A panel of distinguished African-American scientists gathered to discuss the future of minorities in science, engineering and mathematics last night in the Arco Forum at the Kennedy School of Government.
The panel focused on how minorities can bolster the science and math skills of students of color and how to cultivate the interest of minorities in those academic areas.
The event at the Arco Forum was part of the fourth annual conference on American Minorities in Science, Engineering and Mathematics in the Twenty-First Century, sponsored by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
As part of this weekend's conference, Shirley A. Jackson, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a distinguished theoretical physicist, was given the Harvard Foundation Award for her contributions to intercultural and race relations.
Jackson, who is the first black and the first woman ever to become Chair of the NRC, spoke earlier yesterday at a luncheon reception held in her honor at Pforzheimer House.
At the Arco Forum last night, panel participants were largely in agreement that minority students must be careful not to isolate themselves from other members of scientific communities.
The participants also agreed that minority students must be flexible in their plans and ambitions to deal with the volatile job market in these areas.
The comments of one speaker, Dr. Harold Amos, Harvard Medical School professor of microbiology and molecular genetics emeritus, drew fire from a handful of audience members.
"We [minority communities] have been finding excuses for not doing things. We have to encourage science in our communities," Amos said.
According to Amos, there is not enough of an intellectual environment in the homes and communities of minorities for science to flourish. Minorities must take more responsibility for the lack of scientists among their numbers, Amos said.
Despite the suggestion by a few audience members that the educational system, not the minority community, is to blame for the lack of minorities in the sciences, other speakers came to his defense.
"There is a lack of exposure [to science], a lack of a success model in our community. In the end, we have to save ourselves," Jackson said.
In her remarks at the luncheon reception yesterday, Jackson related her experience as a "trailblazer," at MIT, part of a small community of African-American students at the school during the '60s and early '70s.
She was the first black woman to receive a doctoral degree in any subject from MIT.
"In those years, as minority group members pursuing careers in the sciences, engineering and mathematics, we were acutely conscious of just how few we were. Women, of course, represented a still smaller fraction: a minority of a minority. The smallness of our numbers was in some respects a major challenge," Jackson said in her remarks.
Jackson said she believes that the lack of minorities in the sciences can partially be attributed to a propensity by minorities to go into fields of obvious relevance to their communities.
Jackson recounted how she, as a young student, had been challenged to explain how a career in theoretical physics would benefit her people. Jackson maintained, however, that such careers are of real value to the communities of those who pursue them.
"There are many ways to make an impact. Sooner or later, the message of a person's achievement will get through to his community, and it will be a source of pride to the elders, and of hope and opportunity to the young," Jackson said.
In addition to the Pforzheimer House reception and panel discussion, yesterday's conference schedule included research presentations by current undergraduate and graduate science students and a student social following the panel discussion.
The conference will continue today and include faculty research presentations and workshops for science students. The conference will conclude this afternoon with a panel on the future of Asian-American, Hispanic-American and Native American students in science, math and engineering.
According to Dr. S. Allen Counter, Director of the Foundation, the conference is larger this year than it ever has been in the past, with students attending from area high schools and other New England universities.
This year, the conference also includes a new program dubbed "Partners in Science." According to Counter, this mentoring program is aimed at pairing minority high school students with Harvard science concentrators who are also minorities