In conversation with Vernon Morris

The co-author of a recent paper on diversity in professional STEM societies talks about access to science.


Vernon Morris, image used with his permission.

This post is part of black mathematician month.

Meet Vernon Morris; a chemist, a mathematician and an active contributor to making everyone aware of the race gap in academia and industry.

Becoming an academic

Given the successes of his academic career, it is surprising to hear that Vernon Morris “never planned to go to college. A lot of folks where I was growing up, they didn’t really go to college. They went into the air force or they tried to find a job.” He was good at boxing when he was at high school and thus was given two options: either join the air force (“because they had a good boxing programme”) or become a professional boxer right away.

Vernon working on his project; Image reproduced with his permission

But fate intervened, and Vernon started at college in Atlanta. “I left for college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to major in.” He was on his way to his part-time job when, cutting through the Department of Chemistry, he bumped into a professor who was so intrigued by him that he offered him a scholarship. “But there was a catch. You have to major in chemistry and you have to major in maths, because you can’t do chemistry without maths. I accepted his offer.” This professor was Henry McBay, a man who is responsible for more African-American PhD students (over 50) than any other single person. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that Vernon considers him as a role model: “Henry McBay got me on the right path”.

Thus, in 1985 Vernon obtained a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree from Morehouse College, Atlanta, with majors in mathematics and chemistry and a minor in physics. “By the time I was about to finish, I liked maths a lot and I liked chemistry a lot. I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing.” At around that time, he was introduced to a professor and “it seemed like he was getting paid to do what he wanted to do. He had an idea, he wrote a proposal, the government would give him money and he went off and did what he wanted to do. He’d write some papers up, then go and present it. I liked that lifestyle.” But in order for Vernon to be able to do this he had to get a PhD. He commenced a research degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology, choosing atmospheric chemistry “because it was more connected to things that were happening at the time, like the ozone hole. This was a way of applying chemistry and maths to do something in the environment that was relevant to both.” There, he built laser-based instrumentation that would fly on aircraft to look at and measure aerosol interactions.

Vernon’s experiment on a research vessel; Image reproduced with his permission

Vernon completed his PhD in 1991 and was the first African American to graduate from Georgia Tech in his particular programme. He then went on to a postdoctoral position at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and later in astrochemistry and chemical dynamics as a presidential postdoctoral scholar at at the University of California Davis. But, he says, “eventually I had to grow up.” He became an assistant professor at Howard University. Later he served as the founding director of the Howard University graduate programme in atmospheric sciences. He was also a visiting scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics branch. He is currently at Howard University, where he works on aerosol processes in the Earth’s environment. “I work on research vessels in the tropical Atlantic Ocean chasing dust storms around, measuring aerosol processes, taking them back to the lab and modelling them to try and make sense of the observations.”

What should schools do

We were interested to hear Vernon’s opinions on what should be done at each different educational stage in order to encourage more black students to progress to the next level. One of the main factors, he says, is that the schools attended by minority students tend not to have degree-qualified teachers in the sciences. “You can’t teach the love, and students cannot feel the love, of the subject matter when it is being conveyed to them. Anyone who likes maths, chemistry, physics can probably go back to some instructor who inspired them by loving what they were doing.”

Hands on science lesson; Image reproduced with his permission

Another important thing for Vernon is that lessons should be more interactive, with more hands-on access. If students learn by doing, by blowing things up or building robots, then they will engage more with STEM subjects. At Howard University, Vernon and others have set up a ‘travelling science show’ where they do hands-on demonstrations, trying to show students and parents that science is accessible. “Complex concepts may go into space travel and technology and all the things going on around you, but you actually have access to those. We can show you what those fundamental concepts are, and you can master those concepts. By mastering those concepts you can be a contributor to what the next wave of technology brings, versus just a consumer.” He strongly believes in bringing science to the level of the audience, and believes that this is one way forward.

After examining the numbers, it turns out that there are more African Americans and Latinos going to college in the USA than ever before. This is a great thing, however when you break down the numbers, about 50% of these go to two-year colleges or for-profit colleges. Vernon says that in these colleges, students only rack up debt and the completion is as low as 12%. Thus even though there are more going in, you don’t have more coming out. It turns out that, looking at STEM degrees specifically, the numbers are either going down or are flat. Vernon thinks that “the opportunities are out there, but the strategies that will enable success are lacking behind some of those opportunities. Because of that, access and inclusion at the professional level, getting into the careers, is going down. We are not seeing improvement there. I think that takes a coordinated effort.”

Vernon speaking to children about sciencel; Image reproduced with his permission

According to Vernon, there is a lot of focus on getting people to study STEM subjects at school but, despite that, inclusion and access drops off at later stages. This could be because the opportunities are not distributed equitably across the whole spectrum. “It is great to see all of those programmes at the high school level, but you have to make those connections all the way through.” About 10% of African Americans attend minority-serving (or ‘historically black’) institutions in the USA, but over 25% of minority PhDs come from people who attended those institutions. “It is a huge production from a very small segment of the academic sector.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that in these institutions you see the role models that are missing elsewhere.

Personal experiences as an African American academic

Vernon on a research vessel; Image reproduced with his permission

Naturally, our conversation progressed to discussing times when he has actively been discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM. Worryingly, at every stage of his academic development there was a story to tell. At high school in Washington state when he started a calculus class, the teacher said to him, “I flunked your brother and I will flunk you too”. But that was not all. “I liked maths and science in high school, it’s just that at the time I didn’t see myself doing anything with it. I would sign up for courses and the counsellor would remove me from science and maths and put me in the wood shop or the auto shop.” Unfortunately, it did not end there. “At Georgia Tech, the first couple of days in the graduate programme people were saying ‘what are you doing here?’” A final story came from his years working at NASA. “I think I was the only African American working in the branch, but they had black administrators and folks that made the coffee. I was in the coffee room, and a guy came to me and asked me to come by his office and empty his trash.”

Vernon does not think that all this is personal, rather that people are clueless to the fact that a scientist is not always an old white man. But, he is trying to tackle this issue. At the engineering festival in DC, there is a section called ‘meet the scientist’. Here, children and parents come and ask questions about what scientists do. “I think it is important to have people of colour there and engage folk. I look like I do, and I like “sciency stuff”. You could too, and you can work with someone who looks like me or work for someone who looks like me.”

According to Vernon, a lot of the misconceptions and biases that people have arise from not asking what might be considered as difficult or awkward questions. As scientists we are taught to think that we are objective; but scientists are people, and people have biases and act on them until they are talked through and worked out. “Regardless of who we are, we have a bias and we shouldn’t suppress them and say I don’t have any. Instead, we should say: ‘Okay, I’ve got some biases and maybe we don’t even know what they are, but through conversation I can tease those out and we can interact honestly. Maybe there are things that I can do differently that will enhance access and diversity and inclusion for everybody, regardless of colour, gender, or gender identity.’”

Working towards a more diverse scientific community

Talitha Washington and Vernon Morris; Image reproduced with his permission

This is why Vernon, together with Talitha Washington, decided to write an article and address the present issues. “The paper concerns both the academic world and the professional world. The academic world has a different set of issues regarding mobility and access. When we look across many of our science departments, in the maths and physics departments in particular, there are very few minority faculty. If you never see any African American professors, or very rarely see them, then you don’t see yourself becoming one, and you say to yourself maybe I should do something else.” In geosciences and atmospheric sciences, fewer than 0.1% of PhD students are African American, and even less are Native American. But there are a lot of commonalities in the professional experience across the disciplines. For example, in maths it’s very similar: you can count the new African American PhD students in the US on two hands.

Vernon thinks that, to increase diversity in the scientific community, professional societies need to take more of the lead. “They are the bridge between education and society. If that society says we are going to make a difference here and we are going to show you how to include everyone and at leadership level, then that is a significant part of pushing things across the spectrum.”

After presenting their paper at the National Technical Association, the audience reacted to one point in particular: that it is easier to talk about diversity in terms of gender, because that solution is more readily accessible. “While a lot of the STEM societies have reached gender parity, again when you get to the leadership and decision making positions it is not 50/50. There are legitimate arguments about gender. But, what happens is because you are closer to a solution there and you see improvement at all levels , you’ve just got to fix this last problem. Whereas race conjures up a lot of guilt and defensive reaction. If you can’t talk about a problem you can’t fix it. If you can’t address the elephant in the room you get trampled. This is why difficult discussions should be encouraged.”

Niki is a PhD student at UCL, working in analytic number theory.

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastal outflows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

Rafael Prieto Curiel is doing a PhD in mathematics and crime. He is interested in mathematical modelling of any social issues, such as road accidents, migration, crime, fear and gossip.

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