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New scholarship named after UMBC’s Freeman Hrabowski III promises $1.5B toward diversity-focused scientists

A new $1.5 billion scholarship fund for early-career scientists announced Thursday by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will be named for Freeman Hrabowski III, the retiring University of Maryland Baltimore County president known for championing the diversification of the science world.

The institute’s Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program will fund up to 150 diversity-focused, early career scientists over the next 20 years. Every other year, the program will select 30 scholars for five years of financial backing that could be extended for another five years.

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Scientists who remain in the program for the full 10 years will receive up to $8.6 million in funding to cover their salaries, research expenses and scientific equipment. Scientists at eligible institutions nationwide, including UMBC, can apply by the Sept. 28 deadline.

The program aims to sustain Hrabowski’s legacy with significant financial support of scientists dedicated to building diverse labs.

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Leslie Vosshall, vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said the goal of the scholarship program is to eliminate barriers that keep scientists from focusing on their actual work such as writing grant applications and other duties that contribute to the so-called minority tax, which occurs when minorities are asked to help diversify their institutions for free.

The program “will help people realize what [Hrabowski] has contributed to minority [science, technology, engineering and math] education in the U.S.,” Vosshall said. “And those people who do know him will immediately get what we are trying to do with this program by bringing in scientists that live and breathe diversity.”

Based in Chevy Chase, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is the legacy of American business magnate Howard Hughes, known for Hughes Aircraft Co. The nonprofit institute is considered to have one of the largest endowments among medical research foundations in the world.

Hrabowski is retiring as UMBC president after three decades. During the early years of his tenure, he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1988 as an experiment — African American men at UMBC would be granted the award in an effort to help them enter the fields of science. The program eventually expanded to include both men and women.

Hrabowski said the Howard Hughes institute’s new scholar program will help produce “this wonderful ecosystem of leading scientists committed to diversity and inclusion,” an ecosystem that doesn’t exist just yet.

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He said fewer than 2% of scientists in national agencies are Black. Most research universities, he said, usually have one or two Black scientists and “very few” Hispanic scientists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.1% of biological scientists in 2021 were Black.

“So we have a long way to go,” Hrabowski said.

University of Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski III stands with Dr. Erin O'Shea, President of Howard Hughes Medical Institute in May 2018.

Hrabowski said he wanted more scientists with diverse backgrounds, like Kizzmekia Corbett, a UMBC almuna and the first Black woman to create a vaccine; she co-led the team that crafted the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19.

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The program is part of the Howard Hughes institute’s $2 billion commitment to its own diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

Though the scholarship focuses on diversity in science, scholars do not necessarily have to be from a minority background. For example, a white male early career scientist could become a scholar as long as they meet the other criteria, similar to the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

The scholarship is for scientists focused on issues such as cancer, diabetes and mental illness, Vosshall said. To help eliminate the so-called minority tax on some scholars, Vosshall said they will be required to spend 80% of their time on research.

“That acts as a protective measures so that the department doesn’t exploit their talents and their diversities and and distract them from the science,” Vosshall said.


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