Op-Ed: A Recipe For Success In Educating STEM Leaders

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Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a local science conference. Because it was free, I took my upper level chemistry class. There were only three so there was not an issue of space, reservations, or anything.

When we arrived, I was glad to see my students were excited to attend, as this was their first science conference ever! I was excited because they were. Great day to be had all around, I surmised.

During one of the breaks, an elderly gentleman approached me and introduced himself. Of course, I could not recall his name five minutes later, so there is no way I would remember anything about him now except his age, color, and the words he said to me after introducing himself: “I thought he would be out playing basketball,” indicating the lone young man who was in my class. The other two were young ladies.

Initially, I found his statement amusing, if for no other reason than the young man in question was in my opinion short and painfully thin! He did not look particularly athletic to me and I could not imagine him going for a layup or a three–pointer. Then, the true meaning of this supposedly innocuous assumption hit me: my student is black; ergo, he should be out playing a sport. What a leap to make but that is what this man meant. There were other males there, so it could not have been a place where his gender would have come into question. Could it have possibly been his race? After all, I and my three students are part of the vast African Diaspora and the questioner definitely was not.

When I relayed this interchange with my students, they reacted with only vague interest. But I informed them that because this man’s thinking is not unique, they may face such comments or questions as they travel through life.

A former student obtained a great internship in Texas. He was assigned to do a sophisticated spectral analysis of a molecule. Because his fellow lab worker had never heard of Florida Memorial University, he assumed that the student could not possibly grasp the instrument’s function or data output. He neglected to consider that some of his professors were Drs. Ayivi Huisso, Thomas Snowden, Telahun Desalegne, and myself. I would say our unofficial but collective motto is think or sink. The young man did not sink. From that internship, he got a first-author paper published. He is an MD – PhD.

When I first started teaching, my one goal was to graduate my freshmen class of science students. Following that, I honestly had no thought. Just graduate them and see this as a major feat in my life as a so-called role model and mentor. One of the first graduates became a medical doctor. Then, another and another and another. In fact, since this first graduate, there have been approximately 95 majors in either (pre) engineering, (pre) nursing, chemistry, or biology who have earned a graduate degree/professional degree. We have produced engineers, molecular biologists, plant physiologists, dentists, pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, chiropractors, and microbiologists working at the CDC.

This means that, on average, we graduate six students yearly who become professionals in their field of endeavor. I ‘built a wall,’ in which I place names and photographs of these achievers as a wall of testament to the future students that ‘if they can, then you can, too.’

Is there a recipe for success? Well, nothing beats hard work, we can all agree on that. Communication helps, not simply with the student but other professors. If one student is failing physics but making an A in biology, we discuss the professor’s practices and teaching methods, how the student is assessed. Rarely has there been a student to fail one class and pass another with an A. Thus, we have continuity in addition to frank discussions.

We do activities that other universities deem ‘too difficult’ for the student. Reading and discussing science, seeing the applicability of the work, is beyond their capability? One of our former students visited last week. He is doing great. Married, a father, and a sought-after consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. To what does he owe his success, I asked, not considering what his answer would be, just naturally curious. He said that it was the science and theory he learned here, the ability to think critically, that we instilled in him here, those were the qualities that propelled him to success. In one form or another, many of the professors have heard the same words.

Oh, the young man who should have been ‘out playing basketball’? He is a medical doctor. The other two students? They have their PhD’s in STEM/health areas.

This article was written by Dr. Rose Stiffin. Stiffin is a Chairperson, Professor, and Biochemist at Florida Memorial University.