ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences | February 23, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 8 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 8 | p. 66 | Awards
Issue Date: February 23, 2009

ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry
Department: ACS News
Credit: Courtesy of Shirley McBay
Credit: Courtesy of Shirley McBay

Sponsored by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation Inc.

Shirley M. McBay “is one of the nation’s treasures and an incredible mentor and role model for minority students around the world,” says Christine S. Grant, professor and associate dean of faculty development and special initiatives in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University. “Her innovation has encouraged a whole new generation of scientists in general and chemists in particular.”

As a child growing up in the South, McBay says the experience of attending segregated schools “no doubt had its disadvantages, and I was extremely fortunate to be taught by well-prepared and caring teachers from elementary through high school.” Her teachers, she adds, “recognized and began to nourish, early on, my love of mathematics by providing numerous and varied opportunities for me to increase my knowledge of mathematics and to enhance my mathematical skills.” Their inspiration encouraged McBay to do her best, and she welcomed all opportunities to learn.

And she continued to flourish. McBay received a B.A. from Paine College, in Augusta, Ga., in 1954 and an M.S. degree from Atlanta University in 1957, both in chemistry. She then earned an M.S. degree in mathematics from Atlanta University in 1958 and, under the advisement of Thomas R. Brahana, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Georgia in 1966. She was the first African American in the institution’s history to do so.

McBay has devoted her career to encouraging the participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. A trailblazer and principal in the field of recruiting and mentoring underrepresented students, McBay, in the words of Barnard College professor Alison P. Williams, “has always been a step ahead of her colleagues in articulating the need for faculty and mentors to maintain high standards for women and students of color.”

After completing her education, McBay became an assistant professor at the University of Georgia and then a member of the faculty and administration at Spelman College, in Atlanta, from 1966 to 1975, where she steered countless numbers of students of color into studying the natural sciences. She then served five years, from 1975 to 1980, as program manager of the Science Education Directorate at the National Science Foundation. In that capacity, she directed two national programs designed to increase minority participation in science and engineering.

In 1990, McBay resigned as dean of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position she held for 10 years, to establish the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit works with individuals, organizations, and governments to help improve the education of minorities and is a result of McBay’s 1990 report “Education That Works: An Action Plan for the Education of Minorities.”

In her role as president of QEM, McBay manages summer internships for minority science and engineering college students and mentors those who are underrepresented and/or economically disadvantaged.

Looking back, McBay believes that the sense of confidence and curiosity her early experiences instilled provided her with “a sustained underpinning not only for efforts at continued self-improvement but for informing potential strategies that might provide similar personal and professional development opportunities for others.”

In 2007, Rebecca Gregory, then a 10th-grade student at Camden County High School, in North Carolina, and winner of the “I Want to be Like Her” essay contest, wrote, “After reading McBay’s story, I feel as if anything is possible.” And with McBay still continuing to pave the way, it is more possible than ever.

McBay will present the award address before the Division of Environmental Chemistry.

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