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Leading the Way

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments for probing hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the elementary schooler wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Statistics can often be manipulated to cast just about anything in a positive light. It is difficult to find a silver lining, however, in the following numbers: African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, while comprising more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for only three percent (66 of 2028) of students who earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from 1985 to 2002, according to a National Science Foundation-led survey.

Another way of looking at it -- not any less troubling -- is that each of the approximately 50 astronomy or astrophysics doctorate programs in the United States graduates an average of just one underrepresented minority every 14 years.

Thompson Le Blanc
With support from NASA and the National Science Foundation, Nashville's Fisk University and nearby Vanderbilt University have established the Fisk Astronomy and Space Science Training Program, or FASST, with the goal of jumpstarting the number of minorities pursuing advanced degrees and careers in space science. Fisk, a historically black university, is one of 16 institutions to receive funding from NASA's Minority University and College Education and Research Partnership Initiative in Space Science.

Image to left: Thompson Le Blanc visits the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to learn how to operate a large telescope. Credit: Keivan Stassun

Thompson Le Blanc and Matthew Richardson are two of the FASST program's pioneering participants, a program that includes scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students, workshops for teachers, and K-12 education and outreach, including supplying telescopes to schools.

Both Hispanic and African-American, Le Blanc is the first student to participate in the graduate component of FASST, through which students earn a master's in physics at Fisk and are then fast-tracked into a Vanderbilt Ph.D. program in physics, astronomy or the biomedical sciences. The so-called master's-to-Ph.D. bridge made sense for Le Blanc, who had an undergraduate degree in computer science but lacked the strong background in physics recommended for those entering a doctorate program in astronomy.

Le Blanc's interest in astronomy was peaked during his college years when he found an old telescope in a science lab at Puerto Rico's Metropolitan University. According to Le Blanc, a native of San Juan, it was his discovery that actually helped start an astronomy program at the school. Now a second-year master's student, Le Blanc has visited Chile to learn how to operate a large telescope and is already deep into research, doing what some people said he could not.

"I have had experiences where I have had people tell me that I could not [be a scientist]," said Le Blanc, who is studying the formation of young stars and the relationship between a star's spin and its surrounding disk of gas and dust. "I guess in part the reason why I am in it now is because I want to prove that I can do it."

Matthew Richardson
Richardson, an African-American sophomore at Fisk, also majoring in physics as part of the FASST program, has likewise dived head first into astronomy research. His main task has been to process measurements from an eclipsing binary system -- a system of two stars that orbit each other -- and model variations in the stars' brightness.

Image to right: Matthew Richardson, a Fisk University sophomore, is studying variations in the brightness of stars. Credit: Keivan Stassun

Not bad for an 18-year-old from Chicago who was unsure what he wanted to specialize in when he arrived at Fisk last year.

"I just wanted to do something that involved science... and I chose physics. We were going over a lesson one day and one of the examples [the teacher] used was a star in space. It seemed very interesting... so I just figured that it would be a good field for me to try to explore," Richardson said.

The pool of minority students like Le Blanc and Richardson who possess the drive and talent to excel in space science is not as shallow as many people think, asserts Keivan Stassun, an assistant astronomy professor at Vanderbilt and one of two FASST program directors. The problem, he says, is that astronomy graduate schools are not recruiting enough from minority-rich colleges and universities, nor are they always providing the most nurturing of environments.

"We need to recognize where the minority science students are," said Stassun, who notes that the large majority of minority physics majors come from undergraduate schools that primarily serve specific ethnic groups. "The space science community has not done as much as it could to tap the wealth of minority science talent at these institutions."

While FASST has made progress on this front by establishing a direct link between the physics program at Fisk and Vanderbilt's doctorate programs in space science, it is also targeting the K-12 community with education and outreach activities. The centerpiece of this effort is the Fisk-Vanderbilt NASA Roadshow, which totes an inflatable planetarium around to local schools and community groups.

By dazzling kids with virtual tours of the night sky, FASST faculty and students hope the roadshow will help inspire the next generation of minority astronomers and space scientists. "Talent needs to be nurtured at the early levels in the educational system in order to ensure a healthy, steady stream of talent at the higher levels," Stassun said.

As for those already thinking in terms of a career in science, Le Blanc encourages them to ignore anyone who seeks to discourage.

"If they want to get into the sciences, they should definitely go for it regardless of what anybody tells them," Le Blanc said. "Only oneself can know exactly what you can or can not do. There should not be any limit put on by anybody else."

See previous Space Science Explorers articles:
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Related Resources
Fisk Astronomy and Space Science Training Program
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Minority University Research and Education Programs
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Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies