Few African-Americans reach the highest levels in chemistry. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Blacks earn about 2 percent of all chemistry doctorates. However, one professor is making significant headway in changing that.
Under Professor Isiah M. Warner’s leadership and full buy-in of the chemistry faculty, Louisiana State University leads the nation in producing the highest percentage and number of African-American Ph.D. recipients in chemistry. Black students represented 19 percent of LSU’s chemistry Ph.D.s from 2005 to 2009. The Journal reported there were no chemistry Ph.D.s awarded to Black students at 10 of the 50 top chemistry departments during that same period.
Professor Warner told NewsOne that before he arrived at LSU more than 20 years ago, the university never had more than three African-Americans enrolled in its chemistry doctorate program at one time. In fact, up to that point, the university had graduated a total of six Black chemistry Ph.D.s in its history. The program now averages between 25 to 30 Black students each year working toward their doctorate.
Professor Warner, as the Boyd Professor and Philip W. West Professor of Analytical & Environmental Chemistry, is the newly minted 2016 SEC Professor of the Year and has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Warner wasn’t destined to be counted among the nation’s top chemists. In fact, his upbringing in the rural town of Bunkie, Louisiana during the Jim Crow era had him slated to achieve little in the way of higher education.
“I’m the first in my immediate family to get a high school diploma, let alone a college degree,” he told NewsOne.
But through the guidance and mentoring of his many teachers, particularly his high school music and English teachers, Warner graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in Bunkie. His English teacher was instrumental in steering him toward earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Southern University, where he had a full scholarship.
School segregation put Warner at a huge disadvantage. He said the Black high school in town received old textbooks that were obsolete, “with five or six names crossed out in them,” from students at the White high school. His school offered algebra, but he never heard of calculus until college, and there was no one to teach physics.
“Upon entering college, I felt that Louisiana had placed me five or six years behind White students as a result of my obsolete textbooks,” he said. “But I was in a very nurturing environment. Southern University could take you where you were and bring you up to be competitive.”
Warner explained that key individuals at each step of the way helped him to earn his Ph.D. (from the University of Washington) and excel in his academic career.
“And so, I felt a need to pay it forward,” he said.
In addition to his role as a Boyd Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Warner serves as LSU’s vice president for Strategic Initiatives. Its core mission is to prepare the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) leaders. Some of the programs include a partnership with the 100 Black Men of Metro Baton Rouge for the ACT Prep Academy, the Upward Bound Program, and the LA-STEM Research Scholars Program. Through its range of several programs, LSU helps to prepare and enable a diverse group of high school students to succeed in college, and support others to earn doctorates.
Students will flourish if you nurture and encourage them, he underscored. His work has shown that kids from underperforming high schools can succeed in STEM fields.
He explained: “It’s that nurturing environment, giving them tools, and building their confidence—making them believe they could do anything they want to do. That’s what I had along the way. At every step, I had someone telling me I could do it.”
Warner said about 40 percent of the undergraduate students who participated in the LA-STEM Program graduate with at least a 3.7 grade point average. He noted that the overall graduation rate in STEM for this program is about 89 percent, which is more than twice the national average.
“And there’s hardly any distinction between whether the students are male, female, Black, or White,” he stated about this undergraduate program. “Basically, the success rate is about the same.”
With regard to the graduate program in chemistry, it took time to get everyone onboard. Dr. Warner recalled that while serving as chair of LSU’s chemistry department, some White students were complaining that he was bringing “inferior students” into the Ph.D. program and thus devaluing their degree.
He admitted that the African-American students had lower GRE scores, the standardized test for graduate school admission. However, he agrees with the educational testing service that administers the test: the GRE should not be the sole criterion for admission to graduate school.
Warner said as a result of rumors, he organized a retreat, led by a facilitator, to get things out in the open. He said his Black students were “astounded” to learn what their White classmates thought about them. The Black students, he said, got together and committed to working hard and had great success.
“I tell my students it doesn’t matter what your background is. What matters is how hard you are willing to work,” he stated.
Dr. Warner advises students to find role models and mentors who will “guide them through a very treacherous path” that many are unprepared to navigate alone.
In his own life, he counts his wife among his many mentors. “She comes from a family of educators. Her mother and father were school teachers,” the professor said.
In a lighthearted moment he said, “She taught me how not to be country. I guess I can say that she took the country out of me.”
His wife, who loves to dance, was dismayed to learn when they were dating that he couldn’t shake a leg.
“So she put on some music and said, ‘let me see you move with the music,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘OK, I can work with that.’”
Today, everyone envies the couple’s dance moves.
PHOTO CREDIT: Louisiana State University