Making Their Own Mark: Brothers Building Diversity in Science

Frederick Moore and Michael Penn never seriously considered a career in science when they were young. But later, not only were they part of the elite group of graduate students at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), they were among few minorities in their programs. Upon realizing the lack of diversity in science, Moore and Penn established the nonprofit organization Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences (BBDS) in 2001, to inspire underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences.

Forging the Spirit

Moore and Penn met when Moore interviewed for his program at UCSF. Afterward, they regularly attended the annual gathering of the National Black Graduate Students Association and became good friends. They often shared their troubles and aspirations, especially the plight of African Americans in science. Penn says, “In the life sciences, African Americans make up about 3% of the Ph.D.s and less than 3% in chemistry.” This small number compelled them to start BBDS.

Penn and Moore believe that the uniqueness of various ethnic cultures means that increasing diversity in science could generate even more important scientific questions and answers. “We should … see what richness that adds,” Penn says. For instance, Moore points out that if science had been more diverse at the time, perhaps it would not have taken 40 to 50 years to learn more about sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder common in African Americans, since its discovery more than 80 years ago.

In their own experiences Penn and Moore also wondered how things could have been different if they had had more black mentors to turn to. In Moore’s case, additional guidance would have helped early in his life. He hardly applied himself and often got poor grades starting in elementary school and continuing through junior college–until a car accident left him with a broken leg and time to ponder his future. Moore realized “the people that I was hanging out with, and what I had done so far, wasn’t getting me anywhere.” Hoping college would bring new opportunities, Moore “reprogrammed” himself and learned how to study. A newfound passion for science eventually brought him to UC Berkeley and UCSF.

But Moore’s uphill trek in the academic world was hard. Seeing very few minorities in his science classes, which contained hundreds of students, was “eye opening.” But Moore didn’t keep himself isolated. Instead, he accepted mentoring from anyone who was willing to help.

Although Penn was more primed to be a scholar than Moore, he also did not realize his potential as an African American right away. Penn lived a more privileged life, attending private and magnet schools, but he had few peers who were black. “In these settings, I didn’t have a sense or visual example of African-American students doing well,” he says. Only when Penn attended Morehouse College, an all-black institution in Atlanta, Georgia, did he understand “how diverse we are as people … [and] just how capable we are.”

However, when Penn recognized his talents for science and math, he “reluctantly” explored scientific research. He participated in a minority research program funded by the National Science Foundation thanks to the encouragement of his teachers at Morehouse College, but Penn was put off by the stereotypes attached to scientists. In time, however, he found not only that he liked research, but that scientists were not always “strange and eccentric.”

Because Penn and Moore both found themselves combating naysayers, they each contributed articles in the book entitled Brothers of the Academy: Up and Coming Black Scholars Earning Our Way in Higher Education (edited by Lee Jones, Stylus Publishing, LLC, Virginia). Penn noted the downside of being a black student studying science. He says, “Many scientists automatically question our abilities and resent our presence in the scientific arena. Getting acknowledgment and respect from these people often requires that we are better than their best students are.”

Lending a Hand

As Moore and Penn matured and survived the rigors of college life, they wanted to pass on the lessons they learned to their younger counterparts. “There is a completely different culture in science–one that I had to learn how to integrate, while keeping my identity and personality,” says Moore. “I want to teach students this culture before they get to graduate school, in order to make an already hard transition easier.”

Today, the two have a long history of helping young minorities. Penn assisted in a summer research program for six summers while he studied at UCSF. Moore has been a Big Brother for nearly 9 years to a boy named Christopher, who is now a high school senior eager to explore science. Moore also tutored participants in UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Scholars and Biology Scholars Program.

Penn and Moore have also talked to school, community, and church groups in different parts of the country. Their discussions have addressed various topics such as why diversity in science is important, what it’s like to be a scientist, and how to ensure academic success.

Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences

In 2001, after Brothers of the Academy was published, it served as a foundation for the creation of a national organization for African-American men in higher education, Brothers of the Academy Institute. Afterward, Moore and Penn got the courage to start their own organization, BBDS.

Moore and Penn set up BBDS to be “unique.” Unlike typical minority research programs that prepare students for graduate school, they realized that BBDS should take a broader course. “Science is an incredibly powerful training, and it empowers you to do a variety of things. … We really want to expose students to options of what’s possible,” says Penn. Thus, they decided to stick with what they do best: mentoring students. This includes helping students navigate the academic environment of universities and helping them understand that they can take “nontraditional” career paths as well–aside from the traditional jobs as scientists and college professors.

The inspiration for BBDS, in part, comes from the decision by Moore, Penn, and the rest of the BBDS board not to seek out “traditional” jobs so that they can pursue other interests. After teaching at Hayward State University in California, Moore is now using his science expertise to evaluate potential oncology and immunology drug candidates for a start-up pharmaceutical company in the Bay Area. Penn, meanwhile, currently serves as a health commissioner for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and works as a product manager in marketing for Genentech Inc.

Early this year, BBDS had its first Scholars Mentoring Program. From January to June, four minority undergraduates from two Bay Area universities underwent intensive workshops that provided them with survival skills for graduate school, challenged them to think like scientists, and introduced them to various people who pursued different careers in science. The students also had an assigned mentor who closely matched their interests. The mentors met with them several times each month to discuss any issues or concerns the students might have about their career paths.

Indeed, BBDS Scholars give the program a great deal of credit for their achievements. Joe Callahan, a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, needed more convincing prior to attending the program that science can bring many opportunities. “BBDS really inspired hope and helped me develop the skills I will need to make the greatest contribution I can,” he says. And with the help of her BBDS mentor, UC Berkeley’s Yanira Andon received a Nathan and Violet David Fellowship this year.

In the future, Moore and Penn hope to extend the scholars mentoring program to one or two more students. They want to recruit community college students, who are less likely to be exposed to opportunities–from prominent research projects to graduate programs–that universities offer.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at .

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