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Aug. 1, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-855.

KU trains minority scientists to increase the short supply

LAWRENCE — In the sub-zero temperatures of Antarctica, a robotic metal box on wheels the size of a computer printer makes its way along the surface of a glacier. Once it has stopped, its belly opens and the robot plants a geophone spike that looks something like a drill a foot below the surface. That spike is a sensor that records ground vibration.

“When the vibration comes back, if it’s a strong vibration, then that proves the glacier still has a strong foundation,” said Cheniece Arthur, a junior at Elizabeth City State University who’s at the University of Kansas for the summer. “Where if the vibration is weaker that means the glacier is melting because there’s water underneath, which means the glacier is moving to warmer water.”

The robot doesn’t exist yet, but Arthur is bringing it to life on her computer screen.

As a part of KU’s efforts to increase the number of minorities practicing science, she is one of three students from the historically African-American university studying computer science, and global warming in the process, at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets on KU’s west campus.

“It’s kind of like creating a video game, but it’s not as animated,” Arthur said. “You start, for instance, with a square and then you can transform that square into a cube, then you add wheels on it, and you add the systems and different components that a robot would consist of.”

She and her teammate, Elizabeth City State sophomore Bryce Carmichael, are helping researchers design a robot for use during expeditions to the polar regions.

“Before, humans actually went out and planted seismic sensors in the snow. It was cold out, (it was) manual labor, it was expensive,” Carmichael said. “Robots might cost more, but it’s more efficient, it saves lives. Robots don’t complain, they just get the job done.”

Another Elizabeth City State student, junior Uniquiea Wade, is helping CReSIS researchers analyze data from their expedition last spring.

“They get the chance to apply things they learn that are mostly theoretical, like math and physics,” said Arvin Agah, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at KU. “It is important to developing future generations of graduate students.”

The students are receiving an opportunity often reserved for graduate students, and they also know they are a part of an even smaller group: African-American scientists.

“When I came here for a conference during spring break, they gave us a realistic view,” Wade said. “They said only five African-Americans got their master’s degree in any type of science from KU (that year).”

African-Americans accounted for 2.8 percent of scientists and engineers with doctoral degrees in 2003. Hispanics made up 2.5 percent, and Asians made up 15.8 percent, according to a National Science Foundation report released in June. The American Geological Institute reports that African-Americans and Hispanics represent only 5 percent of geoscience degrees granted in the United States.

African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians make up 12.8, 14.1 and 4.2 percent of the population, respectively.

“That’s something we try to address. Hopefully by bringing them from minority schools we can have more students getting degrees, then going on to get Ph.Ds. Then more students getting their Ph.Ds will inspire even more students,” said Agah.

The Department of Geology at KU tries to address the issue through a relationship with the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. The program is partially funded by Exxon Mobil.

Alex Martinez skipped his graduation ceremony in Puerto Rico to be the only student from his university studying with CReSIS researchers this summer. He said he does not give much thought to being in the minority of scientists.

“In Puerto Rico, I’m not a minority,” Martinez said. “But when I came here, you’re in a different box.”

His KU adviser, George Tsoflias, assistant professor geology, has spent years in the oil and gas industry, federal government and academia.

“Of course, there’s always the question, ‘why don’t we have minority geologists and minority geophysicists?’ ” he said. “Then we look at colleges and the numbers are not there. If students are not graduating, how are we going to bring them into industry or academia?”

“It’s extremely important to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science,” Tsoflias said.

“I think sometimes we’re not given an equal chance compared to other races, but at the same time you’ve got to put forth the effort to get where you want to get in life,” said Carmichael.

Tsoflias says industry and the government are taking notice of the need to fill a void.

“We need to start not only bringing in undergraduates and encouraging them to do that, we need to start earlier, we need to go to high schools, we need to introduce students much earlier so when they come to college they do have an interest in geology or geophysics or engineering,” he said.

Arthur says a more diverse population of scientists would help her not only in class but eventually when she’s working in the field.

“Sometimes when you can relate to somebody, it makes the process a lot easier not just in school but in life period,” she said.

But she says she’s in no hurry to get to work. She still has too much to learn in the classroom and the lab.

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