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Embracing Change

Chemistry faculty at HBCUs adapt to a new normal

by Linda Wang
May 21, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 21

Credit: Geri Vital/Cheyney University
Adeyiga is helping Cheyney University transform into a competitive research institution.
A photo of an African American man in a lab coat standing in front of an academic building.
Credit: Geri Vital/Cheyney University
Adeyiga is helping Cheyney University transform into a competitive research institution.

Chemistry faculty at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are seeing the challenging economy as an opportunity to diversify their experiences and grow in their careers.

Faculty at these minority-serving institutions are ramping up their research, learning how to better compete for research grants, collaborating on research projects, coming up with creative ways to build their research infrastructure, and getting involved in campus fund-raising and recruiting.

“If you stay stagnant, especially in this climate, you’re not going to survive,” says Derrick J. Swinton, associate professor and chair of the chemistry department at Lincoln University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “We have to begin to consider what’s happening in the world in terms of how science is changing, and we have to retool ourselves to prepare for the next few years so that we can sustain ourselves. Right now, we have a window of opportunity to do that.”

This willingness to adapt is not only helping many HBCUs survive the poor economy, it’s also helping them strengthen their research competitiveness.

The first HBCUs were founded in the early to mid-1800s to provide more African American students with access to higher education. Today, approximately 100 public and private HBCUs exist in the U.S., according to the White House Initiative on HBCUs. They are diverse, ranging from small, private liberal arts colleges such as Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., to large public universities such as Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

Steep state and federal budget cuts have taken a toll on many public HBCUs. At Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, for example, the school’s state funding was reduced 18% in 2011, and the university anticipates an additional 20% cut in state funding this year, notes Lawrence Green, interim vice president for institutional advancement at Cheyney. “We are trying to build up as many other sources as we can” to make up for the shrinking state funds, he notes.

Credit: Paul Nguyen
Thomas (left) mentors undergrads at Xavier University of Louisiana.
A middle-aged woman speaks with two college-aged women. One of the college-aged women has an incredulous look on her face.
Credit: Paul Nguyen
Thomas (left) mentors undergrads at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Cheyney is hoping that sponsored research will help narrow the budget gap. But chemistry professor Adedoyin M. Adeyiga sees an even greater potential. He sees this as an opportunity for Cheyney to shed its image as a primarily teaching institution and become a competitive research university.

Since joining Cheyney in 2004, Adeyiga has brought in more than $5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies. The support has enabled Adeyiga to revamp Cheyney’s undergraduate chemistry curriculum and purchase new research instrumentation. Adeyiga is now pursuing American Chemical Society approval for the undergraduate chemistry program. In addition, the university is beginning construction on a state-of-the-art science center.

Transitioning from a culture of teaching to a culture of research is not easy, Adeyiga notes. At many of the smaller HBCUs, “faculty are not aware of the different types of research funding that are available,” he says. “Most do not have the resources to go to conferences and workshops where funding opportunities are discussed. If you don’t know about these opportunities, then, of course, you’re not going to apply.”

Adeyiga began attending grant-writing workshops 15 years ago. As he became more familiar with funding opportunities, he became more aggressive at pursuing grants. Now, he informs his colleagues whenever he hears of new funding opportunities, and he encourages them to apply. “In our department, grant applications have gone up,” he says.

Green points out that since 2006, faculty in the Department of Natural & Applied Sciences have applied for 74 grants valued at more than $41 million. Of those, 21 were funded at roughly $9.9 million.

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Funding agencies are also trying to increase awareness at HBCUs about the availability of grants. A recent NSF-sponsored workshop, held in January 2011 at Xavier University, drew HBCU faculty from around the country. Topics covered included proposal preparation, the merit review process, and award requirements and conditions.

“We’re dedicated to ensuring that the best talent from across all institutions have an opportunity to compete equally across the entire portfolio,” says Mary F. Santonastasso, director of NSF’s Division of Institution & Award Support. “We think that this kind of outreach serves the collective community well.”

NSF also supports research at HBCUs through its HBCU-Undergraduate Program and its Centers of Research Excellence in Science & Technology (CREST) program. HBCUs enroll just 9% of all African American undergraduates, yet they graduate 20% of African American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors, points out Claudia Rankins, a program director for HBCU-UP and CREST.

At Lincoln University, Swinton has been aggressively pursuing research grants since joining the university in 2002. He has secured more than $4 million in funding, which helped the school acquire state-of-the-art research instrumentation. “We have a laser, several confocal microscopes, very sophisticated mass spectrometers, and Fourier transform infrared spectrometers,” Swinton says. “We’re very well equipped for undergraduate research and teaching.”

Lincoln’s transformation began a decade ago when then-president Ivory V. Nelson, an analytical chemist, recognized the importance of building a research infrastructure. He made strengthening the STEM program his top priority and fought hard for increases in state funding.

Today, Lincoln has a $40 million science and technology center. The chemistry department is working to establish a master’s program. And the university is creating an office of sponsored research.

“The HBCUs that are surviving and doing moderately well in this economic climate are those that are bringing in research money,” Swinton says.

He encourages faculty at HBCUs to be persistent in applying for research grants. “The first proposal I submitted to NSF was rejected, and I got a 10-page critique from one of the reviewers,” he says. But that feedback was informative, and it helped him improve his subsequent proposals.

HBCU faculty can also gain insights into the grant review process by serving as reviewers. “If you’re thinking of applying for any NSF grant, you need to get on a panel before you apply,” says Joan M. Frye, a program manager in NSF’s Office of International Science & Engineering. “You’re getting an education, and you’re networking with other people in your field.”

The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) also provides resources to help HBCUs compete for research grants. “What we are trying to do is really connect the HBCUs at as many levels as possible,” says Victor R. McCrary, president of NOBCChE. Approaches can range “from getting people on review panels to getting people to key conferences so that they can meet other people and start to build partnerships so that they have a chance to increase their probability of obtaining research funding.”

For example, NOBCChE’s Technology Education Partnership program is helping HBCUs build partnerships with institutions such as the University of Maryland and Washington University in St. Louis.

“In order for us to get funding, we have to form partnerships,” says Abdul K. Mohammed, dean of the College of Science & Technology at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), in Durham. “In the past, there were programs set aside for minority institutions, but many of the funding agencies are reducing those and making them open to all institutions, so it’s becoming more competitive.”

NCCU is taking advantage of its proximity to several large research institutions. Its chemistry faculty members are collaborating on projects with researchers at Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example. “Many of these institutions are now familiar with our faculty, so they encourage our students to apply to summer internship programs at their institution,” he says.

“We really encourage partnerships with minority-serving institutions,” NSF’s Frye says. “The advantage of the partnerships is that the students and the faculty have access to the equipment, the resources, and the infrastructures that may be better at the majority institution.”

Securing research funding has helped Edwin H. Walker Jr., BASF Endowed Professor of Chemistry at Southern University & A&M College, in Baton Rouge, La., weather the tough economic times.

Southern University’s chemistry department recently lost its master’s program to state budget cuts, and other restructuring is under way. Nevertheless, with the help of an NSF grant, Walker has been able to hire postdocs to work in his lab.

Credit: John Okasinski
Walker (left) and postdoc Scott Wicker use state-of-the-art instrumentation at Southern University.
A photo of two African American men wearing goggles working on a complicated-looking piece of instrumentation.
Credit: John Okasinski
Walker (left) and postdoc Scott Wicker use state-of-the-art instrumentation at Southern University.

“What happens is that at a primarily undergraduate institution like Southern, a faculty person has to teach 12 contact hours. When I’m available for research, my undergraduates have class. When they’re available for research, I’m teaching,” he says. “So I came up with the idea that if I have full-time researchers in the lab, not only can they help the students with research, but they can help advance my research program.”

There’s another benefit to having postdocs work in his lab: additional highly trained chemists in the department. “Now, my group meetings on Fridays last for two hours because we’re engaging in scientific discussion, just like at the big universities,” he says. One of his former postdocs is now a faculty member in the chemistry department at Southern.

Even Howard University, in Washington, D.C., one of the largest private HBCUs in the country, is feeling the impact of a slow economy. “You’ve got declining revenues on all sides, and like any school, we’ve had to do a good bit of belt-tightening and make hard choices,” says John A. W. Harkless, an associate professor of chemistry at Howard.

But he’s maintaining an optimistic outlook. “The best thing to do is prepare to take advantage of the next upswing,” he says. Rather than compete for the large grants that are harder to get now, Harkless has been competing for smaller grants.

“Having smaller projects allows you to ask for smaller dollar amounts and figure out ways to be more effective with the funding,” he says. “Having these cheap quick hits is not going to help in a way that a $3 million grant over a five-year period would,” he acknowledges. “But I’m rolling with the perspective that, if you can get a couple thousand here and there on an annual basis, you can do things that will position you to cash in when things start getting better.”

As state and federal funding sources decline, public universities such as NCCU are increasingly turning to private sources of funding, such as philanthropic organizations and individual donors. “In the past, we have not been very good at raising money and doing fund-raising, unlike the more established institutions, but now we are being forced to reexamine our sources of revenue and do more of the fund-raising to be able to do some of the things we would like to do,” Mohammed says.

He points out that NCCU’s institutional advancement office is telling people in the academic departments “that we have to go out and raise these funds together. They’ve also talked about sending us to seminars on fund-raising to gain experience about how to cultivate potential donors.

“It’s very difficult to manage,” Mohammed says. “Folks are a little resistant about doing all these things, and at the same time they have to do their teaching and their scholarly work. It’s very tough, but we are trying to do the best we can.”

Faculty members understand that they may not have a choice. If budgets continue to decline, “some programs will be cut, and if programs are cut, that means faculty jobs are on the line,” Mohammed says. “We recognize that in order for us to preserve our jobs, we have to do some of these things.”

At Xavier University of Louisiana, faculty are increasingly being asked to help with recruitment of students. “Faculty have become much more involved in recruiting at the high school level,” a task that used to be handled exclusively by the university’s admissions department, says Gloria Thomas, an assistant professor of chemistry at Xavier. “Recruitment is really important to small, private institutions because we’re mostly tuition driven.


“Now you’re becoming a salesperson not only for chemistry but for your department, for your institution,” she says. “You’re not just hunkered down in your lab doing your research. You’re in the classroom in front of the chalkboard, you’re talking to parents, you’re talking to high school students.

“Faculty who are on the job market looking for positions at HBCUs need to be prepared to do more than just teach,” adds Thomas. “They need to be adept at finding funding for their research, they should have the expectation of a lot of service in terms of recruitment and retention, and they should also be prepared to not have legions of staff support.”

“Trying to have a competitive research program, teach with rigor, and give back to the community can be difficult,” admits Kimberly M. Jackson, an associate professor of chemistry at Spelman College, an all-female liberal arts HBCU in Atlanta.

But, she says, the rewards are worth the sacrifice. “I want African American students to have a role model because at a lot of institutions they do not see African American faculty,” Jackson says. “I think all students grow when they have someone they can model after.”

Cheyney’s Adeyiga agrees, adding that chemistry faculty at HBCUs are driven by a common goal of inspiring more minority students to enter the sciences. “This is my way of giving back,” he says, “and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”


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