Rocketship Education: A Real Alternative

One of the focuses of my blog is education, and one of my key principles is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. As such, when appropriate I will partner with other groups and organizations with similar interests. One such organization is the non-profit Rocketship Education. The following is a brief overview of Rocketship Education provided by the organization itself, their school system and their model. The picture in this post was provided courtesy of Rocketship Education.

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A good education is the best way to ensure that your child has a bright future ahead of them; unfortunately, however, many public school-aged children are relegated to attending underperforming schools, based on the district that they reside in. Thankfully, Rocketship Education provides an alternative; if you’re unfamiliar with Rocketship Education, it is a network of public charter schools available to elementary-aged students.

These non-profit charter schools are aimed at low-income families, who would otherwise have to settle for schools in their district that don’t meet the children’s needs. Founded in 2006, Rocketship Education has made it a mission to provide children with personalized learning, which includes parental engagement, community organizations, and unique lesson plans.

Since opening its first school in San Jose, California, Rocketship Education has earned tremendous praise for helping students score well on state assessments, and for making charter schools a viable alternative for low-income families. In an effort to build on its success in California, Rocketship Education has opened charter schools in the Midwest and as of 2016, opened a school in Washington, D.C. To learn more about Rocketship Education, visit Rocketship Public Schools.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Michigan loses to Ohio State 31-20: Reflections on the 2017 game and the season

I’m going to try to keep this short as I’m still processing the Michigan Wolverines’ 31-20 defeat at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Late into the night I could still see John O’ Korn’s fateful final interception in my mind. As opposed to going into a play by play discussion of what happened in the 2017 matchup, I’m just going to reflect on the game, and the season in addition to some of what I saw on Twitter from our following the game.

Regarding of the game, I was pleased with the maize and blue’s effort despite the outcome. Honestly my hope going into the game was that we would keep it close and respectable, and not get blown out. I know that’s not a high bar, but based upon how this season has gone, having a chance to win was what I wanted, and which is right where we were at the end. After the Wolverines went up 14-0, I was feeling good – even optimistic that we were witnessing a miracle though in the back of my mind, I knew that Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes would eventually throw some haymakers of their own which is exactly what happened when J.T. Barrett gashed our defense and ran into the endzone for their first score.

I also knew that there would be some miscues and mistakes here and there such as when Rashan Gary had J.T. Barrett wrapped up but somehow let him get away for a first down. There was also Quinn Nordin’s extra point that got blocked which I felt would come back and bite us eventually. Unlike the 2016 game, I thought the officiating was fair. Speaking of J.T. Barrett, when he went down, I thought for a brief instant that their offense would lose something, but that wasn’t the case as Dwayne Haskins entered the game and continued marching the Buckeyes up and down the field with his arm and legs. It looks like the Buckeyes have Barrett’s replacement for next season unfortunately.

After the game, as you might expect there was a little bit of everything on social media. Buckeye fans, and fans from other schools mocked the Michigan Football program,3 and called Head Coach Jim Harbaugh “overrated.” The Michigan fan base was split as it always is – some crying about how unacceptable this game and the season were, and others saying that it was a tough season but the results were unexpected. Some inevitably compared Coach Harbaugh’s record to Urban Meyer’s and Nick Saban’s – particularly that they had won championships in their third years. There was a little bit of everything.

Regarding the Michigan fan base, I proudly fall in the latter group. I started off this year with tempered expectations and anticipated some growing pains. Michigan fans must first consider that our football program lost a lot of seasoned and experienced veterans from last year’s team as described in my summary of the Maryland game. Those players had suffered their fair share of heartbreaking losses like yesterday’s and were eventually better for it. Also consider that our young team was riddled by injuries this year at key positions mainly on offense which is the one unit that struggled the most this year. Both Wilton Speight and Brandon Peters went down with injuries. Tarik Black who looked like he was going to be our deep threat, went down early changing the whole chemistry of our offense. In the middle of the season, our stable of running backs started to show signs of wear and tear as well.

In most sports but particularly in football, young players need time to grow, evolve and develop confidence and toughness, and I hypothesize that we’re going to see a much, much stronger unit next year – one that will hopefully win its rivalry games and shut everyone up. We should particularly have Grant Newsome back who blew out his knee early last season, and who will give us a much stronger and deeper offensive line which is a major key to Coach Harbaugh’s offense. What will probably have everyone’s attention going into the 2018 season though will be the quarterback position. It’s going to be to an intense competition the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tom Brady and Drew Henson.

Earlier this evening, ESPN reported that Wilton Speight is going to transfer to another school likely leaving a quarterback 9competition between Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey. Brandon Peters looked very poised and in control of our offense before getting knocked out against Wisconsin. Some fans such as one of my buddies want to give the job right to McCaffrey. Speight’s departure makes it much easier on Coach Harbaugh and his staff though the decision will be a critical. With both Peters and McCaffrey being young guys, Michigan will likely have continuity and stability at the quarterback position in the years to come barring injuries – something we haven’t had under the Coach Harbaugh’s tenure thus far. Either way, there’s no place to go but up for the Michigan Wolverines, and I think Jim Harbaugh is the guy to take our football program to the top, despite the clamoring by the critics.

GO BLUE!!!! Thank you for taking the time to reading this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

John U. Bacon presents his new book Endzone to Michigan’s D.C. Alumni Club: A look back
Michigan defeats Maryland 35-10: Two weeks until the 2017 Ohio State game
Michigan beats Florida 33-17: a recap of the maize and blue’s 2017 season opener
The 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game, the Big Ten officials, and the College Football Playoff
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

If you liked this post, please do click the like button, leave comments, and share it. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and you can also follow me at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Michigan defeats Maryland 35-10: Two weeks until the 2017 Ohio State game

On Nov. 11, Coach Jim Harbaugh’s No. 21 ranked Michigan Wolverines pushed their record to 8-2 overall, and 5-2 in the Big Ten East with a 35-10 victory over the Maryland Terrapins in College Park, MD. Michigan’s dominating performance started early holding Maryland scoreless until the third quarter when the Terrapins scored their first three points. With redshirt freshman Brandon Peters under center, the Wolverines used a balanced attack where the running game gave Peters time to sit back and find targets like tight end Zach Gentry who rumbled into the end zone in the second quarter to put the maize and blue up 21-0 (see ESPN’s box score for more stats). Other scores were by Chris Evans who actually leapt over a Maryland defender late in the game as Michigan wore down the clock, Henry Poggi and Sean McKeon.

“Go Blue!!!!!” we Michigan fans said to each other on Washington, DC’s metro system as we commuted to the game to sit and watch our storied football program in 30 degree temperatures. It was pretty much a home game for the maize and blue, as we all sung “The Victors” in the stands after Michigan’s scores. Many of the Maryland fans left the stadium at halftime with their team down 28-0.

It’s been an interesting football season for the 2017 Michigan Wolverines. Michigan’s victory over Maryland wasn’t a surprise to the fan base. Having fallen out of the Top 25 following our loss to Penn State two weeks ago, I didn’t realize that Wolverines had crept back into the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll at Nos. 21 and 22 respectively after blowouts of Rutgers and Minnesota. The question now is will the maize and blue still be ranked when the clock expires on November 25, in two weeks? The final two tests of the 2017 Michigan Football Wolverines may be their biggest of the season; a match up with the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium who are ranked No. 3 in the Coaches Poll, and then our old friends the No. 11 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at the Big House who just crushed Michigan State last night 48-3.

As described in my recap of the season opener against the Florida Gators, the results of this season haven’t been completely unexpected, at least by some of us in the fan base. Going in, I saw this season as a rebuilding year where there might be some growing pains. While quarterback Wilton Speight returned, he did struggle down the stretch of the 2016 season albeit while healing from a broken collarbone. Even with his experience, and bringing us close to beating Ohio State in that controversial 2016 loss, we graduated three very experienced receivers in Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and tight end Jake Butt, replacing them with a talented but young receiving corp. Tariq Black, probably our best deep threat was lost early this season to a foot injury, and the rest of the group has made its share of mistakes; dropped passes, fumbles, and an inability to get separation from defenders. While he wasn’t the most explosive running back, we also graduated De’veon Smith who was a very effective pass blocker – a key component of the pro-style offense Coach Harbaugh runs.

Pass protection has been a major area of struggle for the Wolverines since the beginning of the season which arguably led to Wilton Speights three cracked vertebra. It’s remained a problem as backup quarterback John O’ Korn also struggled and had been on the run the majority of the time after taking over for Speight. Against Rutgers, Coach Harbaugh inserted Brandon Peters in relief of O’ Korn who has looked good, although against weaker opponents. The positive is that the running game seems to be rolling now which may simplify the game for our young offense and will open the passing game for Peters, or Wilton Speight should he return. Recent reports are saying that he is on the mend and I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Harbaugh plays him against Ohio State in two weeks.

The one constant for the 2017 Wolverines has been the defense led by Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, and Devin Bush. Coach Harbaugh and Coach Don Brown have done an excellent job not only replacing last year’s veterans like Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers, but they’ve also kept this unit motivated and hungry even when the other side of the ball hasn’t delivered much help. Our kicking game has been pretty consistent as well.

Many Michigan fans have grown restless as this season has gone by. Coach Harbaugh has been criticized for running too complicated an offense for the crop of players he has. One high school buddy with very little patience has been particularly frustrated that the maize and blue isn’t in this year’s College Football Playoff discussion this season often comparing Coach Harbaugh to Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. My buddy actually isn’t alone though as part of the Michigan fan base has short patience and is sometimes unrealistic in its expectations causing us to squabble amongst ourselves.

If one is being realistic, the results from this season make sense. Once again the Wolverines graduated several experienced players at key positions from last year’s team which was in the playoff discussion throughout the year. In pretty much any arena, it takes time, experience (some mistakes) to figure out how to excel. As a mentor often tells me, “Success and failure live side by side, and you can’t have one without the other.” My guess is that the experiences from this season will make the 2018 team and those going forward very solid units, perhaps even championship-caliber football teams.

This year’s team has also been nipped by injuries. While Wilton Speight didn’t charge out of the gate early on like many of us hoped he would, but he was our most experienced quarterback who played in some very big games last year. The loss of Tariq Black also took away our best deep threat. Lastly if you look at Coach Harbaugh’s records at the University of San Diego and at Stanford, his successes were gradual until his teams became powers, both in his fourth years I believe. Since coming to Michigan he had a crop of players he didn’t recruit, and coached them up well all while bringing in his own recruits who are getting on the job training right now.

I’m going to approach our two remaining games with a controlled optimism as I did this season in general. Both Wisconsin and Ohio State have no doubt been watching game film on Michigan and know that the big question mark for our team is our passing game. Our defense will likely buy time as it has all season, but our opponents will likely “load the box” to stop our running game and then try to make Peters or Speight if he comes back, try to beat them. My prediction is that our passing attack, will dictate the outcomes of the next two weeks. I have to think that Coach Harbaugh has thought about this as well, and may have a few tricks up his own sleeve.

Speaking of Coach Harbaugh, similar to the 2015 Maryland game, I caught a glimpse of him and the team as they shuffled out the locker room under the night sky, and onto their busses dressed in their maize and blue sweat suits. That year it was 12 or 1 pm kickoff, and the graduate transfer Jack Ruddock was our starting quarterback beating out both Shane Morris and Wilton Speight for the job. That season Coach Harbaugh inherited a team consisting mostly of Brady Hoke’s recruits – many of which were very talented players who themselves had taken their share of lumps and growing pains.

I recognized offensive and defensive coordinators Tim Drevno, Don Brown, and defensive line coach Greg Mattison immediately. As a Michigan alumnus, I also recognized longtime radio analyst Jim Brandstatter. Some of the players went straight to their busses with their postgame meals in hand which looked like Chik-Fila. Others stopped, signed autographs and took pictures with the fans. I also recognized wider receiver Grant Perry. Coach Harbaugh who is a rock star in his own right created a buzz when he came walking through. I recognized Maurice Hurst as well whom I follow on Twitter. He took a picture with me and godson, a freshman football player at Bowie High School. He was nice enough to wait while I turned my phone back on, which was almost dead at that point.

GO BLUE!!!! Thank you for taking the time to reading this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Michigan beats Florida 33-17: a recap of the maize and blue’s 2017 season opener
The 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game, the Big Ten officials, and the College Football Playoff
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. If you liked this review, please do click the like button, leave comments, and share it. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subs3cription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and you can also follow me at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Are we losing our soft skills due to technology?

One of the principles of my blog is “Critical/Objective Thought” meaning that I usually try to see things from all angles as opposed to just one.  I might lose some readers here, but yes I do switch between CNN and Fox News when trying to understand what’s happening politically and in current events.  Recently Tucker Carlson interviewed Mike Rowe of the show “Dirty Jobs”.  I support Rowe and his messages about all jobs being necessary and important (even the dirty ones), and that our society has over glamorized college and the pursuit of white-collar jobs at the expense of trades, and blue-collar jobs.

Towards the end of their discussion, Carlson and Rowe talked about the growing use of Emojis which have become a very, very popular form of digital communication using symbols as opposed to complete or even truncated words (great vs gr8 for example).  Rowe said something very interesting which is that the use of these Emojis may be eroding the “Soft Skills” in our society – particularly for individuals seeking employment which involves talking with potential employers during face to face interviews, and where understanding the nuances and complexities of both verbal and nonverbal communication is highly advantageous.  He further said that he would encourage individuals looking for jobs these days (some for the first time) to develop their Soft Skills.

According to Investopedia, “Soft Skills” are character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people.  Just off the top of my head, Soft Skills involve being able to speak clearly, listen and also understand the nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication – making eye contact with other individuals, and being able to give more than one word answers for example.  It can also involve being able to read someone’s mood by the answers they give and don’t give, or simply their body language.  Again these are important on job interviews.

But a job interview is just getting your foot in the door.  What about staying at that position?  Once hired, soft skills can make all of the difference in the world in terms of excelling in that particular position and helping an organization thrive – particularly when achieving the mission involves working on teams.  In any organization there are personalities to work with and juggle which can affect the mission.  Some personalities work well together while others clash.  There are rare individuals who get along with everyone.  Personality clashes and petty bickering can cause production to grind to a screeching halt to the detriment of that organization.  Soft kills are critical in navigating interpersonal issues and conflict resolution.

Emotional Intelligence” can fall under soft skills.  According to Psychology Today, Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.  The other are explanations for it, but I tend to think of it in terms of forming alliances, and not burning bridges.  This involves awareness of self and of others – understanding what drives your colleagues, understanding current and past rivalries between colleagues, understanding who is on the fast track towards promotion, and also being more emotionally proactive and less reactive in adverse circumstances, particularly in groups – meetings for example.  A good example of Emotional Intelligence is being happy for a newly promoted colleague as opposed to being outwardly bitter – or at least not openly showing your disappointment and letting it affect your performance.

Where does one learn soft skills?  We actually learn our soft skills from a multitude of places.  Here I will defer to Dr. Ralph G. Perrino’s essay titled, “The Socialization Process and Its Impact on Children and Learning”.  In his essay Dr. Perrino, a veteran educator, describes the most profound external forces on the development of children and teens all of which have lingering effects well into adulthood:

  • The family from which one’s “Ascribed” status is derived;
  • Attendances at a public school or an exclusive, elite private school;
  • The composition of peer groups;
  • Exposure to mass culture and media;
  • Involvement in voluntary groups and;
  • Religious affiliation/spirituality.

Soft skills can further be learned and improved through reading and formal trainings.  One of my favorite trainings offered through my job is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Soft skills can also be learned through in depth discussions with mentors – particularly those in leadership positions with years and years of experience leading others.  Lastly, Soft skills can be learned just by observing others.

I’ll close by going back to Mike Rowe’s question.  Is technology negatively impacting our soft skills?  I would say that it can.  In some instances, communication over email and or text-messaging can be easily misunderstood which is particularly detrimental when there are conflicts to be worked out.  Digitally you can’t look into someone’s eyes, see their body language, or gauge the dynamics of a group in real time.  These are all things for “Millenials” and subsequent generations to be aware of.  With the new technologies that captains of industry such as Elon Musk are working on, and with the coming of Artificial Intelligence, this is something to be very cognizant of for students, educators, employees and employers alike.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly, follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Kaep steps away: discussions on Colin Kaepernick’s early retirement from the NFL

While the main areas of my blog are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, I will occasionally comment on Social and Political topics where I see it appropriate – especially when they relate to principles of my blog – in this case critical thought, and empowering others.  This particular topic has the potential to get people fired up due its polarizing nature but I’ve decided to reach my hand into the fire nonetheless.  In writing this I’m not seeking to give an opinion that everyone should follow – just to capture the main points and questions from the discussions that have ensued.  I have to give credit where it is due in that I decided to write something about this after listening to the YouTube channels of Minister Jap, and Oshay Duke Jackson who weighed in heavily on this – both receiving agreement and backlash from their listeners.

A very recent and interesting story is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s retirement. I won’t go far into who Colin Kaepernick is as his background is available online via a simple Google search.  The entire timeline surrounding his retirement is actually captured in an article written by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports titled, “Colin Kaepernick is making his choice: Activism over the NFL”.  It was graciously shared by a Facebook friend.

Put simply Colin Kaepernick was a very electric player in the NFL at the quarterback position who had about three great years with the San Francisco 49ers before his career bottomed out into mediocrity. With his combination of size, quickness, mobility and a strong arm, the tattooed signal caller looked like the future of his position.  With his good looks and a unique image/persona, he was also destined to clean up money-wise on endorsements, modeling and in the media off the field.

His ascension sputtered though when his brilliance on the field seemed to stagnate and regress which for me was surprising. His decline was mostly due to defenses adapting to his skill set which hadn’t yet evolved to make him more of pocket passer.  The departure of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh back to my alma mater also didn’t help, nor did the dismantling of the roster that surrounded him when the 49ers made their run to Super Bowl XLVII.  All in all, in the last year or so, even though he signed a $126 million-dollar contract, it wasn’t clear if he still had the skills to play in the league.

As all of the police shootings of black men were caught on tape within the last two to three years (Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott for example), Kaepernick’s focus seemed to shift from returning to the All-Pro quarterback he had been, to becoming more of a vocal “Social Justice Warrior” championing the causes of police-brutalized African Americans who seemed to be victimized more and more. During the 2016 season, he made the bold protest at the beginning of 49ers’ games at first sitting during our national anthem, and then later on opting to famously take a knee.  The reactions to his protests were mixed everywhere.  In the league, some players and teammates disagreed with the protest, while others supported him and joined in.  Kaepernick further did other things like vocally showing little confidence in our voting/electoral process which makes me wonder in hindsight if his example impacted the 2016 Presidential Election.  Many people actually do follow the examples and leadership of celebrities/pro-athletes, and a low voter turnout on the Democratic side was actually said to have helped Donald Trump win the presidency.  In another instance Kaepernick took it a step further by wearing socks to practice depicting the police as pigs – perhaps inspired the “Pigs in blanket: fry em like bacon,” chant by Black Lives Matter in Minnesota in 2015.

In my circle of friends, the question came up as to whether or not Kaepernick should’ve been focusing strictly on football and getting back to where he was a couple of seasons ago. It came up a lot actually.  The other question was whether or not he was being a distraction to his team and organization, and if he was permanently burning his bridges in the NFL – a traditionally conservative organization which didn’t like controversies and always sought to, “Protect the shield,” as talk show host Jim Rome always says.

In Black America, points of view varied as they normally do with all things political and socioeconomic. The Pro-Black Activists and the “Stay Woke” folks vocally and fervently supported Kaepernick.  Others questioned his motives and newfound interest in Civil Rights issues – particularly because he was bi-racial, raised in a white family and never openly took an interest in such issues before – black on black crime for example which some would argue is responsible for more black deaths.  As a result of his protest, many also rallied behind the uncovered origins of the Star-Spangled Banner and rejected our national anthem.  Something I interestingly missed but that a mentor pointed out, was that our traditionally liberal US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg even disapproved of Kaepernick’s protest which was surprising.

But what would be the outcome of Kaepernick’s protests? What good would come of them?  He may have been, “Following is heart,” as said by a cousin on Facebook, but were his actions the best thing for him and the people he was looking to help?  Some felt that Kaepernick had “won” because he had gotten people talking about him and his protests.  Whether or not they would affect real change remained to be seen.

Fast forward to this summer of 2017 – Kaepernick, now a free agent had one tryout with the Seattle Seahawks who ultimately didn’t sign him leading to his retirement announcement. I heard about his retirement on the above mentioned shows where the discussions got very heated.  Some of Minister Jap’s listeners for example called him all kinds of names like, “Klansman”, in addition to today’s en vogue black on black slur, “Coon”.  The comments in both shows were surprisingly split down the middle in rebuke of Kaepernick vs. rebuking the hosts.

Whatever happens to Colin Kaepernick, I hope that he lands on his feet somewhere and there is a happy ending to his story unlike what some others are predicting. A couple of points stand out to me from Kaepernick’s retirement and the discussions I’ve listened to surrounding it.  They are:

  • For all the younger people witnessing this, think about the long-term effect on your life and job prospects when seeking to make political/social statements. Ask yourself if it is really worth it in the end? Is it the appropriate time? In other words there are consequences to our actions.  My former stepfather once told me that a particular black activist back in Buffalo made quite a few blacks in the city “self-destruct” and self-sabotage their careers. In a way the title of the above mentioned Yahoo Sports article is deceptive in that it sounds as though Kaepernick is highly coveted and doesn’t want to play anymore, versus not being wanted by any of the NFL’s 32 franchises.
  • Change and power in the United States is economic and only minimally impacted by protests and marches. If Kaepernick will no longer command a million-dollar salary and endorsements in addition to his former platform, how will he now effect meaningful change for those he wants to help? One of the arguments on the above mentioned shows was that he could’ve used his salary to build businesses and employ other blacks to make real change – similar to Magic Johnson who has done quite well since his playing days.
  • Not all black people think alike on anything. Issues over politics and race divide and fragment the race a whole. The fallout and name calling whenever there are differences of opinion are always striking to me.
  • Lastly even in 2017, there is a genuine distrust of bi-racial blacks by other blacks – particularly those raised in predominantly white households, who then take pro-black stances when it appears to be convenient.

One of the talk show hosts stated that at some point reality will crash down hard on Colin Kaepernick – if and when his resources are depleted, he’ll be forgotten – similar to what happened to MC Hammer once all of his resources were spent. Likewise, the same people he is seeking to help will eventually turn their backs on him even after some of his gestures of generosity such as giving suits to felons.  Again, my hope is that he has thought all of this out, and will have a productive life after football.  For that stretch of two to three years, #7 was definitely great one in my opinion.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

JCSU DC Alumni Chapter President Robert Ridley discusses the 150 and Beyond Campaign

One of the focuses of the Big Words Blog Site is Education – all aspects.  Higher education is not just a means to a career and upward mobility, but it’s also a business with both benefits and costs to the student, parents, the institution, and society.  Likewise, one of the major concerns of parents and students, in addition to getting into a school, is actually financing the college tuition, room and board.  The amount of money awarded students was, in fact, one of the major discussion points recently at the Richard T. Montgomery High School and the Alfred Street Baptist Church HBCU College Fairs.  Students received both onsite admissions and financial awards from prospective Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Like many of my peers I have two alma maters – one a predominantly white institution (PWI), and a the other an HBCU institution.  When I think about the University of Michigan I tend not to think about financial challenges.  The opposite is true for my first alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and other HBCU’s.  I first heard about anemic alumni giving to HBCU’s in one of Spike Lee’s earliest films, School Daze.  These discussions continued throughout the years, and when writing for the Examiner I had an opportunity to interview Allstate’s Cheryl Harris, a Florida A & M University.  She talked about low alumni giving and the Allstate campaigns with the Tom Joyner Foundation for raising money for HBCUs.

Four years ago, I became active in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter which has been a very educational experience.  Alumni Chapters at smaller institutions are critical for steering new students to schools and helping to raise money so that they can remain open; again, something critical for HBCUs.  Since becoming the Treasurer for the local Alumni Chapter, I have had the privilege of working alongside my fellow Class of ‘99 alumnus and Chapter President, Robert “Big Philly” Ridley (Community Health Education).

Through his love for JCSU and the DC Alumni Chapter, Robert has worked tirelessly over the years to give back to our alma mater and future generations of Smithites.  Under his leadership, our chapter has recently embarked on the “150 and Beyond Campaign” to raise money for the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter’s scholarship endowment.  To help get the word out about the campaign and encourage participation, Robert recently agreed to talk about the DC Alumni Chapter and the 150 and Beyond Campaign.

Anwar Dunbar:  First, Philly, thank you for allowing me help get the word out about the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  I’ve learned a lot about higher education, what Alumni Chapters do, and some of the inner workings of JCSU by working alongside you, Brenda Jones-Hammond and Marion Massey (and others) in the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter.  We’re all volunteers and do what we do because we love Smith and as President, you’ve basically driven this whole movement.  In my opinion Smith is very fortunate to have someone like you advocating and being an ambassador on its behalf.

So first, let’s get some background information.  How did you come to be the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter?  What are your goals for the Alumni club?  What have been some of the challenges?

Robert Ridley:  I have been the President of the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter/Club for the past eight years.  When I became President, I was originally designated to be the Vice-President.  The designated President accepted a position overseas a month before the election.  Without any additional candidates, I was voted to become the youngest President in the history of the Chapter.

My primary goal as President is to increase membership and awareness about our Alumni Chapter.  During my tenure, I’ve increased membership from 24 members to more than 100 at its peak.  The biggest challenge in leading the Chapter is ensuring that our activities reach all alumni regardless of age.  Membership is trending down currently because it’s a constant struggle to provide activities to such a broad range of alumni age-wise.  We struggle as a chapter to create narratives to encourage younger alumni participation.

AD:  Yes, we’ve scratched our heads quite a bit in terms of the “Young Alumni” (the Millennials) and their participation, or the lack there of, and we haven’t figured it out yet (laughing).

You’ve actually talked to the younger alumni in the DC area about the kind of things they’re looking for and their lives post JCSU.  You’ve also done some research on Millennials and their needs and tendencies, and the bulk of our chapter participants/members are interestingly over 30 years of age.  Do you want to say anything about this?

RR:  As it relates directly to the younger alumni, I encourage them to participate, share their voices and don’t become frustrated with the more seasoned alumni.  I have found in my time as President, that the seasoned older alumni are open to any ideas you have as long as you can support them and they’re well thought out.  The JCSU DC Alumni Chapter offers a perfect opportunity for you to be engaged with others from your alma mater, along with providing you an opportunity to shape the HBCU landscape for future generations.  I don’t want to be the President for life and I am looking for young leaders to step forward and make the position their own. I encourage them to share their ideas and ways of communicating, and I ensure you it will be rewarding.

AD:  That’s interesting Philly.  And yes, to any younger alumni reading this, questioning your ideas and trying to better understand them isn’t necessarily rejecting them.  Sometimes it further helps in their development.  It’s also true that, depending the generation, individuals can communicate and interact very, very differently.

What is the 150 and Beyond Campaign?  Where did the idea come from?

RR:  The 150 and Beyond Campaign was created to bring awareness to JCSU’s 150th Anniversary.  We’re looking for 150 alumni to give at least $150 to JCSU by June 30, 2017.  The idea came from myself and others within our chapter when we made a strategic commitment to have everything we do in 2017 speak to the University’s 150th anniversary.

AD:  For the lay person, what exactly is an endowment and why are they important?  I remember frequently hearing talk about endowments when I was student at JCSU, and the DC Alumni Chapter recently started one.  As students enrolled at universities and alumni, it’s often not clear what goes into the health and maintenance of an institution.  Why should alumni give to the endowments at their alma maters?

RR:  Approximately five years ago, the University reached out to the Alumni Chapter to switch our annual scholarship to an endowment.  The endowment for the Chapter was created to ensure that funds are there to support students from the DC, MD, and VA (the DMV) attending JCSU.  Students currently enrolled at JCSU who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors with a GPA of 2.7 or higher are eligible for scholarship awards from the Chapter’s Endowment.  The award is given to students with the most need and who meet the above criteria.

Endowments are important because they allow universities to provide funding assistance for students.  They increase the financial health of the institution and it shows perspective funding corporations that your school can raise funds.

AD:  Who can donate to the 150 and Beyond Campaign and where can they donate?

RR:  We are asking for 150 of the 900 plus alumni in the Washington, DC area to give towards the 150 and Beyond Campaign.  Friends of the University are also welcome and encouraged to participate.  To date we have about 30 donations to the campaign which include longtime friends of the chapter like Ms. Glenda West and Mrs. Wade.

AD:  Okay, Philly, thank you for allowing me to help get the word out about this.  Smith (JCSU) did a lot for us, and it’s very important to make sure that the Smithites who are coming after us get the same chances to succeed and advance.  Are there anymore announcements or upcoming events regarding our Chapter?

RR:  Yes, we’re hosting our annual Bulls Brunch on June 1, 2017, which is also a fundraiser.  The details will be on our website.

AD:  Okay, thank you.

To make a donation to the 150 and Beyond Campaign, go to the JCSU DC Alumni Chapter website at: www.jcsualumnidc.org.  The Chapter can also be followed on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram at @JCSUAlumniDC.  Thank you for taking the time to read this interview.  Please share it and or leave comments.

A Black History month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part two

This is the continuation of my Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), originally published on the Examiner in February of 2016.  Not only is he a scientific peer, but he is also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University, he regularly takes his team out to the schools in the DC Public Schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible, and working to fulfill the needs of students in the community.  In part one of the interview, we talked about his scientific path and his research.  In part two, we discussed his efforts to expose the students in the DC Public Schools to science.  Our discussion actually delves into some of the complexities and challenges of teaching science in the DC schools – only someone involved on the grassroots level would know and understand.

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Anwar Dunbar:  At the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference there were numerous Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) panels discussing what needs to be done to get African American kids involved in STEM.  You actually go out and do it on the grassroots level though.  You and Miles Holloman, you guys get the chemistry experiments and scientists together, and you go to the various schools in Washington, DC, which is very, very impressive and it’s very necessary.  How did you all get started doing the Community Science festivals?  Also, what was your motivation for doing so?

Vernon Morris:  We started in 2009 and part of our motivation is that we were seeing fewer and fewer students from Washington, DC who were coming to chemistry, or even coming to Howard and majoring in STEM at all.  Secondly, Miles is from DC. He grew up here and went to Dunbar High School and was thus familiar with the school systems close to campus.  I had become more and more familiar with the school systems and some of the deficiencies that needed addressing: retention in science, challenges to science education, and so it was really a response to the fact that our kids weren’t getting science.  They weren’t getting access to science mentors.  They weren’t getting access to why science is fun and it’s an exploratory kind of thing.  Even when I was young, while I didn’t get encouragement from the school, I was always encouraged to get out and explore nature.  I had telescopes.  I had microscopes.  I had computing machines and equipment that my father would buy.  There was no resource for science that I didn’t have access to in the house.  It’s just that when I went to school, I had teachers shuttle me to things like woodshop.

But here in DC, Howard is sitting right in the middle of the community and there wasn’t an effort that I could readily latch onto that was readily going into the community or to the schools and saying, “Here is a network of Ph.D.s and professionals in STEM, and now here is your resource for your teaching or for your classes.”  I couldn’t find anything, so I said let’s just start going out a little bit.  We can put together some experiments, and it will help both the undergraduate and the graduate students communicate science, and build some of that giving back mindset towards the community.  It has been sustained, which is great, and I think the students have picked up on it and really enjoy it.

AD:  So the kids at the schools you’re going to, they really enjoy it?

VM:  Yes, the kids really enjoy it in addition to the Howard undergraduate and graduate students.  I think we’re getting better at it as well.  At the most recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS science) Day, the coordinator actually came over to our booth, thanked us and told us that we were one of the favorite tables there.  I think we find things that are engaging and bring the science to the kids’ level.  And the community is important.  Its good to have those more polished events and venues to go to, but I think it’s equally, if not more important, to get out into the community because it not only brings experience and exposure to the kids, but we can also talk to the parents about how to support them, and I think that’s what is missed.

All of these diversity programs are great, but the parents and the schools are deficient, we know that.  One of the things I notice about our Caucasian and Asian counterparts is that their parents are heavily invested.  Even for me, without my parents encouragement, it was not going to happen.  And so one of the things we try to stress when we go out is that the parents come.  So before they drop off the kids, or when they’re standing around watching, we always have a student or someone talking to them saying, “Your child really likes this.  Do you know about this or that resource?  We’ve got these camps that they can come and apply to, some of which are free.”  We try to get information to their parents to support their kids, so that’s what the difference is going to be.  We’ve had STEM programs for the last 30 to 40 years, but the percentage of African Americans going into STEM hasn’t changed, and it’s because we haven’t engaged the parents.

AD:  So regarding the low participation in STEM in the DC schools, would that just be in Southeast DC?  And would you say that’s due to budgeting?  Is it an economic or a cultural issue when the parents aren’t really pushing their kids to be involved in or fostering that love for science?

VM:  I don’t think it’s cultural.  I think it’s socioeconomic.  I think you’d find a similar thing across all cultures if the economic stresses are great enough.  If the economic stresses are lower, parents have more time to go to the family science fairs or AAAS for two days.  There may be some cultural aspects, and I wouldn’t say that its limited to southeast, but we know which Wards have the majority African American populations, and we target those Wards preferentially.  The schools we know in those Wards tend to have the least parental engagement and that tends to be the case wherever schools are disadvantaged or challenged.  You find that the parents aren’t necessarily involved and making sure the standards are met.  I think cultural is too strong a way to say it.  I can’t accept that as an African American culture, we don’t expect the highest in educational standards.

AD:  Are the schools you go to receiving adequate resources from the school system?

VM:  I think it’s changed over the last couple of years.  Some of the schools have significant investments, while at other schools, there’s not enough.  There’s a big differential in who gets what in DC.  If you look at the overall budget in DC, people argue that it gets more money per student than a lot of other school districts that are performing better.  I think some of that is the culture of the school system and the dichotomy between the governance of the school systems in Washington, DC.  That’s always been vulcanized and it’s tough to enforce standards when the body who generates the standards has no authority over what goes into the schools.

There is a separate body that governs what goes into the schools.  The politics of the DC schools, Michelle Rhee and all of these education gurus, its seen as a big experiment to a lot of people and the investment in the child has not been there, from what I’ve seen until recently, and I think they’re trying to do some good things now.  The turf wars also create a lot of turnover of good people.  It’s tough because the charter school system has degraded the amount of money that goes into the public schools and most of the schools. Now the private schools actually have access to government funding for education in DC.  So you have rich kids who get additional resources, the best teachers and the smallest classroom sizes, at the expense of schools who really need novel solutions to improve education in general, but STEM education in particular.

Dunbar High School did not have a lab.  There was no teaching lab in Dunbar High School until they built the new school a couple of years ago.  You’ve got one of the more famous high schools in Washington DC, and they couldn’t possibly teach a lab in that school.  They couldn’t teach any biology or chemistry.

AD:  So when you say a turf war, are you referring to competing for dollars between public and private schools?

VM:  Typically, you’ll have a public school office and the state, but since DC is a district and not a state, you have two different offices; DC city public office and then you have another office to govern the schools, but it doesn’t make any sense.  You have two offices that are in charge of the public school system.  So the way that it was drawn up I think is that when the schools were failing, the federal government created another office that would then take over.  The authority of that office, however, never quite usurped the powers that the city already had in existence.  The money goes to this other office, so they get to implement programs, but they don’t have the authority to tell the teachers what they need to do.  That comes from the office that doesn’t have the money.

So you have this schism in managing the school system.  And because you have that infighting there, you have the charter schools that have edged their way in, insisting they’re a part of the school system and should get some of the money, and you have the private schools that have been able to make a similar argument, because charter schools are essentially private schools as well.  You have some very elite private schools in Washington DC (the International School for example), but I don’t know that they need the resources from the DC government.  At the same time, you’re shutting down historical schools in the District because there are so few kids left going to them.  The students get shuttled off to another school that gets over crowded as far as teaching goes.  It’s very nuanced here in DC.  It’s different than a state school system where you have counties and districts and where you have a well-defined hierarchy of management.  Here it’s split.  It’s bifurcated.

AD:  What advice would you give to young African American students who are interested in science, or those who have a curiosity about it, but are not sure that they can do it?

VM:  I would say this about a science career in general, it’s a very rewarding career.  I really enjoy what I do and I love coming to work every day.  It’s part exploration, mentoring and teaching, and writing and being creative.  It’s being quantitative and using both sides of your brain.  And you can give back to the community and the nation in a very unique way.  And I think there are so many opportunities in science.  People think, “I don’t want to do chemistry and I don’t want to sit in a lab and mix chemicals”, but there’s a whole world of stuff outside of the lab that you can do.  It’s the same thing for physics or mathematics, or biology.  It’s an area that if you study it, the world is open to you.

If you study science for example, you can become a writer, but if you study writing only, you won’t necessarily be able to become a scientist.  I think you have much greater opportunities if you study science and follow that pathway.  And I think the fulfillment is a wonderful thing for me.  I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  My advice would thus be: do not fear it, really engage it, and see where it can lead you.

AD:  Well Vernon, thanks a lot.  There were a lot of valuable nuggets that you shared and a lot of people will benefit from this.  Keep up the good work and I will definitely see you soon at one of your community science festivals.

VM:  Okay, that would great.  We’d love to have you come out and help out Anwar.

A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  As described earlier part one of this black history month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris was published in a separate post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

 

 

A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one

I originally conducted this interview with Dr. Vernon Morris in February of 2016 and published it in both the Examiner and the Edvocate.  Not only is he a scientific peer, be he’s also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), he regularly takes his group out to the schools in the DC schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible and helping to fulfill the needs of students in the community.

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While Black History should be celebrated throughout the year and not just in February, the month provides the opportunity to not only recognize African Americans who have made significant contributions in the past, but also those who are presently making history.  As there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated during Black History Month in Science (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)), there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing.  One such scientist is Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University.  On Feb. 16, in honor of Black History Month, Dr. Morris granted an interview to discuss his background, the path to his current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM.

Anwar Dunbar:  First Vernon, thank you for this opportunity to interview you.  My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month.  There are African American scientists that we usually recognize such as George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Mae Jemison and Percy Julian for example, but I realized that there are many African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge, and in your case making a difference in the community.  You’re doing great things in and out of the lab so I thought it would great to get your story out.  So with that, let’s get started.

Talk a little bit about your background.  Where are you from?

Vernon Morris:  I’m an Air Force brat so I don’t have a traditional home to claim, because I’ve lived in 14 different places growing up.  I finished high school in eastern Washington State; Spokane.  I’ve been living in Washington, DC longer than any other place, so this is my home now.

AD:  Now growing up, were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age?  What got you interested in science?

VM:  No, I actually was not exposed at all.  I never had the chance to do science fairs or any of that stuff.  I think my first exposure to anyone who was in science was actually one of my mother’s friends, Carolyn Clay, who was an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  I used to talk to her a little bit and she actually got me into an engineering camp late in my high school years.  After that time though, I wasn’t even thinking about going to college to be perfectly honest with you.  Both parents were in the Air Force.  For much of my later youth my mother was a teacher and then a principal.  Truthfully, the only post high school institution I was thinking about was the Air Force Academy because they had a good boxing program.  I loved boxing and I thought I was pretty good.  My decisions throughout most of high school revolved around how to pursue boxing.

As I said, my mother’s friend got her doctorate in chemical engineering from RPI.  She had to be one of the few at that time, and I think she was working at Hanford Research Labs in Richland, Washington, which was a nuclear facility.  She worked there so I would see her from time to time when she would come visit my mother.

I always did well in science, but there wasn’t much encouragement to actually do science.  I liked math a lot.  I liked any kind of science; physics, chemistry, biology, all of those, but I got more discouragement in school than encouragement.  So she was one of the first people to say, “You know, you’re good at this stuff, so think about doing it.”  So the opportunity arose to go to Seattle (University of Washington), a more populated part of the state, where the camp was held and to see that engineering was cool.  I actually linked up with one of my father’s friends (a Mason) who was a steam engineer at the camp.  I apprenticed with him the rest of the summer on different projects.  It was interesting to see how things are being built, and how to apply the science, but it didn’t really change my course.

I ended up going to visit some friends and relatives in Atlanta.  There I saw the Atlanta University (AU) complex a little bit later and frankly speaking, that had a greater influence on me.  I received scholarships to go to other places, and visited them, but they didn’t have the same appeal as the AU Center.  Seeing my father complete his Bachelor’s Degree toward the end of high school, really made an impression on me as well.

AD:  So you went to the famous AU Center.  Did you go to Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, or Morris Brown?  Which one?

VM:  I went to Morehouse and I had not made up my mind on a major.  I was literally running around trying to find a job and ran into Henry McBay, who is a very distinguished scholar and mentor for a lot of folks who got their chemistry degrees at Morehouse; and he basically offered to buy my books and a calculator, and take care of my school supplies if I would major in chemistry.

AD:  Really?

VM:  Yes, and I didn’t have enough money to say no (laughing).  I said, “Sure, it’s no problem.”  He told me that I would have to major in math if I majored in chemistry so that I’d understand the upper level courses.  And that’s actually how I selected my major in math and chemistry.  It was through Henry McBay.  I was literally running to get to another part of the campus and it was oriented in such a way that the Chemistry Building was my cut through.  He happened to be in the hallway and I almost ran into him.  He literally told me to slow down and then asked me about where I was going, what I was trying to do, asked what my major was, and through that conversation I wound up choosing my major.

AD:  Had the two of you met before?  You must have made quite an impression on him for him to make that offer.

VM:  No, I had never met him before.  It was my first or second week at Morehouse, and he was curious about whether or not I liked Chemistry.  He also introduced me to another professor who actually became my mentor later and who gave me a research job, Mr. John Hall.

AD:  So you earned your Bachelor’s Degree from Morehouse.  Where did you go after Morehouse?

VM:  From Morehouse I went to Georgia-Tech.  My doctoral studies were in Atmospheric Sciences, with applications in physical chemistry, so I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and all of the core courses in atmospheric sciences.  My thesis was a combination of theoretical and experimental investigations of inorganic chlorine oxides, and the chemistry of the stratosphere.  It involved the application of matrix isolation, infrared spectroscopy, some ultraviolet spectroscopy to look at short-lived intermediates, free radicals that form from low pressure and low temperature reactions.  I performed quantum chemical calculations to help interpret the experimental results.

AD:  And just briefly, what did you find?

VM:  We found that some low temperatures stabilize some novel free radical structures that are completely unstable in the gas phase, and influence some of the heterogeneous reactions, and some of the actual gas phase chemistry that showed depletion.  It was actually related to the stratospheric depletion of the ozone.  At that time the stratospheric ozone hole wasn’t a well-understood phenomenon and they were trying to figure out whether it was dynamic or if it was chemical, and it turned out to be a combination of both.  We looked at the chlorine oxides in particular, extensively, and then some of the nitrogen oxides and how they contributed to the ozone depletion.

AD:  Now one last question about your thesis; what got you interested in atmospheric sciences?

VM:  It was John Hall.  I was again in a quandary about what I wanted to do, but it was either go into chemical physics, which is what he had done, or go into a more applied field.  At that point the ozone hole and stratospheric depletion of ozone in general was a really big deal and there were a lot of open questions.  It just seemed like a really exciting way to take the math, the chemistry and the physics and go after these larger scale environmental problems that were presenting themselves.  A single discipline wasn’t enough to address them.  You had to come in with a very multidisciplinary background.  I liked physics.  I tried to triple major in physics, but I it would have taken too long to finish so I just minored in it, and majored in the other two.  I liked applying chemistry and physics, and I liked understanding the environment.

John Hall actually had a joint appointment between Georgia-Tech and Morehouse, and while he was encouraging me to go to UC-Berkley or to Harvard, or some of his alma maters, the opportunity to go to a different school and still work with him was appealing, and actually my first daughter was born before I graduated, so weighing the prospect of leaving and not being near her sort of factored into my decision.

Anwar Dunbar:  So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there.  Just briefly, talk about your research.

Vernon Morris:  We’re working on a lot of stuff, but the work revolves around trying to get a better quantitative understanding of how atmospheric particulates influence the chemistry of the atmosphere and climate across multiple scales.  These are multiple spatio-temporal scales.  There are time scales because the lifetime of aerosols tends to be days to months, but their influence in the atmosphere tends to range from that time scale to much longer time scales as clouds change their optical properties; that influences radiative balance and seasonal fluctuations.  If you look at particle evolution, once an aerosol is formed and injected into the atmosphere from the ground layer, how does it influence and have these multiplying effects across larger spatial fields as it moves around the atmosphere, and through larger temporal scales as it effects something that has a multiple “follow on” effect?

The ship experimental cruises allow us to look at the transport of aerosols that are transmitted from Africa either from the Sahara Desert or as a result of burning biomass from “Slash and Burn” agriculture.  Particles get into the atmosphere and influence tropical cyclone development, and they influence acidification of the upper ocean. They also influence microbiological transfer, the transfer of microbes across hemispheres.  They influence cloud properties and precipitation properties downstream and food security.  So they have all of these implications that are much longer and much larger than a particular fire, or a particular dust storm.  You have to connect that with field observations, laboratory studies and with space-based observations as well.

AD:  My first time meeting you was here in DC at the 2012 National Organization of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference where you won the Percy Julian Award for excellence in teaching.  Was that for your teaching activities at Howard, or was it for the community outreach that you do at various local schools?

VM:  I think it was for the combination of teaching and mentoring.  In fact, I think it was the Henry McBay award actually, though there was a separate award for Percy Julian.  That was very special for me because I was a McBay mentee.  I think it was a combination of teaching and producing students at the university, the outreach internationally, and then the outreach locally, the way we try to get science to the community; the underserved communities in particular.

AD:  I’m a pharmacologist, so my knowledge of all of the notable African American chemists is admittedly limited.

VM:  Percy Julian actually designed the chemistry building here on the Howard campus.  He designed this building, designed the labs, and then laid out everything and then, because of a personal dispute with the provost and the president at the time, actually left before the building was commissioned.

AD:  You know, Vernon, as you were talking just now, I was just reflecting on how important it is to know these things.  A couple of years ago a mentor who himself isn’t a scientist, but who saw that I was trying to develop my own writing and mentoring voice, gave me a copy of Forgotten Genius, the documentary about Percy Julian.  When I was I watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Julian’s story would have been so valuable to know when I was going through my own doctoral studies.  I didn’t deal with the racism that he endured, but just the scientific process; so many experiments have to be done before you finally get to the ones that actually work and generate quality data.  That documentary conveyed the essence of science, and it took me a while to figure that all out while I was working on my own thesis.  It would have been so valuable to know beforehand.

VM:  We actually screened that film here.  We used to show it on a regular basis to our chemistry majors because it’s very eye opening and shows the commitment that you have to have, in addition to some of the resilience you have to have for things to work out.  That guy was brilliant.

AD:  Yes, and there is a whole culture to what we do as scientists, and the story conveyed that as well.

This interview will continue in part two of A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris.  A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and Howard’s NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian

I originally published this piece on Percy Julian in February of 2015 when still writing for the Examiner.  He is someone I would also consider a “Hidden Figure” at least in my life.  Attaining a Ph.D. in the sciences myself, I didn’t learn about Julian until well into my science career.  When I watched the documentary Forgotten Genius, I was amazed not only about what Julian had to overcome, but also everything he accomplished scientifically, and how the very same scientific process I experienced as graduate student was similar to his.  Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), later shared with me that watching Forgotten Genius is in fact required for Howard’s Chemistry students, and rightfully so.

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My last black history month reflection for 2015 will focus on the legendary Chemist Percy Julian.  Though honored with his own postal stamp in 1993, the name Percy Julian didn’t register in my mind until the annual conference for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 2012.  Someone won an award named after him that night, but not being a Chemist myself, I didn’t have a feel for why he was held in such honor in that particular circle.  It turned out that there was an entire pantheon of well-accomplished African American Chemists.

Later on, a mentor gave me a copy of Percy Julian; Forgotten Genius.  The DVD chronicled Julian’s life from his youth in the Jim Crow south, to his collegiate studies at Depauw University, to his doctoral studies abroad in Austria, and then through to his vast research career in the chemical industry which almost didn’t happen due to racism.  What stood out to me from Percy Julian’s story was his perseverance in spite of the racism he encountered, as well as the fact that his original scientific interest was in plants which he later returned to after receiving his chemistry training.

Why is Percy Julian important and what did he do in the field of chemistry?  A better question would be what didn’t he do in chemistry?  Among his many accomplishments were:

  • Becoming one of the first African Americans to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry by isolating the active ingredient in Corydalis Cava and identifying its structure. In the pre-civil rights era, Dr. Julian wasn’t admitted to any graduate programs in the United States, so he had to travel Austria, where he studied natural products chemistry under Dr. Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.
  • After being denied professorships at universities in the United States, he was hired as the director of Chemistry for Glidden’s Chicago Chemistry labs. For African Americans, this breakthrough occurred ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball.  At Glidden, Julian isolated the alpha protein from soybeans, the first plant protein to be produced in bulk in the United States.  The alpha protein led to the generation of oils that were used in both food and industrial products of all kinds.
  • Discovering how to isolate large scale quantities of stigmasterol from the calabar and soy beans and then developing an industrial process for using it to generate progesterone in large quantities. This led to numerous hormone therapies and therapeutics by allowing pharmaceutical companies to industrially synthesize other sex hormones in large quantities making them more affordable (testosterone, estrogen, etc.).
  • Creating processes to mass produce Compound S (which could be converted to Cortisone), which at that time was a novel but expensive medication for arthritis and inflammation. Julian’s discoveries made the drug affordable for the general public and greatly improved the qualities of life of many people.
  • Starting his own company (Julian Labs), which mass produced hormone intermediates for the major pharmaceutical companies but potentially more importantly, gave jobs to African American chemists who couldn’t get work anywhere else due to racism. He also made himself a millionaire in the process.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and victories in the realm of chemistry, Percy Julian became highly involved in the Civil Rights movement and with the NAACP.  In the latter stages of his life, he was celebrated with more than 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.  He became only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Julian’s story is important for several reasons.  First it shows what can be accomplished with great perseverance.  Second it is a testament to how much talent was and is wasted in urban communities based due racism, but needs to be salvaged.  Julian’s story is very important for African Americans pursuing advanced degrees particularly in the sciences.  When watching Forgotten Genius, much of what Julian went through during graduate school reminded me of my own experience.  Seeing his story years ago would have helped me better understand the significance of my own graduate studies.  Today his story can help inspire younger generations of potential African American scientists, and innovators in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is becoming increasingly important.

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A review of Hidden Figures

I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres.  This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly.  The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner.  Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.

Amahl:  In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it.  The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations.  Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it.  She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library.  When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred.  She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA.  So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points.  These are two very important ingredients for success.

Hidden Figures is as culturally and historically relevant as all the seasons of the Cosby Show.  I can’t wait for it to come out on Blue-Ray.

Anwar:  As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it.  Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers).  At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts.  This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children.  For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.

Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson).  Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media.  While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions.  Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel.  Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.

Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path.  If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career.  A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors.  It’s not that way for every child/student.

Thank you for taking the time to read our review.  Our Twitter handles are @amahldunbar and @BWArePowerful.  If you liked this review, please do click the like button, leave comments, and share it.  Thank you and we’re signing off.