Group seeks diversity in science areas


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Minority enrollment in science majors at the University of Iowa is increasing, but some students and professors say black students are still underrepresented in the field.

And a group that's trying to showcase the work and research minority students have done is meeting at the UI this weekend.

The UI chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, one of only two such chapters in the state, will host the Midwest Regional Conference for the first time.

"Our aim and mission is to increase the number of underrepresented minority people that are majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields," said Deandrea Watkins, the president of the UI chapter.

At the UI, where black students make up 2.5 percent of the general population, they make up about 6 percent of the undergraduate chemistry department and around 3 percent of the biomedical-engineering department. But those numbers drop at the graduate level, where African-American students make up just 3.6 percent of chemistry Ph.D. students and 1 percent in biomedical engineering.

According to a report by the National Science Foundation 2.5 percent of the people who received doctoral degrees in science and engineering in 2006 were black non-Latino. For a bachelor's degree in science and engineering, in 2006, 8.3 percent were black non-Latino.

This year, there are nine black students in the biomedical-engineering program, 10 in chemistry, 10 in biochemistry, five in mathematics, and three in microbiology, according to the Registrar's Office.
In 2009, 10.3 percent were minority students — 2.4 percent were black.

"I think that it's really important that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields become more diverse," said Vicki Grassian, the associate head of the UI chemistry department.

The conference will feature a welcome address from UI President Sally Mason this morning and a speech from keynote speaker Andre Palmer of Ohio State University.

Workshops on networking, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, and research will also be included.

"I think that we are doing quite a bit here, but I think there is more we could do. We need to bring the best and brightest minds [to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics departments]," Grassian said.

Though registration numbers were not as high as some hoped — approximately 75 out of the 100-person goal — UI members of the black chemists organization are excited about the activities.

"It's a really good chance to get a lot of students involved in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas," said Alex Lodge, the secretary of the UI chapter.

Watkins, who will present some of her research on wet chemical etching at the conference, said members of the national organization go to local schools to do experiments and demonstrations.

"By seeing minority students doing experiments, I think it makes a difference," she said, and the group hopes to plant a seed with young students and encourage them to consider majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas.

UI sophomore Tevin Robbins, a student-programs coordinator of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said the conference is a good showcase for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students, but he said minority students don't carry big names on campus.

"We have good resources, but we're still in the shadows," he said.

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