Two young black scientists seek to empower, shift mindset of blacks

By Jennifer O'Brien

Two young, black scientists at the University of California, San Francisco—with scientific achievements already behind them - are working to achieve another goal, as well - to change the ethnic landscape of the biomedical sciences. The researchers—Frederick Moore, PhD, a UCSF postdoctoral fellow in human genetics who has already made insights into the genes involved in male infertility, and Michael Penn, Jr., PhD, who has made findings regarding the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) at the UCSF Gladstone Institute for Virology and Immunology and who will receive his MD in May as part of the UCSF MD-PhD program - are leading a charge to shift the expectations that young blacks and Latinos have for their lives, encouraging young black and Latino students to enter the biomedical sciences and helping them to navigate the particular challenges they face in the world of academia.
In 2001, Moore and Penn co-founded the nonprofit “Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences,” aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented minorities obtaining PhDs or MD-PhDs in the biomedical sciences.

And on Tuesday, March 25, Moore and Penn’s foundation will get a boost from Hollywood - at a special movie premier of the science fiction thriller “The Core,” starring black actor Delroy Lindo. In the movie, Lindo plays a geophysicist and inventor who becomes a member of a team of gifted scientists bent on saving the world from total destruction. The special premier, the brainchild of Lindo and hosted by Paramount, is intended to raise money for the Building Diversity nonprofit, as well as for The African American Male Achievers Network and The Algebra Project.

The need to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in engineering, math and the sciences is great. In the biological sciences, for instance, blacks and Latinos represent less than 6 percent of PhD scientists. Moore and Penn, who received their PhDs at UCSF and who say they have tutored and mentored hundreds of minorities during their academic careers, are now applying what they learned along the way.

“There is a completely different culture in science - one that I had to learn how to integrate, while keeping my identity and personality.  I want to teach students this culture before they get to graduate school in order to make an already hard transition easier,” says Moore.

“Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences,” which will be launched next year, will include the mentoring effort that Moore and Penn currently carry out with high school and college students - particularly those at junior colleges, “where many minorities are,” says Moore. But the team is also working to raise funds to provide stipends for undergraduate students to do summer research at UCSF and possibly at University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and biotech companies, as well. They also are in the process of developing a computer-based, on-line site for addressing issues affecting black and other minority students in the sciences—to provide advice on courses to take, information about scholarships, tips for stress management and approaches for handling perceived racism.

But Moore and Penn’s ultimate intent is broader yet - to reach out to youth not inspired academically. “The young black community has perpetuated the attitude that excelling in school isn’t ‘cool.’ If young black males were exposed to educated black men with whom they share things in common, then a change in this stereotype could occur,” says Moore, who was inappropriately placed in the slow reading group in third grade, did the minimum amount of work in high school to get by with Cs and Bs, and socialized—until he let his intellect take off. A near-fatal car crash left him with time to reflect, and he eventually moved with strong intent into the California community college system and on to University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with a B.A. in molecular and cell biology and with honors in genetics.

“I wish someone had sat me down early on and explained that black people are viewed differently by society and that the first step in taking control of your destiny is a good education….There were steps I needed to take to ‘deprogram’ the perception of myself left by society and reprogram myself to live up to my potential,” he wrote in an essay included in the 2000 book “Brothers of the Academy…Up and Coming Black Scholars Earning Our Way in Higher Education.”

“The black community focuses a lot on being social,” says Moore. “The creative potential in the black community is limitless and is an untapped resource in the sciences.”
Penn, who also wrote a chapter for “Brothers of the Academy,” emerged more directly as a scholar. He excelled in math and science at the academic Lowell High School in San Francisco and moved on to Morehouse College in Atlanta on a full scholarship, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and with a 3.94 grade point average, earning himself the highest-ranking person in the biology department.

But as he wrote in his chapter of the book, there were many things he didn’t know as he tried to make his way through academia. “African Americans, in general, do not have the benefit of learned academic behaviors of success that are garnered by growing up around generations of educated people,” he wrote. Penn, whose parents were first-generation college graduates, sees himself as someone who can offer young scholars insights he didn’t have.

“The only way that we can change the ethnic landscape of science is by empowering students academically and creating opportunities for them,” says Penn.