'Agents of change:' A year with the UMBC program shaping some of the nation's best and most diverse scientists

Adrian Davey was sitting in the back of his church when he first heard of the program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, that would change his life.

Davey, then a senior at Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, was finishing an impressive high school career: 3.97 grade point average, intern at the National Cancer Institute, peer tutor with the National Honor Society, defensive end on the football team, captain on the track team. Now he was planning to be a chemical engineer, and was considering the public university powerhouses Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina.

Tanya Davis, a fellow congregant at First Missionary Baptist Church, had some advice: “You should apply to the Meyerhoff program.”

Over the last 30 years, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC has graduated more than 1,100 mostly African-American students in science and engineering, providing money, academic guidance, research experience, mentoring and a sense of family to underrepresented minorities in a lucrative and highly competitive field.

“Impressive, well-rounded game changers,” is how former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski described this year’s seniors. They’re scheduled to graduate on Thursday.

Graduates include the current U.S. surgeon general, research scientists at Google, Intel, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the NSA, and professors at Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins and other top universities.

That’s the kind of performance UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III and Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff had in mind when they launched the program in 1988.

Hrabowski, a veteran of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Children’s Crusade, wanted to create a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program that would prepare underrepresented minorities for the nation's most rigorous Ph.D. programs.

Meyerhoff, who witnessed discrimination while serving in the segregated Navy during World War II, wanted to show that on a level playing field, African-Americans would perform at least as well as anyone else.

“We proved it many, many times,” Meyerhoff says.

The program is a key reason that UMBC, a predominantly white public university, graduates more African-American students who go on to earn dual M.D.-Ph.D.s than any other school in the country. It has become a perennial entry in the annual rankings of up-and-coming and best-value colleges, and is graduating its first Rhodes scholar this week.

Davis, a member of a sorority that mentors young African-Americans, had seen Hrabowski talking about the program on “60 Minutes.” She knew Davey was interested in science.

Davey had never heard of the program. He had never heard of UMBC.

“I immediately applied,” he says. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Four years later, he’s a leader on campus. The chemical engineering major has earned a GPA of 3.9, led original research into low-cost air pollution sensors and interned at the University of Texas and the University of California. He mentors younger students. He's a poet and an aspiring young adult novelist. He’s president of the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. He’s won offers to continue his studies in Ph.D. programs at Stanford, Princeton, Northwestern, Berkeley, Michigan and Georgia Tech.

UMBC has tracked Meyerhoff graduates, and compared them with students who were offered a place in the program and declined.

African-American students in the program are twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering than those who decided to study elsewhere. They are five times more likely to earn a doctorate.

That’s important in a country where two-thirds of students who major in science or engineering abandon the field before graduation, and where African-Americans make up 13.3 percent of the population but earn 6.4 percent of doctoral degrees.

The Meyerhoff program began in the fall of 1989 with a class of 19 African-American men. The program was opened to African-American women the following year, and to students of all races and ethnicities in 1996.

It’s now a general scholarship program with a focus on underrepresented minorities. Of the current 260 students, 63 percent are African-American, 15 percent are Caucasian, 11 percent are Asian, 10 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are Native American.

“The model here is to have all groups rising,” Hrabowski says.

Since that first class three decades ago, nearly 90 percent of Meyerhoff scholars have graduated in science and engineering. Of that 90 percent, nearly 90 percent have continued on to graduate or preofessional school.

“We show them a pathway to obtain a Ph.D. and help them construct a scientific identity,” program director Keith Harmon says.

Other universities have taken note. Penn State and the University of North Carolina partnered with UMBC five years ago to start Meyerhoff-style programs of their own with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Early results show similar high retention rates and performance.

Howard University started a program modeled on Meyerhoff last year. Now the University of California, Berkeley, is in talks with UMBC to set up a program next year.

The Baltimore Sun followed Meyerhoff scholars Ann Cirincione, a bioinformatics and computational biology major, classical pianist, writer and photographer from Silver Spring; Davey, and Tania Evans, a chemical engineering major and hip hop dancer from Lanham, through their senior year on campus to learn the secrets of the program’s success.

Lesson No. 1: Celebrate success. The Senior Dinner, April 10, Grand Lodge of Maryland, Cockeysville

Hrabowski, president of UMBC for half of its 52 years, stood in the ornate banquet hall of the Grand Lodge of Maryland and surveyed his audience.

Behind him was the Meyerhoff Scholars Program Class of 2018. In front of him were former Senators Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Meyerhoff and his family, teachers, staff, alumni and other leaders.

“Thirty years ago,” Hrabowski said, “we never imagined we could see something like this.”

He pointed at the seniors.

“I was told by the most prestigious foundations in the country it would take generations before we could see young people with their faces doing this well.”

Hrabowski himself was something of a prodigy. A native of Birmingham, Ala., he heard King speak in his church, joined King's Children's Crusade to march for civil rights, and was promptly arrested by the notorious Police Commissioner Bull Connor. The son of a math teacher and a steel mill worker, he earned a bachelor’s in math from the Hampton Institute at age 19 and his master’s and Ph.D. shortly thereafter.

For all the naysayers, Hrabowski had buy-in from one person who mattered.

Robert Meyerhoff is the nephew of Joseph Meyerhoff, the developer and philanthropist who grew a family fortune in construction and real estate. Robert Meyerhoff studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked under his uncle for a short time, and then built his own fortune in real estate. At 94, he still works out of his Cockeysville office.

When Meyerhoff served with the Seabees, the Navy’s construction force, the only blacks he saw were the staff who served meals to the white sailors.

“It upset me,” he says. “I always remembered that.”

He approached several colleges about setting up some sort of program to help, but none seemed interested.

“Maybe I didn’t talk to the right people,” he says.

At the time, UMBC students were holding sit-ins to protest racist incidents on campus. The school was graduating fewer than 18 African-Americans in science and engineering per year. Only one in the school’s history had gone on to earn a STEM Ph.D.

Hrabowski and Meyerhoff met in 1988.

“I didn’t really know about UMBC,” Meyerhoff says. But after a 15-minute conversation with Hrabowski, he knew he had the right man.

Some faculty objected, arguing against a race-based program and warning Hrabowski in a memo that it could harm the school's reputation and research. Hrabowski and Meyerhoff sold the program to skeptical faculty as an experiment.

The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation gave $500,000 to launch the program. The first class enrolled with all school expenses paid and a stipend.

“I wanted to treat them the same as my own children so that they did not have to work, and would have a small allowance so they could spend all their time on studies,” Robert Meyerhoff says.

Three decades later, UMBC now graduates more than 70 African-Americans in science and engineering each year. Their average GPA has grown from 2.7 to 3.2, on par with white and Asian students. African-American Meyerhoff scholars have earned more than 200 graduate degrees.

“We are living the dream of Wakanda,” Davey says, the scientifically advanced haven at the center of the Marvel comic book and film “Black Panther.”

The program seems not to have harmed the young university. Research grants have grown from less than $10 million to more than $80 million. The endowment has grown from under $1 million to $100 million.

“It has completely changed attitudes,” says Kenneth Maton, a UMBC psychology professor. “UMBC went from being an unknown to all of a sudden, you’re the national model.”

Alumni are now national STEM leaders. Dr. Jerome Adams, a 1997 graduate from Mechanicsville, is U.S. surgeon general.

Dr. Crystal Watkins, a 1995 graduate, went on to earn an M.D.-Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. She now leads the Memory Clinic at Sheppard Pratt and directs research at Hopkins on using brain imaging and blood markers to detect dementia earlier.

Dr. Isaac Kinde, a 2005 graduate who turned down Stanford for UMBC, also earned an M.D.-Ph.D. at Hopkins. He is now chief science officer at PapGene Inc. in Baltimore, where he has developed better ways of detecting cancers.

Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, a 2001 graduate from Silver Spring, became the first African-American to complete a Ph.D. in Neurobiology at Duke University (he also earned an M.D. there). Now he directs research into new ways of mapping interactions between networks of electrical brain activity that might help predict and prevent depression.

Lesson No. 2: Look out for each other. Summer Bridge, June 2014, UMBC

Davey was just days out of high school when he started his Meyerhoff experience. All scholars begin with Summer Bridge, a six-week STEM boot camp.

Mitsue Wiggs, assistant director of the Meyerhoff program, calls Summer Bridge its “secret sauce.”

In high school, Davey was one of two African-Americans in his Advanced Placement science and math classes.

“It was very daunting,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me and I felt isolated often.”

At Summer Bridge, he didn't look different. The diversity of his class, he says, was comforting.

He was immediately challenged. The students were told that they'd be given a leadership role in one of the six weeks; Davey got his the first week. He was responsible for getting all the teenagers to meetings on time and getting work done.

In high school, Wiggs says, most of the students worked alone. They haven't learned to collaborate successfully — a skill that would be crucial not just in college, but also in their scientific careers.

“They have to work together and adapt, or they will fail,” Wiggs says.

In one calculus class, students work in groups of four. When they take a quiz, the lowest grade becomes the grade for the entire group. At the end of Summer Bridge, the lowest group grade becomes the entire class grade.

“You can imagine, they reorganize quickly after that first quiz,” says Michael Summers, a chemistry professor. “They look at who needs help and who did well, and then pair up the stronger students to try to help the weaker ones.”

Some students have graduated with a 3.9 instead of a 4.0 because of that calculus class.

“Many alumni, from the first cohort to the 30th, will tell you that Summer Bridge was the hardest experience of their life,” Wiggs says. “At 17, they have to get over the fear of succeeding, fear of failure, and they had to realize who they were deep down inside.”

“It’s a long six weeks,” Ann Cirincione agrees. “But in the end, you emerge as a cohort.”

Lesson No. 3: Embrace community. The Family Picnic, Sept. 9, 2017, Centennial Park, Ellicott City

Davey stood before a sea of students in blue, red, green and orange T-shirts. It was a sunny late summer afternoon. His own blue shirt, like those of the other seniors, bore a large “M26” on the back — theirs is the 26th class of Meyerhoff scholars.

A representative of each class sat at a picnic table. The table held four pies. Davey wielded a megaphone.

“This is a hands-free event!” he shouted. “All of it has to be eaten. There is no in-between!”

The Meyerhoff year opens with the Family Picnic. All four classes attend, as do alumni and faculty. There are a couple more family meetings each semester, at which students gather on campus to discuss internships, research, scholarships and housing, to share advice and to commiserate and strategize over challenges.

“One of the defining aspects of the program is the idea of family and creating community,” Wiggs says.

The shirts were colored by class — blue for seniors, red for juniors, green for sophomores, orange for freshmen — and emblazoned with the wearer’s cohort numbers. When Meyerhoffs meet, they introduce themselves by their class: “M4,” “M17,” “M29.”

Nothing about the day has anything to do with the periodic table or the Pythagorean theorem. Instead, there’s a three-legged race, a water balloon toss, impromptu dance-offs.

One of the lessons Hrabowski learned during his own education is that to keep students in subjects such as math or biology, it helps to offer a community, and to have fun.

Being a minority can be particularly isolating in the STEM fields. African-Americans earn just 8 percent of STEM bachelor's degrees, and 5 percent of STEM doctorates.

Hrabowski says the community he found at Hampton “supported us as we struggled with work, it helped overcome differences in academic preparation, and it allowed us to persist when we might otherwise have given it up.”

When Davey arrived at UMBC, he says, the fear and isolation he felt in high school began to dissipate.

“There were so many other students who were African-Americans and thriving academically,” he says. “To me, that was very motivational and uplifting.”

Hrabowski closed the gathering in the way familiar to the Meyerhoffs: A pep talk and a poem.

“You can do anything,” he said. “You will change the world.”

Then he led the students in a recitation of Langston Hughes' “Dreams.”

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow

Then the gathering chanted: “Focus, focus, focus.”

Lesson No. 4: Work hard. Practice session, Sept. 25, Biology Building

Professor Maricel Kann sat with a handful of students in a conference room. Ann Cirincione began to flip through her presentation: “Pathway Networks Generated from Human Disease Phenome.”

Cirincione, who graduated from James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, was preparing for a presentation she would give at an international bioinformatics conference in Los Angeles. She was nervous, but she wasn’t letting it show.

“Hello everyone,” she began. “My name is Ann Cirincione. I’m a graduating senior undergraduate at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“In our lab, we’ve compiled over 80,000 unique human genetic variants generated from four different source databases …”

She concluded the dry run, and her audience offered feedback. The consensus was that Cirincione did a great job. She said she felt better, and better prepared for the first of what will likely be many academic presentations.

Jacqueline King is Cirincione’s academic adviser.

“Scientific communication is so key in them being successful as researchers,” she says. “So we want to prepare them that way.”

In Cirincione’s four years at UMBC, Kann and King say, she has gained a level of experience almost unheard of for an undergraduate.

She’s worked closely with Kann to analyze human genetic variant data to identify relationships between diseases. She has traveled to six conferences, completed internships at Princeton, the University of North Carolina and the National Institutes of Health, and served as lead author on a scholarly article.

Adrian Davey began his research his freshman year. He has completed internships at UMBC, at the University of Texas and at Berkeley. As a senior, he has led a lab investigating the accuracy of low-cost air pollution sensors.

“If an undergraduate does one semester of research, or two summer internships, they are head and shoulders above their peers,” Wiggs says. “The fact he spent four years plus a number of summer internships is significant.”

Lesson No. 5: Work together toward a goal. Advising, October, Meyerhoff Office

Fall is crunch time in the Meyerhoff Office. Seniors are applying to Ph.D. programs. Advisers are in demand.

Tania Evans sat with King in the program office in Sherman Hall. Signs reading “Co-Exist” and “Family” and quotes from Nelson Mandela hang on the walls.

Evans, who graduated from the elite STEM program at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, was interested in continuing her studies at Georgia Tech, where she completed a summer internship after sophomore year. King told her, as she does all her advisees, to spread the net wide: Apply to half a dozen schools, and generate some options.

Few students — or parents — arrive at UMBC planning to complete a doctorate. Faculty members talk up the value of a career in research.

Michael Summers tells students to look at their mothers and fathers.

“If your father is African-American, his risk of dying of high blood pressure is 350 percent greater than that of his white friends,” says the chemistry professor, who is white. “If your mother is African-American, her risk is 300 percent greater.

“Who do you expect to address these issues?” he asks.

Evans was a strong candidate for graduate school. She has completed three research internships: studying oil and water separation at Case Western Reserve University, metal processing at Georgia Tech, and meteorite impacts at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

King and Evans began laying the groundwork for her graduate school applications during her junior year. They looked through university websites and identified principal investigators. By the fall semester of Evans’ senior year, they were working on drafts of her personal statement and preparing for interviews.

In exit surveys, Meyerhoff scholars rank their work with advisers and other staff and faculty as one of the most important parts of their undergraduate experience.

Lesson No. 6: Pick smart people and give them wings. Sensor lab, Nov. 28, Technology Research Center

Adrian Davey hunched over a small plastic air quality sensor and threaded a red wire through one end. Freshmen Nick Balasus and Katherine Ball looked on.

“This one powers the sensor so it can record,” Davey explained.

Davey has been stuyding the low-cost sensors since the end of his freshman year. They measure particulate air pollution from sources such as car exhaust or coal plants. Exposure to particulate matter has been linked to premature deaths.

The sensors are widely available to the public. But the accuracy has not kept up with availability, according to Christopher J. Hennigan, the professor and lab director who oversees Davey’s work.

So Davey has been measuring their accuracy. He is a “phenomenal” student, Hennigan says, effectively leading the lab and training younger students.

Hennigan believes Davey would have been successful anywhere. The Meyerhoff program, he says, “lets their natural talents flourish.”

Davey, like the other Meyerhoffs, arrived on campus smart, with good habits. Growing up, he asked his mom for books, not video games. He studied the thesaurus to learn new words. He interned at the National Cancer Institute at 16 years old. He played football and ran track. He took AP calculus, physics and chemistry.

That profile raises a question: Wouldn’t he have done as well elsewhere? How much of the Meyerhoffs’ success can be attributed to the program?

Professor Kenneth Maton has studied the Meyerhoff scholars since 1990. He has collected data not only on the Meyerhoffs, but also on their similarly credentialed peers who were accepted into the program, but chose to go elsewhere.

Maton has found that African-American Meyerhoffs are more than twice as likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields than those who turned the program down, and more than five times as likely to get higher degrees in STEM.

All the students who were offered admission were capable. But the Meyerhoffs were far more likely to emerge as scientists.

Lesson No. 7: Study together. Group work, Feb. 19, UMBC Campus

Students had worked in small groups to design and simulate a process to synthesize urea, a common crop fertilizer. Davey's group was presenting to the class. The three members wore suits for the occasion.

Tania Evans asked the presenters whether they considered the difference in energy costs between synthesizing ammonia and buying it. Davey said they were planning to look into it.

From Summer Bridge forward, students learn the power of teamwork, and how to work together effectively.

“When you help others,” Summers says, “they could help you with something you didn’t know.”

The practice has spread beyond the Meyerhoffs. All students in Chemistry 101 now work in small groups once a week in a space called the Discovery Center.

Davey, an undergraduate teaching assistant for Chemistry 101, visited the center to tutor student groups. He walked from table to table to help groups solve problems.

Davey helped one group understand why a particular matter was shrinking: “There are more electrons, and so there’s more of a pull.”

“Ohhh…” the students replied, in unison.

The collaborative work helps social integration. And it reduces the number who drop out after difficult introductory STEM classes.

Lesson No. 8: Do something other than STEM. Extracurriculars, Jan. 16, UMBC

The future of STEM, Hrabowski says, is students of all backgrounds working together across disciplines. He encourages students to branch out — to learn different languages, for example, and music.

“You don’t want to just be involved in science,” he says. “It’s the connecting of the math and humanities and science that could be seen as a defining characteristic of the program.”

Evans competes with UMBC’s Major Definition hip-hop dance team.

“It’s refreshing,” she says. “Sometimes your mind gets so filled with STEM, so it’s good to get out.”

Cirincione plays classical piano. She compares the complexities of finding solutions to human disease to the challenge of coordinating her hands to weave complex melodies.

Davey wakes up each day at around 7 a.m., reads a Bible verse and then works on a novel or a poem.

He says Hrabowski’s activism, from the civil rights movement forward, inspires students to consider the world beyond their studies.

“We are trying to be agents of change.” Davey says. “As a scientist, we have the stigma of being closed off from the world and isolated, solely focused on our research.

“If we can’t connect and reach out people, what are we doing?”

Lesson No. 9: Focus on the top 10 percent to inspire others. Outside mentoring, Feb. 20, Mount Hebron High School, Ellicott City

Naomi Mburu is perhaps Mount Hebron High School’s most illustrious alumna: She was named a Rhodes Scholar, UMBC’s first, in November.

Adrian Davey volunteers at the school as a peer mentor and an SAT prep tutor.

Now they sat onstage in the school auditorium, speaking to students for Black History Month.

Davey told the audience he would graduate Magna Cum Laude in May with a degree in chemical engineering. The room erupted in applause.

He spoke of the courses he took in high school that helped him prepare for college — Algebra II, AP Physics — but added that it’s OK if they hadn’t yet taken those classes.

“The people who are successful are those who work hard,” he said. “Raw intellect will get you nowhere, I promise you. ... It’s about discipline, passion and your drive.”

Then it was Mburu's turn. She asked audience members to close their eyes.

“If you could do anything, regardless of what you are doing now, in 10 years, what would you be doing?”

She paused.

“For some people, that is very clear. For others, including me, it’s not clear,” she said. “That’s OK, but either way, you have to have some kind of goal.”

In high school, she said, “I took opportunities and applied for things where chances of failure were fairly high, and I did fail many times. But the fact that I had these goals helped to get me where I am now.”

The Meyerhoffs’ mentorship and service requirements reflect the philosophy of W.E.B Du Bois.

Du Bois, one of Hrabowski’s heroes, believed that high achievers would inspire others.

“The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth saving up,” he wrote in 1903. Hrabowski says he believes each Meyerhoff will reach and inspire 1,000 people over their lifetimes.

Lesson No. 10: Network, network, network. March 14, Meyerhoff Office.

Cirincione visited with King in the Meyerhoff Office in mid-March. She was stressed out. She had been accepted to Ph.D. programs at six schools, including Princeton and Duke.

King call it a “First World Meyerhoff problem:” too many good choices. The pair ran through the various considerations.

Cirincione also met with Professor Kann, who asked what she wanted to do with her career.

Evans had received offers from the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Northwestern, the University of Maryland and Georgia Tech.

Evans, like the others, received several scholarship offers. Georgia Tech offered a free ride plus a stipend. None of them will be paying for graduate school.

Davey sat with Keith Harmon, the program director, to discuss his options.

Harmon wrote a list of alumni for Davey to contact. And he asked a decidedly Meyerhoff question: “Where can you most give back?”

Lesson No. 11: Stay close to the family. Post-Meyerhoff, 2004, Utah

When Meyerhoff graduate Kristi Pullen Fedinick arrived at Berkeley in 2000 to begin her graduate studies, she felt like a unicorn. She would go weeks without seeing another black person, she says, much less a black woman STEM Ph.D. candidate.

“In fairness,” she says, “I was in the lab all the time, and I also didn’t see the ocean next door.”

One day at a seminar in Utah a few years into her program, the professor organizing the talks mistook her for the projectionist — even though she was wearing a suit and sitting with the other presenters. The actual projectionist ignored her while asking other students about their presentation times.

“After the session, I went to the lobby and cried,” she says. “It was heartbreaking.”

She wrote Summers, her mentor at UMBC, saying it was one of her worst days since leaving.

Being a unicorn is tiring, Fedinick says, and those low points have made her question whether the work is worth the trouble.

After Berkeley, she was a postdoctoral scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health. She is now director of science and data at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ultimately, she says, she hopes she’s helping people understand that “science comes in all races.”

She has drawn strength over the years remembering Hrabowski’s pep talks, and advises graduating seniors to do the same.

“That will hold you through tribulation,” say says. “It is about more than the science. It’s about changing the landscape and color through which people see science.”

Lesson No. 12: High expectations and gratitude. Parents Luncheon, May 5, Arbutus United Methodist Church

Graduation was two weeks away. Seniors and their parents gathered in a church auditorium for a reception.

Four years earlier, the students sat in a UMBC auditorium on Selection Weekend to check out the university. That weekend, they were asked to share their greatest scientific accomplishment to date.

On this day, they climbed a stage to announce where they were going next.

Ann Cirincione: “Princeton.”

Adrian Davey: “University of California, Berkeley.”

Tania Evans: “Georgia Institute of Technology.”

Each spoke of helping or mentoring others in science.

Evans wants to work in science policy and encourage children to consider the STEM fields. Cirincione wants to run her own lab and mentor students.

Davey wants to help grow minority representation in the sciences.

“I genuinely believe if we get down to the younger generation and get students involved and stimulated by science, we can improve America’s technical work force.”

Vibha Rao, an M22 who earned her M.D. at the University of Maryland on Friday and is starting a master’s degree in clinical research this fall, told the seniors to stay connected. They’ll need each other for inspiration and support to get through the late nights in graduate school.

“I challenge you to be the Adrian Davey of your next class,” she said. “We have such a unique chance to shape the future.”

Rao asked the seniors to rise. Together they recited the poem, one last time.

“Hold fast the dreams,” she began.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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