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LSUís Department of Chemistry Boasts Largest Number of African American Ph.D.ís in Country

It is, as Boyd Professor of Chemistry Isiah Warner says, remarkable that at a school once segregated, something like this is taking place. Give the average individual 10 guesses at the top producer of African American chemistry Ph.D.’s in this country and more than likely, LSU will not be among those institutions named. Nevertheless, the facts remain. At a university once segregated, something remarkable has taken place.

The why’s and how’s concerning the rise in numbers of African American chemistry doctoral students at LSU are varied. Some say faculty involvement, some say scholarship opportunities, and some say simple word of mouth from students who have completed the program.

Whatever the reason, the jump is both staggering and welcoming to faculty members. From 1965 to 1985, there were three African American Ph.D. students. Over the next 22 years there have been 93.

“When I arrived here in 1992, there were two African American chemistry Ph.D. (students),” Warner said. “LSU never had more than 3 (at one time) before that. Five of the 10 graduate students I brought with me when I came here were African American.”

That helped build what is commonly known in the LSU Department of Chemistry as a “critical mass.” African American students at LSU took their positive experiences with the chemistry department and told others. In turn, more African American students began to apply to the program.

This fall, it is estimated between 25 and 30 African Americans will be enrolled in the chemistry Ph.D. program at LSU – one of the largest numbers at any one time in the program’s history.

“A student enters (the Ph.D. program), sees the diversity, and feels more comfortable,” said Brian Hales, alumni professor in chemistry.

For those African American students who do not see the diversity at LSU, or hear the word of mouth, there is another factor that perhaps dissuades them from a career in the sciences – a lack of role models.

Zakiya Wilson, a graduate coordinator in the Department of Chemistry at LSU, was lucky enough to have several in her life.

“One challenge is that minorities don’t hear a lot about opportunities in the sciences,” Wilson said. “They hear a lot about opportunities in the medical field.

“At Jackson State University, (where I received my undergraduate degree), they pushed graduate school. I come from a family with several people who had Ph.D.’s. In many ways, that is one thing Dr. Warner has done (is serve as a role model.)

Isiah Warner

When one talks of the number of African American chemistry Ph.D. candidates at LSU, the common denominator in those conversations is the name Isiah Warner.

Isiah WarnerAfter working at Texas A&M University and Emory University, Warner arrived at LSU as the Philip W. West Professor of Environmental and Analytical Chemistry. While his arrival at LSU did coincide with the largest number of African American Ph.D. candidates to that point, he refuses to take credit for the “critical mass” the department enjoys today.

In addition to the promotion done by current and former students, Warner points to the chemistry faculty as a whole for the impressive numbers. Still, his colleagues are not as hesitant to offer him some of the credit.

“It’s like a seed. It’s not so much the fact that he is here. But if he is here and likes the environment and enjoys being part of the department, then likely you (as an African American student) will be comfortable here,” said Andrew Maverick, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry.

“Not many chemistry departments at flagship universities have senior black faculty members,” said Saundra McGuire, director of the Center for Academic Success and adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry.

“Not only is he a senior faculty member but he is also highly respected in the international analytical chemistry community, and that has attracted the eye of many of our colleagues. It gives us a national visibility in the (African American chemist) community.”

Cause and Effect

Not only have African American graduates of LSU’s chemistry doctorate program worked to recruit more students into the program, they have also helped to open doors for students in the work force.

Companies like DuPont, Dow Chemical, Huntsman, and Procter and Gamble are regular visitors to the LSU campus in search of future employees. Procter and Gamble, for instance, sends its employees who graduated from LSU back to the University to do its recruiting.

Warner, however, is quick to point out that it is not only the African American Ph.D. students who are being recruited.

“Steve (Watkins, professor in the Department of Chemistry) and I were a team,” Warner said. “When I was chair of the (chemistry) department, (these companies) wanted to come and interview some of our students. I said if you’re going to come and recruit at all, you’re not just going to recruit the African American students and we’re going to charge you a fee to get in the door.”

A joke on Warner’s part, surely.

“We prefer to call it a donation,” smiled Watkins.

Joshua Duplechain | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Summer 2007


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