0 and was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles, a counselor suggested she begin her undergraduate studies at a community college. In being from a traditional Mexican American family and not having attended one of the better high schools in the state, the counselor said Contreras might have a hard time adapting to the culture and academic rigors of the state’s flagship institutions.
“And I said, ‘thanks for your advice, but I’m not taking it. Someday, I’m going to come back to you and let you know how I am doing, or you’re going to read about me,’” Contreras recalls.
Contreras developed a disposition to challenge authority early on, as her parents made political activism in the Southern California labor movement a family affair and frequently engaged in political discussions at the dinner table, she says. In fact, it was her passion for social justice that eventually drove her to an academic career.
After working at Latino Issues Forum while at UC Berkeley, she was inspired by activist and academic mentors, including John Gamboa, founder of Latino Issues Forum and the Greenlining Institute, and Dr. Patricia Gándara, co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, who encouraged her to earn a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academia.
The campaign fatigue from working to stop Proposition 227 (a 1998 measure to end bilingual education in California) and Proposition 209 (a 1996 measure banning the use of affirmative action in university admissions and public contracts) prompted her to study the implications of these policies on underrepresented communities. However, when it came to joining the ranks of the professoriate, Contreras says the turning point for her was as a doctoral student seeing so few faculty of color at Stanford University.
Gándara then encouraged her to do a postdoctoral fellowship through the UC ACCORD (All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity) program at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a good thing I had mentors because they let me know that it takes a few years to land a good academic job, to land somewhere you want to be. But it literally did take me about two years to find the right match, and that’s when I ended up at the University of Washington,” she notes.
After landing her dream job at what she describes as a supportive institution, Contreras says obtaining tenure is next on her to-do list. Though she is perfectly content with the recent release of The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, which she co-authored with Gándara, and her research in equity and access, she hopes to get more involved with the Hispanic community and write more books.
Although she has garnered a host of prestigious accolades such as being chosen as a scholar in residence in Bellagio, Italy, for the Rockefeller Foundation, she also considers the recognition she has received by student and community organizations as highlights in her career. In addition to her scholarly duties, she holds a post in Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ Families & Education Levy Oversight Committee.
Says Gándara: “Frances Contreras is a unique combination of smart and skilled academic, poised and lovely spokesperson for the needs and aspirations of the Latino community, and homegirl who never forgets where she came from. She bridges academe and the world of everyday folks seamlessly.”
— By María Eugenia Miranda
Building a Bionic Woman
Most people would marvel at the 1970s television show “The Bionic Woman” and just hope to emulate the technologically advanced heroine.
Not a young Dr. Ayanna MacCalla Howard. “I said, ‘I can build The Bionic Woman,’” she says with a laugh.
But it formed the foundation for a now stellar career in engineering and robotics for Howard, an associate professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Howard focuses on the area of humanized intelligence and robotics. According to her Georgia Tech biography, this area of research centers on the process of embedding human cognitive capability into the control path of autonomous systems. She says this doesn’t mean building robots that will become human.
“I’m designing robotic technology — not to replace humans or take over the world — but really to meet unmet needs,” she says. “I just want to build the ultimate human companion. Something that can assist us at home or in space — an intelligent counterpart to assist us in anything we want to do.”
Howard, who grew up in Southern California, is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Southern California, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering.
Up until 2005, Howard worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, most recently as a senior robotics researcher. She was integral in research and design of autonomy software that is based on human cognition for landing a robotic spacecraft safely on a remote surface, formation of multiple spacecrafts and safe navigation of a planetary rover.
At NASA she was responsible for state-ofthe- art research development of an artificial intelligence toolkit for interactive learning. Howard was also deputy manager of the Strategic University Partnership Office, where she managed science and technology research liaisons with leading universities.
Howard has been greatly lauded for her work. She was named to Technology Review’s “Top 100 Young Innovators of the Year in 2003”; in 2004 was chosen Engineer of the Year by the Los Angeles Council of Engineers and Scientists and named the 2004 Allstate Insurance Distinguished Honoree for Achievement in Science; and won a California Women in Business Award for Science in Technology and an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2005.
Currently the director of Georgia Tech’s Human-Automation Systems Laboratory, Howard was the subject of a 2004 Time magazine story titled “Innovators/Artificial Intelligence: Forging the Future.” Her former NASA colleague, Dr. Edward Tunstel, who is now the space robotics lead researcher in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, says Howard’s focus on success is what has set her apart in their field.
“I would say it is her drive and her ambition,” Tunstel says. “She’s a lot more energetic than many of our peers when it comes down to what we do in developing new technology for robotic systems. You’ve got what you call your garden variety researcher and then you have a few people like Ayanna. She has a vigorous drive to propose new technology, to get it funded and to get it implemented.”
Howard says a healthy dose of ego has also been essential for a Black woman in the robotics field. “You have a lot of people telling you that you can’t do it,” she says. “You have to have a lot of self-confidence to do this stuff, even when people tell you that you can’t.”
Howard, who turns 36 later this month, also keeps busy outside the laboratory. She is a single mother of a son and is an avid traveler who loves to go to jazz clubs in foreign lands. “That’s my thing — I’m going to find a jazz club,” Howard says. “Anytime I go someplace, I try to find a jazz club, like in Germany or Italy. It’s a quirky hobby.”
That’s almost as quirky as wanting to build the bionic woman.
“I’m tickled by the fact that I get paid to play with toys,” Howard says. “I just do what I love and strive to be better than myself. I think that’s why people are drawn to the magic of what I do. I don’t live for the career, it lives for me.”
— By Add Seymour Jr.
A Scholar of the People
As a broke graduate student, Dr. William Jelani Cobb wrote music reviews to earn extra cash. “I had this naive idea that no one from my academic life would ever read anything I wrote as a music reviewer. I ran into this really esteemed historian and before I could say, ‘I love your work,’ he said, ‘You wrote a music review about the Wu-Tang Clan,’” Cobb remembers.
When his two worlds collided, Cobb started thinking about the connections between history and hip-hop, and his book To the Break of Dawn emerged.
Cobb’s name is recognizable both in and outside academic institutions because he writes for mainstream publications from Essence to The Washington Post. His collected essays are in his popular book, The Devil & Dave Chappelle. “One of my interests has always been in stepping outside the ivory tower and talking to people in the communities,” says Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College.
“When I look at conversations we have in scholarly circles that are impenetrable to people who don’t have doctorates — I feel it’s antidemocratic.”
He wants everyone to be able to participate in imp o r t a n t d i s c u s s i o n s . Raised in Queens, N.Y., Cobb was the first member of his family to go to college. When he entered Howard University, Cobb intended to go to law school. But a history class freshman year changed his plan.
“It amazed me the extent to which the world came into focus in one semester,” he says. “I was thinking about the world as a movie that we walked in the middle of. History is our only attempt to find out what happened in the early scenes and what the plot points are now.”
Studying African history, Cobb renamed himself. Born William Anthony Cobb, he chose to replace his middle name with Jelani, which means “great and powerful” in Swahili.
“It’s what I was aspiring toward at that point in my life,” he says. “We were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and as students at Howard University, we were involved in the student takeover to get Lee Atwater (the late controversial Republican strategist) off our board of trustees … we wanted to make differences in the world.” Says Dr. Khalil Muhammad, an assistant professor of history at Indiana University who attended graduate school with Cobb: “His command of contemporary events, rooted in a deeply informed historical context, positions him to be an exceptional voice of commentary and insight on a range of topics, most recently including the Obama elections.” Ind e e d , Cobb is revising his forthcoming book, titled Change Has Come: Barack Obama and the New Black America. Cobb admits that, at the time he was writing the book, he questioned whether the country was prepared to elect an African-American president.
“I got something wrong. Really wrong,” Cobb says. He wanted to figure out why. “If you asked most of us if we thought the country was prepared to elect an African- American president, we would have said no — 99 percent of us would have said no,” he says. “In our shorthand understanding of how race works: difficult economic times increase racial tension. The economy goes down and there are increased incidences of racial hostility. In September, the economy tanked and Barack Obama’s polls went through the ceiling. That doesn’t make sense to us. We’re still trying to figure out why.”
So what is the new Black America?
“Less than 10 percent of the population of Black America is over 65 — so the majority of us did not experience segregation first hand. While we have racism as a reality, we also have this vast vista of possibility which is completely at odds with the Black history of Black people in America,” Cobb says. When he’s not teaching or writing, the divorced father of a 16-year-old daughter is baking (his specialty is an eggnog sweet potato pie) and taking African drum lessons and kickboxing classes.
Ever the prolific writer, Cobb is working on a novel based on the boxing careers of his father and grandfather.
Cobb is also revising another book titled Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931-1957, an outgrowth of his master’s thesis.
Next, he plans to author a history of Black men in America. “A long, thick book,” he says. “That’s going to be my door-stopper project.”
— By Wendy Grossman
Engaging in the ‘Creative Act’ of Science
Dr. Stephon Alexander is as intricate as the quantum theories he works to demystify. Seduced by two activities so utterly engaging there is no escaping their allure, Alexander fills blackboards with mathematical equations by day and satiates the musical palate of jazz enthusiasts by night with melodies from his bass saxophone.
A theoretical physicist, Alexander deals with the science of ideas. He sheds light on the unknown and discovers new ways to test the seemingly impossible.
“I work on big problems,” Alexander says, explaining his most recent research endeavor. “I’m working on the dark energy and matter problem, the recent observation that most of the substance in our universe around us is invisible to the eyes.”
Alexander is also known for his work on String Theory, a theory that describes all particles as one-dimensional strings. Alexander’s scientific roots stem from his childhood in the Bronx, N.Y., where his father, Keith Alexander, worked as a computer technician. When Alexander was 12 years old, his father brought home a used computer. Alexander used it to play video games.
“Video games were primitive back then, so I taught myself how to program better games. The computer was a perfect laboratory for me to learn the process of exploration, analysis and discovery; how to realize an idea and try to make it a reality,” says Alexander. Eventually, Alexander’s curiosity about the composition of computers led him to the library. “I discovered the words ‘quantum mechanics.’ Although I was mystified by the equations, I was hooked,” Alexander says.
The Caribbean-born Alexander is trailblazing a path for other scientists of color. His accolades are extensive. Alexander recently received the CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an “Emerging Explorer.” Alexander credits much of his success and perseverance to another African-American physicist, Dr. Sylvester James Gates, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“When I met Jim Gates, I saw him on the blackboards doing physics at the highest level. Having that sort of role model is more powerful than anything. It is what has inspired me to persist and become a professor. I didn’t really have A f r i c a n – Ame r i c an p h y s i c s p r o f e s – sors,” says Alexander, who completed his undergraduate studies at Haverford College, where he now teaches.
From 1999 to 2004, only 62 Black males earned doctoral degrees in physics, according to 2005 data collected by the American Institute of Physics, and Alexander was one of them. The paucity of Black physics professors is an issue Alexander, who also teaches at The Pennsylvania State University, is eager to address. “One thing that I’m going to really try to do as a professor is attract the best young minds, including the best African-American minds into physics and provide a supportive environment so that they can do their very best.”
Last summer, while representing National Geographic at a physics conference, Alexander recorded with a local “trip-hop” band in Iceland. Currently a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Alexander steals away to local jazz clubs when there is time.
“Music, especially jazz music, sharpens some of the same faculties used in analytical work. Music is a creative act. Science, especially doing theoretical work, is a creative act. The things that we’re working on, you can’t access or touch. And the things that we come up with, if we’re correct, their application is usually 50 years down the line,” says Alexander, noting that scientific theories of this magnitude require a formidable degree of imagination and creativity.
As a Black scientist, Alexander encountered resistance from non-Black peers who were more comfortable with his musical endeavors than his scientific ambitions. But Alexander refused to believe that physics was an area that academia reserved for the White and privileged.
Alexander worked diligently to succeed at his postgraduate endeavors earning a Ph.D. from Brown University and humbling a White professor who said Alexander was not Ivy League material. Alexander emphasizes the importance of persistence and self-identity to his students. He advises them to insert their own brand of originality and passion in their field.
“For me, doing physics is like playing jazz,” says Alexander. “When I do physics, no one does it the way that I do it. It is important for young people to realize that you don’t have to be someone else or speak a certain way to be a good physicist.”
— By Michelle J. Nealy
‘The Picture Perfect’ Inventor
During high school and college internships, Dr. Tejal Desai shadowed doctors treating diabetic patients. Their treatment typically consisted of daily insulin shots along with pinpricks to draw blood for glucose monitoring. Their pain made Desai wonder, can’t they get insulin another way?
Years later, she would devise an artificial pancreas to produce the insulin that a diabetic’s body could not. To do this, she would use micromachining techniques similar to those for creating silicon computer chips, making her a rising star in the fields of bioengineering and nanotechnology. The latter involves creating materials at the molecular scale, thousands of times tinier than a sugar cube.
Scientists had spent decades trying unsuccessfully to build a pancreas for implant. The problem was, their inventions could not withstand attack from the body’s natural immune system. Then came Desai. Her prototype, which included a thin silicon membrane and live pancreatic cells inside, let insulin filter out of its tiny pores while also blocking the immune system’s antibodies from entering and destroying it. The human body requires insulin to be able to use sugars and carbohydrates from food.
Although not currently available to patients, Desai’s device has been tested in rats and its technology licensed to a private company. Innovations such as the artificial pancreas have earned Desai a shower of accolades, including a 2000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award; a 2003 Eurand Grand Prize for outstanding research in oral drug delivery and 2006 Grand Prize for innovative approaches to drug delivery; and a 2006 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
Desai is grateful for the honors, learning resilience along the way. “You don’t get funded all the time, and you don’t get your papers accepted and published all the time.”
She cautions younger scholars, especially scientists, that the academic life “is like a marathon. It’s a long career trajectory. Not everything has to be done in a few years. Besides, you won’t enjoy the field if you burn out.”
Pacing herself at work is also important because Desai and her husband are raising three children ranging in age from 6 months to 5 years.
Since joining the University of California, San Francisco in 2006, Desai has taught courses such as “Principles of Tissue Engineering” and “Biological Aspects of Bioengineering.” She previously taught at Boston University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also co-edited an encyclopedia, “Therapeutic Micro/Nanotechnology.”
Currently, as director of UCSF’s Laboratory of Therapeutic Micro and Nanotechnology, Desai oversees a team of graduate students conducting more drug delivery research and trying to regenerate different types of body tissue. She was drawn to UCSF because she could work more closely with clinicians and basic scientists. UCSF, which offers graduate- level education in life sciences and health professions, has a medical center and a children’s hospital, among other health care affiliates.
Despite private sector job prospects, Desai went straight from graduate school to the professoriate. “I like the flexibility to research, to teach, to mentor. As long as you stay relevant in the field, you can pursue anything you’re interested in.”
She also enjoys her K-12 outreach, especially introducing girls to science. Lately, she has focused on seventh- and eighth-grade girls, explaining her job at career day events and doing science experiments with them.
“When I met her, I wondered if she was made by a computer because she is picture perfect in every way,” says Dr. Mauro Ferrari, director of the nanomedicine division at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Ferrari was Desai’s dissertation adviser. “She’s not only talented but truly compassionate.”
— By Lydia Lum
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Could training in implicit bias be helpful at your institution?