[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 15-Feb-2004
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Contact: John Toon
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News

Study shows how African-American Ph.D. chemists overcame discrimination to build careers

Willie Pearson, Jr.
Photographer: Gary Meek

Click here for a high resolution photograph.

A national study of career experiences among African-American Ph.D. chemists shows how these scientists dealt with discriminatory practices and attitudes to build careers in academia, industry and government. While seven out of ten respondents felt they had been hindered by discrimination, less than a handful regretted choosing a career in chemistry.

"Regardless of the experiences they had, these people had remarkably positive feelings about chemistry," said Willie Pearson, Jr., the study's author and chair of the School of History, Technology and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "If they had it to do all over again, they would still see chemistry as an attractive field."

Results of the study, "Beyond Small Numbers: Voices of African-American Ph.D. Chemists," will be presented February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The study explores the divergent career experiences of 44 randomly-chosen African-American Ph.D. chemists who received degrees prior to 1994.

"The opportunity structure differed dramatically in many cases over time," said Pearson, who conducted face-to-face interviews with all but one of the scientists. "Most felt that race was an issue, and that it had impacted them in certain ways. But they didn't let that cripple them or stifle their achievement. Racism was just part of the reality that confronted them."

Most respondents began their careers in the academic world, with slightly more than half taking positions at historically black colleges and universities. The Ph.D. chemists choosing academic careers were attracted to institutions similar to the ones where they obtained their undergraduate degrees.

Their experiences changed dramatically over time, affected by federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education.

Other key findings include:

Daryl Chubin, senior vice president at the National Action Council for Minorities in Education (NACME), said the study is unusual in using interviews to provide an in-depth look at complex issues.

"The value of the analysis is that it looks across a half-century of experience on the part of these minority chemists," he said. "Because of the interviews, the study puts a human face on their experiences. There is a great deal of commonality in what these Ph.D. chemists are saying."

Chubin noted that the experiences reported by the chemists parallel those of today's minority science and engineering students, who often suffer from lack of access, isolation, tokenism, lack of acceptance from others at the institution and limited mentoring opportunities.

"The good news is that they prevailed," he added. "Some of them had very distinguished careers despite this. But it points out the climate in which they had to work, and which still confronts faculty of color."

The qualitative study highlights the importance of mentoring, Chubin and Pearson agree. To be successful in academia, scientists must not only teach and do research, but also write papers, submit grant applications, make professional presentations, compete for graduate students and manage their laboratories. That knowledge isn't taught in the classroom, but comes from working with top faculty.

"Many in the first generation of Ph.D.s didn't have a sense that the degree is only the beginning," Pearson said. "Finishing at a top academic institution is a great achievement, but in the research community, the degree is only the key to get in. Those who did not have a rich publishing experience and knowledge of how to write a grant had a very difficult time."

A shortage of African-American faculty poses a threat to the modest diversity at U.S. colleges and universities as today's full professors look toward retirement. "When we are only producing 30 or so African-American Ph.D.s a year and a number of African-American chemists are at or near retirement age, we risk losing ground, especially in academia," Pearson warned.


Technical contact: Willie Pearson (404-385-2265) or e-mail: (willie.pearsonjr@hts.gatech.edu).

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