In this issue:
Managing Editor:Yolanda S.
Making Strides is a free, quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education (MGE) in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to MGE, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor.
with Dr. Sheila E. Brown
By Virginia Van Horne
Senior Research Associate
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 the pipeline, as well as demonstrating leadership and outstanding accomplishments in the world of SME.
This month I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Sheila Browne, a Professor of Chemistry at Mount Holyoke College. She received her B.S. degree in Chemistry, magna cum laude, from the University of Tennessee in 1971, and her Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. She was a Visiting Professor of Chemistry at the University of Hawaii, 1984-1985, and a Visiting Professor of Polymer Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1992-1993. In addition to her research and publications on biodegradable polymers, Dr. Browne is well known for her presentations on mentoring and increasing opportunities for those underrepresented in the sciences. Having spent a great part of her career encouraging women and minorities in science, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering in Mentoring in 1998.
How did you become interested in science?
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, introduced me to the wonders of science. We did extensive projects on space and on the human body that piqued my interest. I still remember giving a presentation on the digestive tractwe pulled yard after yard of small intestine from our life size model of the human body. School was a lifesaver for me. I grew up in a very poor family in Appalachia, in the mountains of Tennessee. Both of my parents were alcoholics and life at home was a violent experience. School was the only safe place I knew and I can never say enough about how much the support and encouragement of my teachers meant to me. I firmly believe that they saved my life and deserve the credit for everything I have accomplished. I think understanding the difference they made in my life was a major reason I became a teacher.
Part Cherokee, I was the first in my extended family to graduate from high school. My grandfather was a scholar in our community. Since he made it through the third grade, he could read and write, while many in our community could not. By the age of 14, my mother was working in a factory. My family really was not able to support my interests in school or in science.
Did you know when you were in high school that you would go to college?
Actually, no. While in high school, I worked as a waitress to help with the family finances. I worked until 10:00 p.m. on school nights and ten hours on Saturday. I was so tired after work that I couldn’t even smile! Seeing the waitresses who had been doing this for 30 years convinced me that I had to do something else with my life. Most of the men in the family had jobs on the railroad; the women worked in factories or took care of families. A cousin of mine married at 13 and had four children by the time she was 17! I didn’t want to follow in my family’s footsteps. College seemed to be the answer.
In 1966 I applied to the State University because it was the cheapest place I could attend. The University gave me a scholarship and I received workstudy funds from the Appalachia Poverty Program. Just before I was to leave for college, our preacher came to our house to try to convince my parents to not let me go to college.
Tell us about your undergraduate experience.
When I arrived at the University of Tennessee in 1966, I literally didn’t know what a Ph.D. was or what it took to be a professor. My goal at that time was to become an M.D. I wanted to return to my hometown and help my community. It seemed like a great idea, but I knew medical school tuition was very expensive and really didn’t have the foggiest idea as to how I’d pay for such tuition.
I enrolled in premed classes and in my sophomore year took Organic Chemistry. I loved it. I liked thinking about it, studying it and soon learned that I especially loved the research. Not only did I enjoy chemistry, but I was doing quite well in the class. My professor, John Larson, invited me to join his research team. I was an undergraduate and I was working in the lab alongside graduate students! It was amazing. It was under Dr. Larson’s guidance that I chose to pursue a career in chemistry. He pointed me toward graduate schools and helped me complete my application to the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1971, while at the University of Tennessee, I was selected for Phi Beta Kappa and was one of 12 students selected for the Mortar Board for campus leadership.
Each year of college I received less money from the University of Tennessee and had more jobs. I was constantly afraid that the money would run out before I could graduate. Because I enjoyed chemistry so much, I decided not to pursue medical school. Knowing how difficult it was to pay for my undergraduate tuition, paying for medical school seemed impossible. Ultimately, I also realized that I didn’t want to be in responsible for life and death situations.
Did you have any difficulties—either as an undergraduate or as a graduate student?
Yes! Money was a constant source of anxiety, and I encountered my fair share of “terminators.”
A “terminator,” is a word I use to describe a certain type of individuala person who terminates your progress. Its someone who undermines your confidence in a lab or greets you with an “are you sure you’re in the right classroom?” type of remark. Terminators are the people who have a preconceived notion of who you are and what you can be. For example, in addition to loving chemistry, I loved physics and I thought initially that I would be a physics major. As a sophomore, I took an advanced class in electromagnetism. We were calculating the gausian fields of capacitors, but I knew next to nothing about electronics. After class, I asked the professor if he could let me borrow a simple text on electronics. Despite my being one of the top-scorers in his class, he told me that since I was a woman, he would not waste his time. I would never understand the topic anyway. It was a frightening revelation to me that no matter how well I did on exams or in the lab, nothing I could do would change his opinion of me. Being young, I assumed all physicists would have this same attitude and I gave up on physics. I began to focus solely on chemistry. Nowadays, I warn my students about “terminators” and offer strategies to limit the power of such people.
Is this why are you such a strong supporter of mentoring students?
I’ve met people who have left science because of a terminator. Mentors, however, can make a real difference. If you have a mentor, you can discuss your fears and concerns with her or him. Terminators are subtle. They would rarely, if ever, make a blatant discriminatory statement in front of their colleagues. From my own experiences, I know what kept me going. During my precollege years it was my local teachers. As an undergraduate it was John Larson. Having someone believe in you and in the possibility of your dreams is a very powerful thing.
I asked the 70 successful minority scientists in the New England Board of Higher Education network what made a difference in their “making it.” Every person I spoke with gave credit to a mentor—whether an elementary teacher, a grandmother, or a college professor—that was instrumental in pushing them forward. Many of these mentors were white males. Afterall, who else was in science at that time? I decided that if I could create more mentors, it would open doors for women and minorities in science. I enjoy mentoring students and running workshops to teach others how to mentor minority students in science. At Mount Holyoke College, I helped in the creation of two student groupsNative Spirit and ‘Sistah’s’ in Sciencethat offer very powerful peer support and mentoring. This is why I make it a point to travel to various universities and conferences and speak on the need for good mentors and mentoring and how to make it happen.
Tell us about graduate school.
I graduated in 1971 from the University of Tennessee and drove across country to California. It was the ultimate culture shock! At the University of Tennessee I had been considered a liberal; at the University of California, Berkeley, I was very conservative. I was one of two women—out of close to 140 entering graduate students—in organic chemistry. There were no women faculty at Berkeley (or at the University of Tennessee) in chemistry at that time. I worked under Andrew Streitweiser, Jr., who clearly loved chemistry and was very generous in letting me join his group. At that time, there were several male faculty who would not even take women as graduate students. It was a very stressful time for me. The other graduate students were from schools like MIT or Cal Tech, and I felt I was constantly trying to catch up. Over half of my entering class quit. The excitement of the research work kept me going.
During my first year at Berkeley, my Mother called to encourage me to take a shorthand class, because there were always jobs for secretaries. When I received my Ph.D. in 1974, my father asked me how much money I was paid for my “book”. When I explained that it had cost me $50 to submit it, he never again asked me about my work. They both wanted to know if I would ever stop going to school and get a job.
In 1974 I graduated with my Ph.D. in organic chemistry. I married the man who worked in the lab adjacent to mine, and we moved to Massachusetts. My husband had gotten a job at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). We didn’t even think about trying to get a joint appointment. I worked as a teaching assistant at WPI for one year and then went to Brandeis University to do postdoctoral work with Bill Jencks in the biochemistry department. While I was in the postdoc, a colleague, Joanne Stubbe (now a tenured chemistry professor at MIT) said she had interviewed at Mount Holyoke College (MHC) but was not interested. Was I? I sent in a late application, interviewed and was hired within 4 days. I’ve been teaching courses in chemistry, environmental studies and women in science for the Women’s Studies department at MHC ever since.
In 1984 I received tenure from Mt. Holyoke. After that I took a one-year sabbatical and did research on natural products while teaching chemistry at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. I was an associate professor from 1984-1990 and became a Professor of chemistry in 1990. I also chaired our department from 1990-1992. And, in 1992-1993 I was a visiting professor of Polymer Science doing research on biodegradable polymers with Dr. Bob Lenz at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Doing research across the borders of a discipline is most interesting for me and seems to offer an environment that is more flexible and accommodating to differences in people and how they think.
How did you feel about being a Presidential Awardee for excellence in science, mathematics and engineering in mentoring winner?
When I received this award in 1998, I was in shock. I read the supporting letters written by students, and was amazed that I had had such an impact on their lives! This award has given me more credibility for the things I want to do. It’s a stamp of approval. I can now get people enrolled in the programs I have done since I have an award indicating that these mentoring programs are working!
Please elaborate more on your role with students.
The first thing I look for in my students is that they want “it.” In other words, I want to know that they are interested in science and want to do science. It is crucial to support what my students dream of doing. I do not want to push them into doing something that I think they should do. It is important to believe in them. I also try to make sure they are aware of all of the opportunities available. I run mentoring programs and seminars, such as Sistah’s, on finding science internships and I have created a web site with links for science, math and engineering disciplines. Once students are in a research lab and working, they can see themselves as professional scientists! I personally take students, in my van, to conferences. I’ll do my best to find funding for students so that they can attend conferences such as the National Organization of Black Chemists and Engineers, the American Indian Society for Engineering and Science, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, etc., and meet successful people like themselves and find more mentors.
I make a point of staying in touch with most of my students via e-mail and telephone. Students who have graduated 24 years ago still call me! I try to keep an active network of former students who are willing to talk to current students, give advise and answer questions as well as keep me informed of job openings and events.
I’ve been giving presentations across the country to science faculty on how they can make a difference in working with women and minorities. I’d like to do more of this and give workshops for science departments on how to mentor minority students as well as create organizations like “Sistahs.” I want to have an impact. In the future I hope I can work at a foundation, or an agency, such as NSF, helping people further their work. My dream is for departments across the country—e.g., departments that receive government funding—to require their entire faculty to take a course on mentoring. In short, systematic change for science departments!
Thank you Dr. Browne.
For further information on Sistahs in Science, please visit http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/sbrowne/sistahs/final/title.shtml.
For Finding Research Internships, please visit, http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/sbrowne/sistahs/final/index.shtml.
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