Wanted: A Better Way to Boost Numbers of Minority Ph.D.s
Managing Editor: Yolanda
S. George Editor:
|An Interview with Dr. Isiah M. Warner
By Virginia Van Horne
Each issue of Making Strides features a short interview with an underrepresented minority SME professor who has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging students through all levels of the education pipeline, as well as demonstrating leadership and outstanding accomplishments in the world of SME. For our inaugural issue, we had the privilege to chat with Dr. Isiah M. Warner, former Chairman of the Chemistry Department at Louisiana State University. Dr. Warner has always set high personal standards. For example, he completed his Ph.D. in three-and-one-half years, was the first analytical chemist to earn tenure at Texas A&M (1982) in over a decade, has published more than 180 research articles, and has trained more than 20 Ph.D. scientists.
How did you become interested in science?
I believe that I was born for science. I can remember watching family members pour some type of liquid into a kerosene lamp at two-years old. From this action, came fire. Naturally curious, I can remember wondering what that liquid was. Knowing the liquid was stored in a cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, I thought I could learn what it was by tasting it. Needless to say, I ended up in the hospital. That merely piqued my interest in science.
When I was ten-years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. I loved it and would play with it for hours. When in high school, I can remember my English teacher asking me what I was going to major in while at college. Without pause, I said chemistry. At that time, Louisiana had segregated schools. Had I wanted to attend LSU, I would not have been able to. To provide a clearer picture, our school used textbooks that were five-to-seven years old; these were hand-me-downs from the white schools. Southern University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in Baton Rouge, offered scholarships. I can remember individuals from Southern coming to my high school and administering IQ tests. From such a test, I received a full scholarship to Southern University in 1964. I also participated in a summer program for juniors and seniors in high school. During the summer of my senior year, I attended Southern and took chemistry classes. The group that took these classes did so well, we were able to skip our first year of college chemistry.
Why did you go into industry after college instead of graduate school?
When I was coming out of school, it was the height of the Vietnam War; a relatively large fraction of African Americans were being drafted. Student deferments were no longer offered by the Draft Board. I had an interview with Battelle, Northwest; Battelle was a contractor for what was then the Atomic Energy Commission. My chances were very good that I could receive a job deferment. Battelle made me an offer and I took it, working for them from 1968-1973 doing technician-type work.
Why did you leave industry and return to school?
I was bored. I no longer felt intellectually challenged. I mistakenly thought I was bored because I was doing chemistry. Since my wife was working for a psychiatrist, she suggested I take an aptitude test. I did. The test indicated I was directly in line with a career in chemistry! This made me think about going on to graduate school.
Can you tell us about your graduate school experience? For example, did you encounter any challenges or difficulties?
I only applied to one graduate school, the University of Washington in Seattle in 1973. I knew that this university was the best in the area. The Seattle area-as my wife has always said--has incredibly positive race relationships. Although I was the only African American--out of 40 students in my class--I never encountered any problems at the University of Washington.
What made you become a professor?
That is an easy question for me. I knew from my experience as a teaching assistant, how much I enjoyed working with students. I can remember a young woman coming to me in tears after an exam. Thinking she had failed the chemistry exam, she told me she was planning to drop my class. I convinced her to continue. She ended up graduating as a chemistry major, with a 3.4 grade point average; she is now a medical doctor.
Do you have other examples of students you can share?
I have many examples! Encouraging and working with students is what matters. A young woman at LSU, who was married, worked in my lab. After a month of working for me, she told me she was pregnant and needed to quit. She contacted me a year later and asked if she could work with me again; I said yes. During this time, she underwent a divorce, yet kept working. Upon completion of her schooling, she asked me to write her a job reference letter. Having a variety of financial obligations, she wanted to begin working immediately. I told her she was too bright a student and that she should continue her schooling. I helped her investigate avenues, for example, applying to a graduate school near her family, applying for a fellowship, etc. This coming December, she will finish her Ph.D.
Recently, I received a letter from a young man I worked with as a participant in the American Chemical Society program, Operation SEED. We first met when he was in high school; he is now finishing up his Ph.D. at Georgia Institute of Technology. He thanked me for being a role model. These are the types of things that make teaching worthwhile.
What avenues did you pursue upon completing graduate school?
I interviewed at several universities. Texas A&M made me a fantastic offer, so I took it. Things changed at Texas A&M when I was granted tenure in 1982. For example, I was interviewed by the local paper and featured on its cover. In my interview I noted that there were not enough African Americans on the staff, faculty, or student body of the university. Needless to say, the President of A&M met with me and asked me to help do something to rectify this. I explained that I would be leaving to take a position at Emory as I had decided that I wanted to be at a smaller school and Emory was a small, private university. A&M, however, put together a committee to work on this issue of underrepresentation.
Did you find that when you joined a campus, minority students sought you out?
Yes. When at Emory, in 1982, I had many African American students stopping by my office. A colleague in the office next to mine, asked me why. I explained that since there are so few minority faculty, when a minority professor joins the campus, the students want to stop by and acknowledge his or her presence. It's an issue of pride. I also feel it is important to meet with all students. I have an open door policy--any student who wants to see me, can.
Tell us about the LSU Chemistry Department.
When I first came to this department, there had never been more than 3 African Americans in chemistry at one time. Today, out of a total of 115 students, we have more than 30 African Americans working on their Ph.D.s in chemistry.
Why is that?
We have built a critical mass. Our recruiting is minimal. Our current students are spreading the word about our program. Thus, recruiting becomes self-sustaining. The only other department at LSU that has comparable numbers is the education department. When I arrived at LSU, there were two African-American students in the department; then four applied, and two of the four accepted. I brought in ten students, five of them African-Americans. That number has continued to increase. The faculty within this department are receptive. At the beginning, faculty needed coaching. Some assumed that the African American students might not be able to meet the challenge. Once the faculty worked with these students, they realized that these students have the same capabilities as other students. This department is producing excellent chemistry students. As an example, Proctor & Gamble conducted a nationwide search for six positions. They offered one of my students, who is African American, two of those six positions.
Louisiana is more than 30% African American. The number of students we're getting is in-line with the state's demographics. Also, students feel comfortable here. They have a supportive environment as well as many networking opportunities. For example, the students have formed a local chapter of NOBCHE (the National Organization of Black Chemists and Engineers).
A supportive structure is essential. This is something that automatically exists for white males. For example, my brother, an engineer, returned to graduate school. Although he knew the answers in class, when it came time for the exam, he always scored lower than his performance in class reflected. He asked me why. I explained to him that more than likely there were study groups; he just wasn't being invited to them. He was excluded. Through perseverance, he became part of a study group.
Do you encourage students to go into academia?
When I find a student who would be good in academics, I do encourage them to go in that direction. In my opinion, you aren't going to change the fact that many students go into industry. Most white males go into industry. You'll only find a small portion of minority students going into academia. Many of my students look at me and comment that if they have to work as hard as I do-they are not interested. I need to do a better job of making students realize that what I do is fun. They don't think of my job in that way.
Were you surprised when you won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathe-matics and Engineering Mentoring?
Yes. I didn't even know that my students had nominated me for this award! The young woman I mentioned earlier, wrote a letter for me. She wrote how I was able to show her a way when she thought there was no other way. I think that says it all.
Thank you, Dr. Warner.
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