Few African-Americans reach the highest levels in chemistry. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, they earn about 2 percent of all chemistry doctorates. But one professor is making significant headway in changing that.
Under Dr. Isiah M. Warner’s leadership, 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, 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.
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 influence of 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.
“I struggled in my first year of chemistry,” he recalled. “I wasn’t gifted in chemistry.”
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.
“I was five or six years behind White students when I arrived at college,” he said. “But I was in a very nurturing environment. Southern University would take you where you are and bring you up.”
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.
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 and the Upward Bound Program. Through its range of several programs, LSU helps to prepare and enable disadvantaged high school students to succeed in college.
They will flourish if you nurture 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 department’s students graduate with at least a 3.7 grade point average.
“And there’s hardly any distinction between whether the students are male, female, Black, or White,” he stated. “Basically, the success rate is about the same.”
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.
He admitted that the African-American students had lower GRE scores, the standardized test for graduate school admission. The professor added that he has taken students into the graduate program that others would not take.
Warner 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.
“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.
He counts his wife among his mentors. “She comes from an educator family. 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 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,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘OK, I could work with that.’”
Today, everyone envies the couple’s dance moves.
PHOTO CREDIT: Louisiana State University