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Minority students make up a small fraction of those who hold STEM doctorates. A new Johns Hopkins program aims to change that.

A new Johns Hopkins University scholars program is attracting more doctoral candidates to the Baltimore school specifically from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

The Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative welcomed its first 20 doctoral students this fall, ushering in a program designed to help remedy the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM. All of its scholars come from either HBCUs or other minority-serving institutions.

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According to 2019 data from the National Science Foundation, Black and Latinx students earned 3% and 7%, respectively, of new engineering, math, physical sciences and computer science doctorates. At Johns Hopkins, 11% of the doctoral candidates in STEM fields are from historically underrepresented minorities, university spokesperson Jill Rosen said.

The new Hopkins program, in the same vein as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, will help support minority students to achieve their doctoral degrees in STEM.

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HBCUs and minority-serving institutions — colleges and universities that have received a specific designation for their work in serving minority students on campus — already have their own doctoral STEM programs. However, Hopkins’ program differs in that it will facilitate specific pathways for students from HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to attend the private research university and access its robust research infrastructure.

Ime Essien, left, a biomedical engineering student, and Naomi Rankin, a civil and systems engineering student, are two of 20 doctoral students at the Johns Hopkins University in the new Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative.

Dr. Damani Piggott, director of the scholars initiative, said the program has brought him full circle. As an undergraduate at Morehouse University, he was exposed to science research opportunities that inspired him to continue his clinical and research careers. He went on to pursue his medical degree and doctorate at Yale University and continued his training at Johns Hopkins, where he became a faculty member in 2013.

“I’m on the journey with them,” Piggott said. “We are absolutely committed to our scholars. They’ve already had many great things that have come before, but we are looking forward to continue to celebrate the many great things to come.”

Thomas, a Black man born in Louisiana in 1910, enrolled in an HBCU as a premedical student. After losing his savings during the Great Depression, his plans changed and he began doing research in Tennessee, then in Baltimore at Hopkins.

He helped develop the shunt used to treat blue baby syndrome, a condition in which an infant doesn’t have enough oxygen in their blood, causing the skin to turn blue. Thomas’ procedure, Piggott said, saved many lives and helped expand the world of cardiac surgery.

Piggott said Thomas trained surgeons and scientists without having an official medical degree or obtaining all of the recognition he was due at the time.

Hopkins made Thomas an honorary doctorate of laws in 1976, as well as naming him an instructor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Thomas, who retired in 1979, held a faculty position at the school until he died in 1985 at age 75.

“We firmly believe that there are absolutely many Vivien Thomases across our society, whose wealth of talent sometimes [go] untapped, but [are] so ready for nurture and connection and leadership in STEM,” Piggott said.

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Using a $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Greenwood Initiative, Hopkins will provide 20 scholars each year — growing to 100 total — with full tuition, which can cost up to about $66,000 per academic year; a stipend; health benefits; and mentorship for up to six years.

Naomi Rankin, 22, a doctoral student in civil and systems engineering, is one of the 20 students at the Johns Hopkins University in the new Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative.

“We know, and as has been my own personal experience and trajectory, that financial support is absolutely necessary, absolutely critical, but not sufficient to ensure success along the graduate journey,” Piggott said. “It’s definitively holistic mentorship and absolutely the human touch that’s been so critical to the success of our grad students.”

Additionally, the scholars program brought 25 undergraduate students at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to Hopkins this summer to conduct research and experience the community, Piggott said.

“There’s the trite saying, ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants,’” Piggott said. “And I think for us, it’s really important that we appreciate both the sung and unsung heroes who come before, that paved the pathways for what we’re able to do now.”

The 20 doctoral candidates come from across the country with a variety of disciplines under their collective belt.

Ime Essien, biomedical engineering student, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Morgan State University before coming 2 miles west to Hopkins. He heard about the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative from a mentor and applied in December. Now, he’s already conducting research with Rama Chellappa, an artificial intelligence pioneer in Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering.

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The Thomas scholars program feels like being a part of a family, Essien said, something he loved about Morgan State.

Piggott, too, echoed the familial feeling of the program.

“It’s great to have HBCU students. Like, this is the only reason I came to Hopkins,” Essien said. “To have the opportunity to be around people who look like me, who’ve been through similar experiences as me, who get me — that’s just as one of a kind.”

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With the start of the school year, the inaugural cohort attended a retreat together to learn about Baltimore, the program and meet one another. They also met some of Vivien Thomas’ grandchildren, who shared stories about him smoking his pipe and spending time with family in the backyard.

Naomi Rankin, a civil and systems engineering doctoral student and Howard University graduate, said she didn’t know about Thomas beforehand. When she shared the family’s story with her mom, she said her mother steered her to HBO’s 2004 feature film “Something the Lord Made,” in which Mos Def plays Thomas.

“It was really powerful to see — even when he didn’t have the resources that we have, he could have such an impact,” Rankin said.

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Rankin said scholars aren’t required to participate in recruitment efforts for future cohorts, but she has mentees she wants to bring to Hopkins.

Meanwhile, Rankin said she’s coping with the pressure that comes with being the first of the Vivien Thomas scholars.

“Whatever our outcomes are show the kind of the impact this program can do for underrepresented students,” Rankin said.

“And I do like being an inaugural cohort; we just get more flexibility to see what the program needs, like for future classes. I think we’ll kind of have that impact.”

Ime Essien, 24, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, is one of 20 Ph.D. students at the Johns Hopkins University in the new Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative.

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