LAMP Lights the Way for Minority Scientists

November 18, 1999

Mark Miester

Shantel Jackson, a senior-to-be at Xavier University in New Orleans, is spending the summer at Tulane using symbolic computer programs to develop solutions to higher-order differential equations. Brandi Bean, a Dillard undergraduate, and Chika Okafor, a student at Southern University in New Orleans, are also on campus this summer, studying how stream flow affects the morphology of fish.

Jackson, Bean and Okafor are among 22 minority students from Louisiana colleges and universities doing research with Tulane faculty this summer as part of the Louisiana Alliance for Minority Participation (LAMP) program. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Louisiana Board of Regents, LAMP is a statewide alliance of 12 institutions founded to improve minority representation in the sciences.

The goal of the program is to increase by the year 2000 the number of minority students earning baccalaureate degrees in science, engineering and mathematics to 1,000 per year and the number of Louisiana minority students entering graduate school to 200 per year.

"My own sense, particularly with minority students, is that they see completion of the undergraduate degree as a significant enough accomplishment," says Hank Bart, associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology and LAMPs campus coordinator at Tulane. "But in order to become scientists, the expectation in most disciplines is that you have to reach the level of the doctoral degree. Most of the students who apply as LAMP research assistants have already decided to major in the sciences."

Tulane's role, Bart says, is to give students an understanding of what scientists do while offering them laboratory experience working with a faculty mentor.

"The reason a lot of people don't pursue the PhD degree, especially in the hard sciences, is because of the stereotype of the research scientist," says associate professor of mechanical engineering Calvin Mackie, campus co-coordinator of LAMP and one of 14 Tulane faculty members serving as LAMP research mentors.

"By working alongside the professor, you not only get to experience the beauty of doing research but you also get to experience that these people are as normal as anybody else. They're just normal people that love to do research. The most important thing we can do to help this process is turn them on to the excitement of doing research," says Bart. "Hopefully, by making small discoveries in the context of these summer research experiences, the students will maintain their interest in research."

This is a motivator, because it helps them to look ahead to the time when they've completed their bachelors degrees. LAMP solicits volunteers both at undergraduate institutions and at Tulane. Faculty interested in participating in the program post a research project, and students interested in taking part in the program, which includes a stipend of $3,000 and on-campus housing, pick the research project in which they are most interested.

In addition to the research experience, in which the students are responsible for defining the scope of their research and writing a research prospectus, the students receive information on the GRE and take practice exams.

"It was programs like LAMP that helped me to become interested in research and also pursing a PhD," adds Mackie. Since the program's launch in the summer of 1996, 54 students have participated in the program at Tulane.

"Of those students, 36 have earned bachelors degrees in the sciences and 24 have advanced to either medical school, dental school or graduate school. Five of those students are in graduate school at Tulane. We're optimistic that theyre going to continue [the program] and were fairly certain that if they do, we'll reach the goals that we projected for the first five-year cycle sometime early in the next five-year cycle," says Bart.

"There is no question that it is helping to increase diversity in graduate schools. At the beginning of the program, we're still dealing with stereotypes and mythologies that students have initially," Mackie says. "Over the three- to four-year period, more and more students are becoming interested. If everything goes right, we'll see a ramp up at the end."

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