[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 16-Feb-2002
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Contact: Monica Amarelo
mamarelo@aaas.org
617-236-1550
American Association for the Advancement of Science

AAAS names Etta Z. Falconer and James H.M. Henderson to receive the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement

BOSTON, MASS. - For their impact on increasing diversity in science and engineering, mathematician Etta Z. Falconer and biologist James H. M. Henderson are presented the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The award, presented at the 2002 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston on Saturday, 16 February, recognizes an individual who has mentored a significant number of underrepresented students and/or has influenced a department, college, or institution to increase its diversity among doctoral students.

"Recognizing high-quality mentoring in the sciences is crucial for encouraging minority students to continue their studies at the graduate level," said Dr. Alan I. Leshner, AAAS Chief Executive Officer. A study on underrepresented minorities in major research universities, published by the AAAS in April 2001, shows overall low enrollment numbers, but with a precipitous drop in first-year graduate students after 1996, tied to a negative affirmative action climate. "We have recovered some, but not all the ground that has been lost during this time," Leshner said.

Generating and encouraging committed interest among their students has been the challenge that Falconer, Callaway Professor of Mathematics and Associate Provost for Science Programs and Policy at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Henderson, Professor Emeritus at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, have faced over their respective years of teaching and advising, in addition to their scholarly work.

Dr. James H. M. Henderson

"Mentoring is a question of being supporting and understanding. It's not only a question of advising," said Henderson, who considers the award a "great honor."

Henderson has served generations of students as a role model and mentor at Tuskegee University since 1945-a time when majors in biology and other natural sciences were not available. His efforts have helped rank the school among the top five historically black institutions from which black scientists with doctorate degrees received their undergraduate degrees.

With Henderson's guidance, many undergraduate students from Tuskegee have entered graduate and medical schools, and those who earned Master's degrees from Tuskegee have also gone on to appropriate doctoral programs. Henderson has also seen over 40 high school students pursue college, in part, due to his summer program, ENHANCES, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Henderson's work in plant biology has focused on tissue culture and plant cell structure, mostly with sunflowers and sweet potatoes. "For the last 10 - to 12 years, I've been concentrating on mentoring rather than research," Henderson said.

"Mentoring requires getting into every aspect of the students' lives. Now and then, it calls for a little money. It can be almost like parenting. I have one [student] who came from a foster family and is now in medical school as a resident in cardiology. Another one is at Johns Hopkins, getting ready to do a residency."

He tends to give a little more to those who are researchers. He tells them, "Look at what Salk did for humanity. If you are a surgeon, you might help 200 people a year, but a researcher can make a discovery that can save millions of lives."

Henderson, a member and Fellow of AAAS, graduated from Howard University in 1939 with a degree in botany, and completed his M.Ph. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Tuskegee, he was head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program at Tuskegee for 12 years. Henderson drives a 1931 Ford he bought as a young man and grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, where his son still lives in the family home.

Dr. Etta Zuber Falconer

From the segregated public schools of Tupelo, Mississippi, Falconer began a journey of life-long learning that continues today, as part of her mission to increase the number of women and minorities pursuing mathematics and science in the classroom, and in careers.

Falconer earned a B.A. in mathematics in 1953 from Fisk University, followed by an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin. When she received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Emory University in 1969, she became only the 11th African American woman to receive such a degree. Since then, her entire career has been devoted to increasing the number of African American women in mathematics and mathematics-related careers at Spelman College, an historically black college for women in Atlanta.

Falconer provides encouragement and support for over 100 individual students per semester, and she has also channeled her energies to improve the infrastructure at Spelman College, to create an environment that facilitates first-rate educational opportunities in science, engineering, and mathematics. She was a key player in shaping and securing funding for the Science Center at Spelman, a facility where rising generations of students and faculty will continue learning and pursuing scientific understanding.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Spelman College as a "Model Institution of Excellence," as a result of Falconer's recent proposal efforts. Its accompanying nine million-dollar grant provides funding for scholarships, curriculum and faculty development, equipment, infrastructure and renovations.

A Summer Science Program for pre-freshmen, Spelman's annual Science Day, and the NASA Women in Science and Engineering Program are among other examples of projects, initiated by Falconer, which have increased the numbers of science majors.

Thirty-eight percent of Spelman College's students now major in the sciences, thanks to Falconer's steadfast commitment to her students, discipline, and institution. Science graduates pursuing a doctoral degree at Spelman are up 57 percent from 1988.

Falconer is a member and Fellow of AAAS. Among other honors, she is also a recipient of the Association for Women in Mathematics Louise Hay Award.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science. Founded in 1848, AAAS serves 134,000 members as well as 273 affiliates, representing 10 million scientists.

For more information on the AAAS, see the web site, www.aaas.org. Additional news from the AAAS Annual Meeting may be found online at www.eurekalert.org.

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