Date published: January 5, 2012
As always, agonizing over who will make up this year's class of Emerging Scholars was intense, yet this was a happy work. We felt privileged to have the opportunity to read about so many talented young scholars committed to using their gifts to make the world a better place.
One of the most eye-popping nominations for the Emerging Scholars Class of 2012 came in for Geanncarlo Lugo-Villarino, a postdoctoral fellow studying tuberculosis a world away in Toulouse, France, at the French government's equivalent to the NIH. Lugo's Ph.D. in immunology from Harvard is a first clue that he is a bright star on the academic horizon, but the fact that he earned an associate in science degree in general studies from Southwestern College and lists this fact prominently on his CV is an indication of Lugo's true potential.
Among many other things, community colleges have long served as a springboard for high -potential students with meager resources to make it big. Lugo tells Diverse correspondent Helen Hu that he was the first in his family to complete high school, yet struggled with English and ended up working at a shoe store. After he decided to leave that job, he considered going back to school or going into the military. Ultimately, aided by a $400 gift from his mother and grandmother to help cover tuition and books, Lugo says he "opted for the community college level. It was the single most important step in my life. It was a game-changer."
Lugo says regarding his experience at Southwestern College, "It gave me the orientation I needed. ... The first year, I was adapting to a new level. There, people told me, 'You can do it."
Are there any future emerging scholars in your life who need encouragement? How many Geanncarlo Lugos are languishing in dead-end jobs or are at home in front of the television without the hope or prospect of a brighter future? We here at Diverse salute 2012 Emerging Scholars such as Dr. Karen Lee not just because she is a full professor and department chairwoman at 38, but because of her commitment to teaching and advising students on a one-one-one basis above and beyond the call of duty.
Similarly, transplant surgeon Kristian Brown's two doctorates and body of published works are noteworthy, but it is the spirit of encouraging the next generation of talented young Black men to aim for the highest level of academic achievement that we honor.
We also recognize Emerging Scholars Class of 2012 member Alexes Harris for never forgetting the classmate she lost as a high school junior to senseless gun violence after being "caught up," she says. This classmate was another nameless Black drug dealer dead before 21 to many, yet his death stirred within Harris the desire to do all she could to root out the social ills plaguing the Black community, in particular.
There is something special about each of the Emerging Scholars you will have a chance to get to know through reading the profiles in this special edition. Though their backgrounds vary widely, they all share the desire to use their gifts to improve the lot of mankind. It is this spirit of service-oriented scholarship that Diverse salutes in its 11th annual installment of Emerging Scholars.
Cell Biology Pioneer
Title: Associate professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Education: Ph.D., biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, Johns Hopkins University; B. S., physics, University of California at Santa Barbara
Career mentors: Susan Forsburg, University of Southern California; Thomas Pollard, Yale University; and Ralph Quatrano, Washington University-St. Louis
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: "You will be successful if you follow your passion, and you will know you have chosen the right path if you look forward to going to work every day."
Dr. Magdalena Bezanilla's passion for science was cultivated in her father's laboratory. Watching biophysicist Dr. Francisco Bezanilla study the squid's giant axon, the largest known nerve cell in the animal kingdom, had a profound impact on Bezanilla's professional future.
To conduct his research, Bezanilla's father moved the family from Los Angeles to a marine biological laboratory in Cape Cod, Mass., every summer.
"That's where I got to see what was going on in my dad's lab," says Bezanilla, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "My dad tried to keep me out of the lab as much as possible because I was a bit of a distraction to everybody."
But Bezanilla's affinity for science could not be stifled. She kept coming back.
Today, the 3 8 -year- old biologist spends countless hours in her own lab studying the cell biology of plant cells. Her research seeks to answer a basic biological question: How do cells grow?
"We don't know a lot about how cells become the shape that they are. This is a particularly relevant question for plants," says Bezanilla. "What the ultimate shape of a leaf looks like depends on the shape of the individual cells that make up that leaf. My lab is interested in understanding how molecules inside the cell help to shape the cell and give the cell its final form."
Bezanilla and her colleagues recently pioneered a technique they call multigene silencing to simultaneously silence genes in a multicellular organism.
"Oftentimes, you have several members of a gene family that work together to do one thing for the organism," Bezanilla says. "If you just remove a single member, nothing really happens, and you can't figure out what those particular genes are doing."
Bezanilla adds, "But if you're able to remove [silence] all of the members, then you can find out what happens to the plant. You can determine what those particular genes are doing."
Colleagues say Bezanilla is a rising star in the field.
"Dr. Bezanilla has taken significant risk in her studies of important cell biological processes," says Rolf Karlstrom, chair of the department of biology at Amherst. "Cell biologists studying cell polarity, for the most part, experiment on animal cells in culture or brewer's or baker's yeast. Instead, Dr. Bezanilla studies cell polarity in a non-vascular plant, the moss Physcomitrella patens."
"Staking her career on a nonconventional research organism and reaping exceptional insights therefrom, exemplify [her] brilliant and courageous spirit," Karlstrom added.
Bezanilla recently received a five-year Lucile Packard Foundation grant and also a Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award from the National Science Foundation. She received the American Society for Cell Biology Women in Cell Biology junior award and, most notably, the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE. The PECASE award allowed Bezanilla to meet President Barack Ob ama. Bezanilla describes meeting the president as "amazingly cool."
Interestingly, biology was not Bezanilla's first choice. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Bezanilla majored in physics. But the paucity of women in physics coupled with a burgeoning curiosity in biology led Bezanilla down a different path. In her doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University, she opted to study cellular and molecular biology instead.
"Part of my rationale for leaving physics was that it's really lonely being a female scientist in physics," says Bezanilla. "There aren't a lot of female physicists. There were no other women to talk about my life with."
When Bezanilla is not teaching classes or in her lab, she is with her family. Her husband, Wei-Lih Lee, also works at Amherst as an associate professor of biology.
"My life revolves around my kids," says Bezanilla. "I have two boys, ages 8 and 4. My goal in life is to make them not want to do what I do. My husband is a scientist, too. My kids think that having a lab is a normal job."
- Michelle J. Nealy
Native American studies
Preserving Family, Tradition and Native Culture
Title: Assistant professor of Native American and indigenous studies; chairwoman, department of Native American and indigenous studies, Fort Lewis College
Education: Ph.D., ethnic studies, University of California-Berkeley; M. A., ethnic studies, University of California-Berkeley; B. A., comparative American cultures, Washington State University
Career mentors: The people who have been my mentors never knew I saw them as such. As an undergrad, one of my Native American female professors was important because I could see her teaching within the ethnic studies program. It was a signal that I could accomplish the same.
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: "To any new faculty, I would say embrace the opportunity to teach students who are intellectually young. Find the eagerness to learn in their eyes, and let it inspire you."
As a young, petite, Native American woman, Dr. Majel Boxer stands out among her mostly male, mostly White colleagues in Fort Lewis College's Native American and Indigenous Studies department. But don't let her stature fool you - this faculty member is highly accomplished and has helped effect change in tribal communities.
Not only has she re- energized the Native American and Indigenous Studies department at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., but she also is changing how Native American history is portrayed in museums across the country.
"Western institutions, including higher education and museums, have historically been complicit in describing indigenous peoples in racialized ways," Boxer says. "They categorize and present these groups with anthropological terms."
The goal of her scholarship, she says, is to help native populations reclaim the way their cultural identities are often portrayed. What results is often the birth of a cultural center where tribal groups can come to interact with their living history and traditions.
"When tribal communities remake a museum, they become highly native," she says. "They become institutions where communities can embrace their revitalized culture and teach the younger generation about the old ways."
For example, The Museum at Warm Springs in Oregon created a nature path that points out indigenous plants and how native cultures historically used them. This type of presentation, Boxer says, changes a museum's perspective as well. Visitors no longer feel like outsiders looking in - they can interact, and they feel the ownership of the tribal communities.
As a child living on two Indian reservations, Boxer was surrounded by family, tradition, and culture. Her interest in teaching ignited as she watched Native American women work as teacher's aides, and her mother encouraged her to dream bigger and become the teacher. Now, she strives to spark in her students the desire to know more about the history of native and indigenous peoples.
Her educational path was winding, taking her to banking and music education before she chose Native American studies. But now as department chair, Boxer has expanded the course offerings at Fort Lewis to include classes on indigenous women and how indigenous identities are perceived in a multicultural world.
As both an assistant professor and an adviser to the Native American student organization, Boxer has quickly gained the respect and admiration of her colleagues and her students. According to Dr. Linda Schott, dean of Fort Lewis' School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, the number of students choosing to major in Native American and indigenous studies has risen since Boxer began teaching there.
"[Boxer] is an amazing young woman," Schott says. "Academically, her standards are extraordinary, and she challenges both the other faculty and the students to consider Native American studies from different perspectives."
Being a mentor for native students lets Boxer offer the same type of support and encouragement she received while in school, she says. Students should see her as an ally - someone with whom they can identify.
Boxer takes this same fervor to the classroom. Boxer says her ultimate goal is to help Native students - who comprise roughly 20 percent of Fort Lewis' student body - integrate into and navigate Westernized higher education without feeling as if they have lost their cultural identity.
"I tell them that being educated in a Westernized institution should not make them feel less Native," she says. "A lot of them struggle to live in two worlds, but I try and help them see they can leave, go to school elsewhere, and then, if they choose, return to their communities with new skills. They won't be outsiders. ED
- Whitney LJ. Howell
Second Chance at Life
Title: Transplant surgeon, Detroit Medical Center; adjunct assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Wayne State University College of Engineering
Education: Ph.D., biomedical engineering, Wayne State University; M. D., University of California, San Diego; B. S., cell and molecular biology/chemistry, San Diego State University
Career mentors: Scott Gruber, chief of transplant surgery for Wayne State Medical School; Miguel West, surgeon, Detroit Medical Center
Words of wisdom: "Compassion is the bridge from a wound being treated to a person being healed."
Even though Kristian Brown, M.D., Ph.D., got the opportunity to do biomedical research in the Minority Access to Research Careers, or MARC, program as a sophomore at San Diego State University, he still thinks that he decided to be a doctor pretty late in life. "Many of my classmates in medical school were fourth-generation physicians who knew they wanted to become doctors by 5 years old," he says. "I came into college as a music major/'
Today, Brown is both a transplant surgeon at Detroit Medical Center and an assistant adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State University. He has co-written more than 1 1 scholarly papers, won numerous research awards and earned a Ph.D. in englneering. Surge ons andengineers both solve practical problems in three dimensions/' Brown says. "I don't just want to be a great surgeon; I want to find better ways to do surgery."
Dr. Scott Grub er, chief of transplant surgery for the Wayne State School of Medicine, says that "Brown has excelled on all fronts and has emerged as one of the most successful research residents in the history of our program."
Brown is very open about wanting to be on the fast track. He thinks that everybody in medical school is smart, but that his edge is a relentlessly competitive work ethic born out of surviving an extremely rare and devastating neurological disease. "As a 19-year-old, I went from being able to play endless games of basketball, to suddenly being completely paralyzed with a tube down my throat for about nine months," he recalls. "I couldn't do anything at all, and I made a promise to God that if I ever recovered, I'd do the hardest thing I could possibly imagine. That was going to medical school and getting a doctorate in engineering."
Brown didn't find much peer support in his neighborhood outside Los Angeles. "People wanted to know what's wrong with you because you were inside studying chemistry over the Thanksgiving holiday," Brown says. His engineering mind-set came from his father who worked as an electrician and fixed his own cars. "But the greatest thing Dad did was literally taking me and other kids in my family out and away from the neighborhood. We would pack ourselves into his van and drive thousands of miles learning about the much bigger world out there."
At San Diego State, Brown found support and access to research opportunities through biology professor Paul Paolini and the MARC program. "When you meet Dr. Paolini it's just immediately clear how much he loves teaching," Brown says. Paolini says that a big advantage of putting minority students into the laboratory is that "research really engages students' hearts and minds because it's not about passing or failing tests; it's about finding solutions."
Brown feels fortunate to have found two mentors for the different facets of his career. "Dr. Gruber is a giant in organ transplant research," he says. "After I became a doctor, he taught me how to be a medical academic; how to collect data and present it as a scientist." He credits Dr. Miguel West for showing him the meticulous craftsmanship and creative problem solving involved in being an outstanding surgeon.
Many medical procedures mean the difference between a patient living and dying. Yet, Brown still believes that organ transplants have a special spiritual significance. "Many people ask themselves why did I get a chance at life? However, people who receive organ transplants get two chances at life. And, their second chance always requires a sacrifice. Even when the donor does not need to die, like donating one kidney, he or she must still make a major sacrifice. I remind my patients that they have a moral obligation to do something special with that second chance."
- Paul Ruffins
Righting Social Wrongs
Title: Associate professor of sociology, University of Washington
Education: Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles; M. A., University of California, Los Angeles; B.A., University of Washington (all in sociology)
Career Mentors: Al Black, University of Washington; Bob Crutchfield, University of Washington; Walter Allen, UCLA; Vilma Ortiz, UCLA; Katherine Beckett, University of Washington; Becky Pettit, University of Washington; and Larry Gossett, King County (Wash.) councilmember
Words of Wisdom: "Figure out what is important to you professionally (e.g., teaching, research, service) and personally (e.g., family, heath, hobbies), then set your priorities and goals. Live by what is important to you and you won't have any regrets."
Dr. Alexes Harris remembers well when as a high school junior she lost a classmate to senseless violence. He'd been briefly detained by police for allegedly selling drugs. A few days later he was discovered shot to death. Investigators suspect his supplier was responsible for the murder.
"He was a good kid; he went to good schools. He'd just gotten caught up," recalls Harris, an associate professor at the University of Washington, or UW. "The media automatically labeled him a gang member because he was a Black boy, wearing khakis with a bullet wound to the head."
The incident had such a profound impact on Harris that she vowed to become a public defender to help keep children like her friend out of the criminal justice system. An undergraduate course at UW a few years later, however, convinced her that the field of sociology was the best fit for her to make her mark and a difference.
"Ten years, almost to the day, I was teaching that very same course - social problems - at my alma mater," gushes Harris, a Seattle native. "My passion is giving a voice to the voiceless, those who don't have the resources to speak out."
A Ph.D. in sociology and countless accomplishments later she has demonstrated her dedication through a body of work that focuses on social stratification associated with racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
"She's profoundly interested in highlighting the social inequalities in the criminal [justice] system," explains Judy Howard, the divisional dean of social sciences in UW's College of Arts and Sciences. "Many people do work in this arena, but Alexes takes her mission so seriously. She's an example of the best of what academia can do to make a difference in the lives of underserved communities. Her values shine through in the work that she does."
Harris has published 10 peer-reviewed articles and three book chapters; she also has a book manuscript and a number of other projects in the works. Her most innovative work to date highlights the financial burden that fines and court costs impose mostly on poor people accused of crimes. Many end up incarcerated, Harris says, because of their inability to pay the cost of defending themselves. "That is a gross inequality that is far too common; it tethers poor people to the system simply because they're poor," she says. "Those who enter this system acquire an enormous burden of debt that often condemns them to a life of poverty and a high probability of criminal recidivism."
Her newest line of research focuses on how limited structural opportunities shape individuals' capacities to escape the prison system and build lives that allow them to avoid recidivism.
"I'm trying to make a difference in the lives of marginalized people," she says. "That's what's been the best part for me, knowing that I have been able to produce work that has been able to impact public policy and, ultimately, [give] a voice to many marginalized people who don't have a voice."
The popular professor regularly earns high marks with her students, and she also has been nominated for UW's Distinguished Teaching Award. Harris has won the Pan-Hellenic Association's Excellence in Teaching Award twice, as well as the UW sociology department's Excellence in Faculty Teaching Award. She is an advisory board member for the Racial Disparity Project of the Defender's Association and a founding member of Women Investigating Race, Ethnicity and Difference, or WIRED. WIRED is an organization comprised of UW faculty women of color who share and support each other's scholarly work.
Though proud of her accomplishments, the wife to Eric Hampton and mother of two young children, Alana and Jaylen, shrugs it all off as merely her contribution to solutions for a widespread societal problem.
"I really just want to make a difference," she says. "I know it sounds corny, but it's true."
- Chandra Thomas Whitfield
Breaking Down Access Barriers
Title: Associate professor of higher education, University of Arizona
Education: Ph.D. and M.A. in higher education, UCLA; B.A. in social ecology with a minor in African-American studies, University of California, Irvine
Career mentors: Gary Rhoades and I liana Reyes, University of Arizona; Simon Marginson, University of Melbourne
Advice for new faculty members: "First, as Gary Rhoades instilled in me when I was first hired, know your worth. You have as much to offer and say as an assistant professor as a full professor. Second, know what is most important to you, and spend your time accordingly, keeping in mind that not everything that is urgent is important."
It was her parents' strong work ethic and sheer determination that was the driving force behind Dr. Jenny Lee. Immigrating to San Diego from Seoul, South Korea, at age 3, Lee watched her parents overcome challenging obstacles in order to make a living for their family.
"Although my parents did not earn any degrees in the U.S. and barely spoke English, they instilled in me the value of hard work," Lee says. "Whether they worked in an assemblyline factory, deli shop, and, finally, a dry cleaners, my parents served as a model in my approach to education. They taught me that, while we can't always choose our circumstances, we can always work to improve them."
Lee took that advice to heart. "I clearly recall a time when I was torn on whether to go off to college or stay with my family in order to help the family business. When I shared my inner struggle with my mother, she told me that I must go to college so that I would not have to work with my hands as she and my father had done throughout their lives."
For the past 15 years, Lee has devoted her time to teaching, service and research on college access for underserved populations. "I created a service-learning outreach course while I was a graduate student at UCLA and then a similar course when I became a faculty member at the University of Arizona. These service-learning outreach courses prepare college students as mentors and tutors to low- income middle and high school students in local underserved communities. With the support of private donations and a foundation grant totaling almost $500,000, there are now approximately 100 college students serving six local schools per semester and countless secondary students who are now preparing for higher education. I continue to research inequalities in college access but have also since started investigating issues of access and educational mobility globally."
As a first-generation college student, Lee has focused her research interests on college access, primarily because of her personal experiences as an immigrant with little knowledge of the educational system and how to access higher education.
"I became interested in ways that I can better understand the experiences of international students and higher education in my country of origin, South Korea. My father died before I completed my doctoral studies, but, some time before he passed away, he told me that I should consider using my degree to help impact Korean education."
Lee has taken her father's suggestion seriously. During her sabbatical last year, she devoted time and research toward Korea. Her international work included learning about the experiences of international students and higher education in South Korea.
"In addition to my research on Korean higher education, my international research seeks to challenge and re- conceptualize traditional views of international higher education that tend to minimize or disregard the role of developing countries and the human side of migration for students from these countries," Lee says. She has authored and also co-authored more than 40 publications.
Her work has not gone unnoticed by Dr. Jeffrey Milem, department head of Educational Policy Studies and Practice and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.
"IVe been her colleague for the past five and a half years. She's been a remarkably productive scholar in terms of quality and quantity of work," Milem says. "She has a strong commitment to issues of social justice and equity. She is a great person who is widely respected by colleagues and students."
"My personal rewards include knowing that my work will make a positive difference in the lives of others. Whether it is a doctoral advisee, undergraduate in my class or a fellow scholar who is informed by my research, I believe that making a difference is all that matters in the end," Lee says.
- Dianne Hayes
The Poetic Gift
Karen An-Hwei Lee
Title: Professor and chair, Department of English, Vanguard University
Education: Ph.D., English (British and American literature), University of California at Berkeley; M.F.A. and B. A., Brown University
Career mentors: Hertha Dawn Sweet Wong, U.C. Berkeley; Meredith Steinbach, Brown University; Sandra McPherson, U.C. Davis
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: "Cultivate empathy and listen. Understand the cultures of your campus. Share your passion for teaching and research."
When Dr. Karen An-Hwei Lee was a first-grader, she enjoyed writing and illustrating chapbooks under the instruction of a "wonderful teacher" who guided her creativity as she produced books about butterflies and seeds. "I've been writing ever since," she says. "I started keeping journals; writing letters."
But as a member of a family of scientists, the Massachusetts native attended a high school with a nationally competitive science program and entered Brown University as a pre-med biochemistry major. Nevertheless, her passion for writing prevailed. She enrolled in one creative writing workshop after another.
"I kept returning to my love for writing. . ..This work culminated in an honors thesis," she recalls of her years at Brown, where she went on to earn her bachelor's in literary arts and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Lee earned a Ph.D. in literature in 2001 from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was the recipient of a coveted Cota- Robles Fellowship in English.
As a full professor at Vanguard University, Lee heads the English Department and co- chairs the university's diversity committee. Vanguard is a private, Christian, liberal arts and professional studies institution in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Lee was drawn to the campus of just under 2,000 students for those reasons. She speaks frankly about how faith plays an important role in her work as an educator and writer. Her faith, she contends, is "rooted in dynamic multicultural communities - Korean Presbyterians in the charismatic vein and African- American Pentecostals."
Her words to live by are from 2 Corinthians: "Live by faith, not by sight." Her highly acclaimed 2004 book of poetry, In Medias Res, was described by publisher Sarabande Books as "an investigation into how God hides in language." In Medias Res won the 2005 Norma Färber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and was a Kathryn A. Morton Prize winner.
Her latest book, Ardor, is a 70-page poem made up of letters and prayers. While writing and publishing prolifically, Lee views her most exciting work as teaching and advising students, especially as director of the university's writing center. "I just like coming into work every day, hanging out with students. I try to spend a lot of one-on-one time with them."
Her own inspiration comes from iconic activist Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Lee's own activist spirit has caught fire at Vanguard, where she organized two major events for students in the past year - a breast cancer fundraiser and a regional literature conference.
"The conference was wonderful for the university," says Kelly Kannwischer, Vanguard's vice president for university advancement. "She deeply cares about her students, knows them all by name, and she is not frustrated by a student who comes in and may not have had a strong writing background. She finds that to be an opportunity."
Meanwhile, Lee has received many honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant. In addition to the Färber and Morton prizes, she has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. Most notably, Lee has had more than three dozen journal publications, and she has been included in several anthologies.
Most recently Lee's work is included in The Best Spiritual Writing2012.
Lee is working on projects related to transnational feminism in the Asian diaspora. "I'm interested in how innovative language arises from the margins of difference or boundaries,' weaving multilayered hybridizations and migrations. I also dwell at the intersection of disciplines, examining the narration of healing journeys in different fields of knowledge, medical or miraculous, as forms of witness."
- Pearl Stewart
A Thirst for Knowledge
Title: Postdoctoral fellow, Institut de Pharmacologie et de Biologie Structurale, Toulouse, France
Education: Ph.D., immunology, Harvard University; B. S., cellular and molecular biology, San Diego State University; A.S., Southwestern College
Career Mentors: Olivier Neyrolles, Le Centre National de Ia Recherche Scientifique; David Traver, University of California, San Diego; Laurie Glimcher, Harvard; Ann Feeney, Scripps Institute; Maureen Gibbins, San Diego State University
Advice for new or budding faculty: "Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become a student's foresight."
Back in 1991, Geanncarlo Lugo-Villarino was working in a shoe store. Growing up poor in Mexico, he had a shaky grasp of English and graduated from high school in San Diego with a 2.7 average. He seemed destined for a lessthan- stellar future.
A co-worker talked to him. He had to go back to school, she said, or he would end up like her: stuck in a dead-end job.
Today, Lugo is a rising scientist and is "someone to watch," as a former mentor puts it.
At 38, he has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in immunology and a lengthy list of peer-reviewed publications and fellowships, awards, scholarships and other honors.
He is now in Toulouse, France, doing postdoctoral research on tuberculosis at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health in the states. But he also has done research at the Scripps Research Institute, Yale, NIH, Harvard and the University of California at San Diego.
He has gone from being an insecure youth who thought he couldn't get very far to a mentor of other young students and scientists.
Those who have seen Lugo blossom say his intelligence and appetite for knowledge and hard work have led him to where he is today. But Lugo says he couldn't have achieved anything without help.
"I am the product of good intentions, nurturing and a lot of care," he says.
Lugo became passionate about science after he enrolled at Southwestern College, a twoyear institution in Chula Vista, Calif, and took a class in animal behavior.
He took one assignment and expanded it, observing a chimpanzee at the San Diego zoo for three months, poring over materials in the zoo library and turning in a 30- page report.
Impressed, his professor introduced Lugo around, and he was offered an NIH Bridges to the Future fellowship. He became one of the first students chosen for the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program at San Diego State University.
The program assigned mentors to the students and exposed them to university-level courses, scientific conferences and laboratories, Lugo says.
He stood out because he was so interested in everything, according to Dr. Cathie Atkins, associate dean of the SDSU College of Sciences, who had him in her ethics class.
"Everyone who met him was struck by him," she says. "Not only is he smart, but he's also an incredible human being - one of those people you meet; you know he's going to make a difference in the world."
After enrolling at SDSU, Lugo received the opportunity to conduct research - his mentor in SDSU's bridges program and a scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in La J olla, Calif, both had sons in the Cub Scouts and ended up talking. The scientist, Dr. Ann Feeney, had a vacancy for a student in her lab, and Lugo's mentor, Maureen Gibbins, suggested Lugo.
Lugo did research on DNA in Navajo Indians, who are susceptible to Hib, or Haemophilus influenzae type b, and other genetic issues.
But he wanted to know everything the lab was working on. "He functioned more like a graduate student," Feeney recalls. He has an outgoing personality so everyone gets to know him, she says.
While at SDSU, Lugo had five research papers published - unheard of for an undergraduate. He went on to do work related to T cells, a type of white cell, at Yale and NIH and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2006. He also did postdoctoral research in San Diego.
While progressing in his career, Lugo has given many talks at campuses and mentor ed students in a formal and informal way. Brought up by his mother and grandmother, he is especially interested in helping women achieve in science.
"IVe had so many mentors," he says. "I made the decision I wanted to be doing for young people what they did for me."
- Helen Hu
Title: Associate professor of law, University of California, Hastings
Education: Ph.D. and M.A., sociology, University of California, Berkeley; J. D., Columbia University; B.A., sociology, B. A., political science, Yale University
Career mentors: Lauren Edelman, U.C. Berkeley; Laura Gómez, University of California, Los Angeles; Kendall Thomas, Columbia University; Shauna Marshall, U.C. Hastings; Joan Williams, U.C. Hastings.
Advice for new faculty members: "Be yourself. Follow your instincts into what you're interested in pursuing in your academic life."
After watching the major motion picture "Ray," which chronicled the life of musician Ray Charles, Dr. Osagie Obasogie grew curious about how blind people understand and experience race and racism. He wondered whether the absence of sight shielded people from the day-to-day realities of race in this country.
When he found no published research on this subject, he tackled it.
What emerged was a pathbreaking study that raised doubts about the effectiveness of color-blind laws and practices. Obasogie's research earned him the inaugural John Hope Franklin prize for outstanding scholarship from the Law and Society Association in 2011 as well as a Stanford University Press book contract.
In short, the sociologist and law professor discovered that blind Americans frequently grasp and experience race much the same way sighted Americans do - visually.
Obasogie interviewed 59 adults who were born totally blind so that survey results would not be skewed by people with memories of skin color they had seen before losing their sight. He asked how they defined race; what were their early memories of race; and whether knowing someone's race was useful. He asked the same questions of sighted adults, too. The results?
"Race and racial thinking are encoded into individuals through iterative social practices that train people to think a certain way about the world," he wrote in a 2010 Law & Society Review article. "These practices are so strong that even blind people, in a conceptual sense, 'see' race (which) becomes visually salient through constitutive social practices that give rise to visual understandings of racial difference for blind and sighted people alike."
Blind person after blind person shared childhood stories with Obasogie of how parents and others taught them about the significance of race. They not only learned that skin color - specifically light and dark - and other visual cues differentiated one race from another, but that race relations resulted from social behaviors and expectations among racial groups.
For instance, many blind White respondents recalled their parents regularly using slurs to refer to Blacks. Blind Black respondents recalled how other blind people would reach out to feel their hair to learn their race, then often treat them differently once they realized they were Black. Their comments and anecdotes, Obasogie says, held similar themes as those of sighted respondents.
"The blind people were tired of being stereotyped as living in racial utopia. No one thought they had to deal with issues of race, which they found offensive."
Obasogie is writing a book tentatively titled Blinded by Sight, which is based on his findings. "I feel like an archaeologist who digs and digs until reaching a nugget of truth."
When Obasogie switched undergraduate majors from psychology to sociology more than a decade ago, a friend joked that he was merely meandering "from studies of the obvious to studies of the painfully obvious," Obasogie recalls. "Yet, sociologists are responsible for investigating topics that, on the surface, seem easy but turn out to be nuanced and complicated. Such as the question of how blind people experience race. And that's the fun of it."
Obasogie hopes his project with the blind can influence national discourse, especially regarding race-neutral social and legal policies. "Any commitment to racial justice needs deeper engagement with race as a social and cultural issue rather than relying upon racial non-recognition," he wrote in Law & Society Review.
Dr. Troy Duster, a chancellor's professor emeritus in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, collaborated with Obasogie on a 2011 journal article examining the racial implications of expanded usage of DNA forensics for the Hastings Center Report. "He combines a sedate and dignified approach to contentious social issues with an intensity and commitment that is fierce and unwavering," Duster says. "I have always imagined how effective he would be as a trial lawyer - but, fortunately, he has turned his analytic skills to elevating a more general discourse.
- Lydia Lum
The People's Mathematician
Title: Associate professor of mathematics, San Francisco State University
Education: Ph.D., Florida State University; B. Sc, National University of Mexico
Career Mentors: De Witt Sumners, Florida State University
"Math is so boring. Math is so hard." Dr. Mariel Vazquez often hears these comments from elementary school students. It pains her ,because she always has loved mathematics. Vazquez is an internationally known researcher in the emerging field of DNA topology. Vazquez, an associate professor of mathematics at San Francisco State University, studies how human DNA, the DNA of bacteria and the DNA of viruses become untangled. Her work could affect the design of antibiotics and anti- cancer drugs.
Earlier this year, Vazquez received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award for her research.
A native of Mexico and the daughter and granddaughter of engineers, Vazquez was drawn early on to math. "I loved math but didn't think becoming a mathematician was a career option," she says. In high school she became passionate about molecular biology and enjoyed working with DNA and learning about proteins and cells.
At the National University of Mexico, or UNAM, Vazquez pursued mathematics, earning a research fellowship to the Mathematics Institute. As she became more interested in pure mathematics, she started losing hope of finding a career connection to molecular biology. One day when she was a sophomore she saw a flier for a series of lectures about knot theory and the study of DNA. "A friend and I went. It was intimidating, and I felt overwhelmed by all that information," she recalls. "I didn't understand most of it, but that day I discovered what I wanted to do." She combined her interests of pure mathematics and molecular biology and focused on the study of the emerging field of DNA topology.
Vazquez worked with knot theorist Dr. Max Neumann on an undergraduate thesis titled "Applications of Knot Theory to the Study of DNA." The thesis was based on the work of Dr. De Witt Sumners of Florida State University.
"While doing my thesis I went knocking on doors of mathematicians, trying to learn more," she recalls. She met Sumners twice before graduating. His work on the applications of knot theory to DNA fascinated her and became her doctoral topic. Vazquez pursued her Ph.D. in mathematics at Florida State University, where Sumners was her adviser.
"She is creative, brilliant, tenacious, intuitive, artistic, personable and courageous," notes Sumners. "When I saw [her work], I knew she was the real thing, and I was lucky to get her as a student. It is always great to have students that are smarter than you are.
"The students she mentors always seem to pick up some of her own mathematical clarity and highly professional approach," says Dr. Rainer Sachs, emeritus professor of math and physics at Berkeley.
Vazquez was an academic visitor in the biochemistry department at the University of Oxford in England in 2006 and 2007. She was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. Vazquez was an academic visitor at the Cancer Research Center in Salamanca, Spain, and an academic visitor at the molecular biology department in Barcelona, Spain.
Vazquez, 40, began working on the National Science Foundation grant in 2009. Last April, after nine reviewers meticulously pored over the material, Vazquez learned that she would receive almost $600,000 for research. The selection committee included biology scholars, math scholars and interdisciplinary scientists.
Vazquez plans to travel to Oxford where she will meet with her biology collaborator and spend time in the lab refining the biological questions that can be answered with her methods. She will work with an international group of mathematicians, biologists and computer scientists toward a goal of understanding the mechanism of an enzyme essential for DNA replication in the bacterium Escherichia coli.
In addition to her work and family, Vazquez has enjoyed organizing a math circle for children between first and third grade as part of the San Francisco Math Circles. Through her CAREER award she also will collaborate with the California Academy of Sciences museum to present DNA topology research to children and to the public. She has created a curriculum that's not stuffy, Vazquez says. She knew she was on the right track when she heard one child say, "This isn't math. This is fun."
- Eleanor Yates
Eat, Drink and Breathe Regenerative Medicine
Title: Assistant professor of animal and dairy science, University of Georgia
Education: Ph.D., animal and dairy science, University of Georgia; B. S. biology, Morehouse College
Career Mentors: Bruce Gradous, Springwood Veterinary Clinic; Lawrence Blumer, Morehouse; Steven Stice, University of Georgia
Words of wisdom: Make sure to have fun because fun fuels the fire. And you are going to need the fire to light your imagination, to innovate.
Dr. Franklin West works seven days a week, but, with enthusiasm, he says his career is more a lifestyle than a job. And it is easy to understand his drive: As a researcher studying stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, West's potential successes have wide-ranging implications. "I feel like we're really going to help people and make some significant changes with these therapies that we're developing, and I think that's what keeps me going," he says.
West, who has been interested in science since collecting bugs as a preschooler with his Air Force dad, already has contributed to significant innovations in the field. As an assistant research scientist, for instance, he worked with his University of Georgia adviser, Dr. Steven Stice, to reprogram pig bone marrow cells into stem cells that can turn into any cell in the body. They then injected those powerful cells into pig embryos that were put into female pigs and developed into piglets that were born in September 2009.
"The purpose of introducing the stem cells into the embryo is to determine if they can truly turn into every functional cell type in the body in a real life setting," West says. "Many cells act like they can turn into a number of different cell types in a petri dish. But if they can perform in a real live animal, you know you have a bona fide stem cell that can turn into any cell type."
Pigs have a similar anatomy and physiology to humans, so the effort's landmark success means stem cell therapies that work on mice can potentially be tested on pigs before being applied to humans.
Now, West is focusing on turning pig stem cells into neural cells. "We think we can use the pig model as an excellent way to figure out what we need to do to help treat people with neurological conditions [like stroke and traumatic brain injuries]," West says.
Likewise, the research also could lead to ways to produce disease-resistant animals. West and other researchers are working on that pursuit with a $1.6 million grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Protecting chickens in Africa from the fatal Newcastle disease, for example, would in turn help protect the livelihoods of the farmers who raise them.
West's lab also explores ways to turn human stem cells into sperm, which could ultimately lead to understanding the reasons behind infertility and disorders such as Down syndrome. But the knowledge learned also could help save genetic diversity in endangered animals, which is reduced when smaller numbers mate.
West once thought he would work with animals in a different way, as a veterinarian. But allergies - which were exacerbated when he studied yellow baboons in Kenya during college internships - led him to alter his plans of pursuing a D.V.M./Ph.D. to focus solely on his passion of science.
As a recipient of a David and Lucile Packard scholarship designed to encourage more minority students to go to graduate school to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, West had an opportunity during his freshman year at Morehouse College to work in the lab of Dr. Lawrence Blumer. West researched mate choice in insects. "It was such a transformative experience for me, and I had such a good time," West says. "It was just eye opening."
This year West brought eight undergraduates into his lab after asking students in his animal biotechnology class if anyone would like to help on a project. "One third of the class said they wanted to participate, which is pretty crazy because normally it's hard to get undergraduates enthusiastic about hard-core science," West says. "I was excited that they were excited."
The willingness of such a high-caliber researcher to invite young scholars to assist with complex research has not gone unnoticed by the university.
"It takes more work on the part of folks in the lab to work with undergraduates to help bring them up to a certain point, and that shows a real commitment on [West's] part to undergraduate education," says Dr. Michelle Garfield Cook, interim associate provost for institutional diversity at the University of Georgia.
Cook says students also benefit from West's engaging nature and accessibility and from seeing the success of someone whose minority status is underrepresented in the sciences. Cook says, "His very presence on campus, in terms of being an active and successful researcher, sends a very positive message to our student population about their ability to engage in meaningful research and be successful at it themselves."
- Mindy Charski
The Fruits of Perseverance
Title: Assistant professor, department of computer science and engineering, Mississippi State University
Education: Ph.D., computer science, Mississippi State University; M.S., computer science, Mississippi State University; B. S., computer science, Mississippi State University
Career Mentors: Ray Vaughn, Mississippi State University; Jeff Carver, University of Alabama
Advice for new or budding faculty: "Set aside time, each day/week to write (publications/proposals) as if you were setting a regular meeting or a class to teach. Don't allow others to impede on this time set specifically for writing activities (writing, data analysis, literature review)."
Dr. Byron Williams knew from the time he was 8 years old that his future would include computers. His parents exposed him to computers early, and, while other kids were playing computer games, he was editing basic computer programs.
Infused with incentive and strong family values on education and achievement, Williams enrolled in Mississippi State University poised to take on his destiny first and ask questions later.
After a year of college, his storybook destiny stood on the verge of being rewritten from that of conquering hero to one of tragedy. Williams had been placed on academic probation.
"There were several challenges early on including a lack of personal focus on my studies and a lack of confidence of how prepared I was to start college and major in engineering," Williams says.
"After reality struck and several of my colleagues did not make it to their third [semester], I then determined that I would not only make it but also thrive," he adds.
And thrive he has, becoming the first African- American to graduate with a Ph.D. from his alma mater's computer science department where he now teaches.
Williams credits his support system of family, church and mentors as key factors in helping him shrug off his early challenges in a field where Americans in general are losing pace and relatively few African- American males trod.
Access to programs including the Alliance for Graduate Education in Mississippi and the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program helped Williams "to think big and look past just being satisfied with a bachelor's degree."
They gave him access to internships and mentors granting Williams the insight necessary to shift his major from computer engineering to computer science and to focus on software development.
With a focus on software, his career has skyrocketed and included serving as associate director/ chief software engineer at the Center for Defense Integrated Data at Jackson State University, where he provided support for development of large projects and programs for the departments of defense and homeland security.
Recently, Williams contracted "to support software development efforts for a statewide-integrated education and workforce longitudinal data system as prescribed by the America COMPETES Act."
The central theme in his work emerges from practical applications of his research, which often means that those seeking to exploit society's expanding reliance on software for negative purposes will face a challenge.
"Every time I read about a major software project failure or security vulnerability being exploited, it motivates me to continue researching and working on solutions to these problems," Williams says.
His eventual goal is creating an applied software research center focused on "research and contract development projects for government and industry, while rapidly transitioning software research to practical application."
Williams is a rising star in his field, not simply for his technical abilities but also for his work ethic and commitment to helping others, which has garnered him admiration from both the community and colleagues including Dr. Donna Reese, head of Mississippi State's Computer Science and Engineering department.
Reese says she sees Williams' potential impact as transcending the boundaries of academia. "Williams is a positive role model for underrepresented minority students. Williams has already demonstrated a desire to mentor others in his field so that they, too, can find success."
While there has been a recent increase in the number of AfricanAmericans entering graduate math and computer science programs, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the overall numbers remain under 1,000 students.
"I consider it a responsibility to ensure that other students are given similar support and mentoring that was essential to my accomplishment," Williams says. "I understand the environmental and socioeconomic challenges African- American males face and the impact on their academic self- concept. I want to use my experiences to help mentor other African- American males to complete Ph.D. degrees in computing."
- Malik Russell
Sparking Interest in STEM
Title: Associate professor, Department of Engineering and Center for Materials Research, Norfolk State University
Education: Ph.D., electrical and computer engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology; M.S., electrical engineering, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; B. S., electrical engineering, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
Career Mentors: Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology and Ph.D. adviser; Sandra DeLoatch, provost, Norfolk State University; Patricia Mead, professor of engineering, Norfolk State University
Advice for new or budding faculty: "Stay focused on the big picture, meaning do not let hurdles or obstacles stop you from crossing the finish line. Keep striving for your goals."
Franees Williams loved math and science, ever since elementary school. "They were my favorite subjects," Williams recalls. "I was always involved in science projects, science fairs and summer math and science programs." Williams saw a way to put her love of math and science to practical use after a cousin who was an engineer served as the spark that fired up Williams to pursue a similar career.
Now, Williams is serving as the spark to inspire other young people to follow in her footsteps.
She meets once a month with students at Ingleside Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., where she leads third- through fifthgraders in hands-on projects in the hopes of igniting their interest in science and math careers. Williams mentors high school students through the Project S. E. E. (Science and Everyday Experiences) initiative, a partnership with her local Delta Sigma Theta chapter and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
On the college level, Williams consistently gets high praise from her students, whose glowing evaluations have led to Williams being recognized as Educator of the Year in 2006 by the NSU student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and receiving the engineering department's teaching award in 2009.
"Her courses are eagerly sought after by students each semester," says Dr. Sandra DeLoatch, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at NSU. "Beginning with freshmen, she follows through with our undergraduates until they graduate. She spends a significant amount of time with the students, and there is always a line of students at her office awaiting an advisement session."
Williams cultivates an open-door policy with her students and tries to learn their names "even if there are 60 students in the classroom," she says. She wants her students to "get it."
Williams says of her teaching method, "There are no stupid questions. I think my students feel very free to ask questions, and they know if they are not getting it, they can come by my office and I will try to explain it until they get it. I try to teach in a way that all my students can learn. I want to make sure I see the light bulbs going off in everyone's head, not just a few of them."
Williams also has earned the respect of her fellow faculty members, who recognized her outstanding achievements in teaching, scholarly activities and service by selecting her for the University of Excellence Award in 2011. "This award is one of the highest honors the university can bestow on one of its faculty," says DeLoatch. "It's awarded to an exceptional individual."
One of Williams' more impressive accomplishments at the university is the establishment of the $6.5 million Center for Materials Research, which features a "clean- room," which Williams describes as "a facility with a low particle count . . . needed because we are making devices on a macro and nano scale, with features that are smaller than a strand of hair.
"There is no other facility like it in the region, and it enhances the capability for cutting- edge research not only for our students and faculty but also for other researchers in the Hampton Roads area."
Williams also has been granted a patent for her research in the area of micro- machined acoustics sensors for monitoring electrochemical dispositions, an application that is important to monitoring processes in the semiconductor industry.
Despite her many professional achievements, it all comes back to the students for Williams. "Statistics show that seeing a successful minority female role model helps our students," she says. "As an engineer, I want to cultivate curiosity in STEM areas. That's why I participate in outreach programs and science projects. This early exposure sparked my curiosity, and I want to show them that they can do it, too, and it can be fun." E3
- Dorothy Givens Terry