For two decades, researchers have asked why more black men don’t pursue STEM degrees. Some educators and policy makers say it’s essential to stop fixating on negative data and start telling the stories of black success. Here, four black men who have earned STEM Ph.D.’s describe their different journeys. Their stories reflect the dynamics, challenges, and—most important, they believe—the value of investing in the lives and education of black men. The conversations were conducted and edited by Stacey Patton.

Karl A. Walker

‘Going to an HBCU Was Affirming’

‘Going to an HBCU Was Affirming’ 1

Stephen B. Thornton for The Chronicle

As an undergraduate at Morehouse, says Karl Walker (right, with a student, Terrell Irby). “I felt like I was somewhere where I could progress without feeling like the deck was stacked against me.”

I grew up in Pine Bluff in a home with two parents. My dad was a well-known dentist in the area, and my mom worked at the university, first as a counselor, then a professor, and then a dean of one of the colleges. We were upper middle class, and me and my five siblings got early lessons about the importance of education.

Growing up, I wanted to be like my dad. Everybody was calling him Dr. Walker, and I wanted that respect. I spent a lot of time on campus after school with my mom, and I also spent a lot of time in my dad’s office watching him make dentures. I was that little kid in the office watching patients lined outside the door waiting for my dad to fix their mouths. I remember the smells of the different chemicals he mixed and the different types of equipment he used. It looked fascinating to me.

My grades in junior high were terrible. I didn’t do my homework, and I didn’t like school. My work was boring to me. So my dad offered to buy me a car if I got a 4.0. Now I had a reason to turn in my homework. I got the 4.0, and after I achieved that I got invited to be part of an honors association. I decided to maintain that GPA so that I could get a scholarship.

I entered Morehouse the summer before my freshman year. I had this math instructor who held a competition for the students. Whoever had the highest scores in our math and physics classes got an extra stipend of $1,000. That was a lot of money for me at the time. I was motivated by money. [He won the math prize.]

Going to Morehouse was a great experience for me. It was all guys, so there were no distractions. I didn’t have to try to look good to go to class. I wasn’t worrying about sounding nerdy or cool. Going to an HBCU was affirming. Seeing all these black professors and doctors was motivating. I felt like I was somewhere where I could progress without feeling like the deck was stacked against me.

My experience in a white grad school [University of Arkansas at Little Rock] was different because I had to fit into a new cultural atmosphere. I had people in my corner, but I did see how the cultural differences made an impact. People who could culturally identify with the professors had a better time and better recommendations. I didn’t have that support. In a lot of my classes, I was the only black male. In my program, most people were Asian. Everybody went to their respective corners. Asian professors picked up Asian students, white professors picked up white students. My adviser was Chinese.

There are still a lot of barriers for black males in STEM. Everybody doesn’t have someone at home to offer them a car to motivate them to do better. There are financial barriers, and there’s the negative data you hear all the time that can be discouraging. It tells people, "Hey, give up now. Don’t try real hard. It’s not going to work anyway." I didn’t believe the statistics. I was hanging around with my dad and his successful black friends. They all had nice cars, nice houses, and careers.

I don’t see how statistics on black men can be beneficial unless people are doing something to improve their situation. There are a few people who try to make a difference and get discouraged by how there’s not a lot of people who feel the same way they do. I would like to see more motivation of black males rather than so much negative information.

Jelani Zarif

‘Nobody Could See Past the Neighborhood’

My biggest roadblock as a black male scientist was poverty and homelessness during my childhood. I grew up in Chicago, on the south side, in the jets. That’s a colloquialism in Chicago. It’s short for the projects. It was me, my mom, and my four siblings. I saw all types of things that made me grow up fast.

We were homeless. We lived in shelters, with random people, and in different projects. It was like a movie. I saw people on drugs, prostitution, people overdosing, friends going to jail and ending up dead, shootouts, gangs, graffiti, break dancers, and poverty. The poverty was something. It was like prison.

My mom was never on drugs. She worked hard, but we were still poor. The next-door neighbor was a crackhead and got a welfare check and we all shared the same roaches. My mom always encouraged us to have good manners, to be disciplined, and to keep our head to the sky. We had books and National Geographics in the home and did a lot of reading about American history and black history. I had an inherent curiosity about science, especially gravity. As a boy, I wanted to know why we had to stay on the ground. I was intrigued by that. I remember watching this video of Lionel Richie walking up the wall and dancing on the ceiling. And there was Superman flying and astronauts floating on TV. So I was 5 years old in my mom’s living room trying to walk up the walls. ... I got into trouble a few times.

I felt like gravity holds you down. It keeps you on earth. All around me there were so many kids getting locked up for selling crack. When I was a kid, I would tell people I wanted to be a scientist, and they would say I couldn’t do it or that it was a pipe dream. The older people told me to get a trade. Nobody could see past the neighborhood. The skepticism and pessimism was the gravity. Living in the projects was about selling drugs and driving a Range Rover. Most kids I knew dropped out of high school. It was very daunting to pursue education in the long term.

I excelled in math and science early on. I was determined to not let the projects define what I could do in the classroom. I remember a fourth-grade teacher who taught us about photosynthesis. We hatched chicken eggs, planted flowers, did physics stuff, and took field trips. She gave us exposure in an after-school program.

For college, I chose wisely to go to an HBCU [Morehouse College]. In grad school at Michigan State, I went from being one of several black males in my science class to the only one. You notice that you’re the only one: Even if you try not to say anything about your race, somebody brings it up. There were incidents that happened, but I just stayed to myself, stayed driven, and stayed on task. I learned to deliver the results and had my network of people outside of the lab. I also got involved in the community by mentoring young people and raising scholarship money for students through my Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

I’ve spoken up for better recruitment and retention of minority scientists on campus. People have to really want to do it. Not everybody is on board or even cares about recruitment. I’ve had people ask, How did you end up here? I didn’t let it bother me. I just went back to the lab and did the best science I could do and let that speak for me. When I finish here at Hopkins, I plan to go into an academic career and continue doing research on prostate cancer, or I plan to work for a biotech company that develops drugs to treat different types of cancer.

Juan E. Gilbert

‘I Wanted to Be a Role Model, Not an Example’

Brian Blanco for the Chronicle

"One of my undergraduate professors pulled me aside one day and told me, ‘Juan, you’d be a good professor,’ ” says Juan Gilbert (standing). "I thought he was joking."

I was very much interested in science and engineering from the time I was around 8 years old. I especially liked sci-fi movies. There was a monster attack or a plague and a guy with a lab coat on who knew how to fix everything. He used science to help society. But in those movies, the scientist was typically a white or Asian guy, never a black man. I never saw anyone who looked like me, and I never saw a black teacher or professor in science. I didn’t see why I couldn’t fix things like they did.

I grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, in a predominantly black community. My family was lower middle class. My dad had an eighth-grade education but owned a body shop and did extremely well, and my mother had a high-school diploma and worked as an aide for hearing-impaired kids. I used to hang out in my dad’s shop, where I learned how to paint and work on cars.

My parents were extremely big on education. They told me and my siblings that education is something no one can take from you. They also encouraged my experimentation. I had a chemistry kit. I would mix stuff and see if it would create an explosion. I even tried to create a liquid you could slam against the wall and it wouldn’t splash.

In school I wasn’t teased because I liked science, but stereotypes are real. Many of the students I knew shied away from science, and I think that’s because we’ve done a poor job of saying that doing science is not just something white guys do. By the time you get to college, many African-Americans are told to never forget where you come from. So you see more blacks in social sciences and education. They see these as helping professions where there’s a clear way of advancing society and a way you can help people more directly. There’s a perception that STEM people don’t deal with people. This isn’t true.

In addition to my parents, I had a white chemistry teacher who challenged me. She told me I was good at science. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I was a chemistry major at Miami University, in Ohio. When I got to college, my mental model was, you go to college to get a job. Grad school was a foreign concept to me. But one of my undergraduate professors pulled me aside one day and told me, "Juan, you’d be a good professor." I thought he was joking. He told me that if I could get my Ph.D., he would hire me. So that motivated me to pursue the degree. He actually hired me as a visiting instructor as I was finishing my Ph.D.

[He was the second African-American to get a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Cincinnati.] It was very isolating, so I had to seek out social interactions outside my discipline. I hung out with people in the social sciences and education. I was able to make these connections that helped me in terms of my research. Years later I vowed I would not allow that to happen to any student in my lab. So I never just recruited one minority student to a lab.

When I taught at Auburn before coming to Florida, I would walk into the classroom and sit down among the students. I’d ask, So what do you know about this professor? And then I’d stand up and see the reactions in their faces. For me it was playful, but it had a bigger implication—to wake up and challenge the students.

Getting tenure was pretty smooth. My mentors told me to not think of tenure as a local process. They told me to establish a set of credentials that would make me tenurable across the country. I decided early in my career that as a black male scientist I wanted to be a role model, not an example. Here is a person who did it, and so can you.

Ryan Charles Hynd

‘I Wanted to Solve Problems’

Mark Makela for The Chronicle

"We have to show young minorities how math can be attractive," says Ryan Charles Hynd.

I was born in Jamaica and grew up in the West Palm Beach area in Florida. My mother is Jamaican, and my father is a white guy from England. He wasn’t really around. My mom wanted better opportunities for us, so we came to America when I was 5 and she raised me up by herself. We didn’t have much, and we lived on the low end of things. Our existence was paycheck-to-paycheck.

The group she leads, Complete College America's Alliance of States, is influencing decisions from Oregon to Florida on such hot-button issues as remedial education and performance-based funding.

My mother was insistent that I was bound to do something great with my life. As a young student I wasn’t really into school. I played basketball and baseball, but I wasn’t really into math or science. My mom had to work, so she couldn’t really sit down and go to parent-teacher meetings. She only came to school when I got into trouble. The schools I went to were reasonable. You could get a good education, but if you just wanted to hang around and shoot ball, you could. It wasn’t until I went to junior college that I became a real student.

When I got to Palm Beach Community College [now Palm Beach State College], my interest in math developed gradually. I took the prerequisite basic math courses just to get them out of the way. It was hard, and I needed a tutor. As I took more courses, I started to like math. When I transferred to Georgia Tech, two years later, math continued to be a creative pursuit for me. I came in with an open mind, and I wanted to solve problems. There is a program called the Berkeley Edge that recruits underrepresented groups to the STEM fields. I applied at the end of my junior year, and they brought me in, polished me up, introduced me to some professors, and gave me pointers on the graduate-school application process. It showed me that I had a chance to go to a top graduate school like Berkeley.

In grad school, there were no black males in my classes. I came across extremely few blacks in the sciences, especially black Americans. The ones I saw were mainly from Africa or the West Indies. But there are few Americans in math in general. It’s so international. You have students from Russia, Romania, Italy, and Argentina. Given the size of our country, you’d think there’d be more minorities in math.

We have to show young minorities how math can be attractive. A lot of black males don’t really have the people to look up to in STEM. They need examples of people who look like them who are successful and doing positive things. Kids might not be aware of the big things that are happening in math. Facebook was started by people with serious math backgrounds. We are living in the information-and-technology age, and so we have to make math attractive to kids.

As a black man in STEM, I’ve encountered some awkwardness, and I’ve had a few rough moments over the years. But I could have worked at the post office and encountered even more. It didn’t bother me that I was the only one. I was just happy I had an opportunity.