Freeman Hrabowski talking to a group of students. He is outlined in blue lines to highlight him in the group.

Freeman Hrabowski has a strong track record of increasing diversity in science.Credit: Marlayna Demond for UMBC

Changemakers

This Nature Q&A series celebrates people who fight racism in science and who champion inclusion. It also highlights initiatives that could be applied to other scientific workplaces.

Even though he officially retired from a 30-year career as president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2022, Freeman Hrabowski’s calendar is still packed with invitations to share his wisdom on science education and workforce development with leading US university, government and business leaders. They all want to know the secrets to increasing diversity in scientific disciplines — something for which Hrabowski holds a long and storied track record.

Growing up in Alabama during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Hrabowski says he drew on those experiences when he created the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC in 1988, which became a leading model for increasing the diversity of university students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In 1990, roughly 3% of US science and engineering PhDs were awarded to Black scholars. Since 1993, more than 1,500 students have graduated through the Meyerhoff programme; 448 went on to earn PhDs, including 78 who gained MD/PhDs. The programme has been replicated at numerous US universities, most recently at Stony Brook in New York, with a US$56.6 million investment in 2022 from the Simons Foundation.

How have you dealt with racism in your personal and professional life?

When I was growing up in Alabama, I was sitting in the back of church when I first heard a man named Martin Luther King Jr speak. (I also spent a week in jail after taking part at the age of 12 in the children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 — a peaceful protest against racial segregation.) King posed this question to the group: what will it take to open the eyes and hearts of people to allow our children to go to better schools?

From that point on, I realized my love of maths could be used to solve problems — including those associated with social justice. Teachers and fellow students would question my presence in maths and science classes or ignore me, but I learnt not to be a victim and to use these moments to help faculty and classmates become more sensitive to equity issues. For example, I asked one teacher why he wrote “you did surprisingly well” on my test; at the end of the course, he admitted it was because I was his first Black student. He shared that story of how I helped to reframe his perspective at his retirement party 30 years later.

In the early years of Meyerhoff, some of my male faculty members would ask why we needed this programme if they were nice to all students. I said when you are the only one in the room that looks like you, it feels different. I invited several of those men to spend one full day at a historically Black university. And they all came back with a new appreciation of how isolating it can feel — even when people are nice. I also pointed out they were only there for one day and as 50-year-olds. Imagine being a 17-year-old in university. We’re not trying to do ‘warm and fuzzy’ at UMBC; we’re trying to understand perspective.

When did you decide to tackle diversity in science?

The first thing I did when I arrived at UMBC in 1987 as vice-provost was look at what the data could tell us. Large numbers of students — not just students of colour — were not succeeding in science and engineering. It turned out that many of them didn’t have a background to do well in maths. It was clear that we needed to be asking the right questions about what level of maths background was necessary to succeed in chemistry or physics. We then talked to students.

At the same time, philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff wanted to increase the representation of Black men in STEM. I wrote a one-page request for $500,000. Robert Meyerhoff read it and approved it on the spot. In the first year, 1989, the Meyerhoff programme admitted only Black men. It expanded to include Black women in 1990. (Since 1996, it has been open to anyone who is committed to increasing diversity in STEM fields.) I decided to find the highest-achieving students in maths and science and help them to be better than they thought they could be. Some people thought it was elitist, but the approach worked.

The programme has a few key features. The summer bridge programme is crucial. Students spend a summer before university begins studying maths, English and science, so they build a strong foundation in the basics before taking higher-level courses. Another key component is building community. My research had shown that even the highest-achieving students were not succeeding in science, so we also emphasized the importance of peer support and working in groups. I say it takes scientists to produce scientists. The sooner that students get involved in labs with real-life science, the more excited they can be.

What’s the biggest misconception about a career in science?

Too many students think that maths and science are just for a few people. School teachers give children the message early on that they’re either a maths and science student or a history and arts student. I want people to know that it’s possible to use both sides of their brains. Creativity is so important to connect disciplines to figure out the best questions to ask. Maths is about so much more than numbers. It’s about the whole Universe. It’s about patterns. It’s about how we think. The best, most effective scientists are those who ask good questions.

How do you respond to the criticism that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are ‘wokeness run amok’?

I think we should get away from the word ‘woke’ because it immediately divides people and nobody really knows what it means. The word that I use now is inclusion. And that includes white males, especially because the US demographic group that has had the greatest decline in participation in higher education is white, working-class males.

What is the best win to come out of your work?

Look at the scholars we’ve produced! These students have gone on to do amazing things. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire led the coronavirus vaccine team at the US National Institutes of Health. Kafui Dzirasa is now a tenured professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in neuroscience. He invented a ‘pacemaker for the brain’ to help people with mental illness . Most importantly, Meyerhoff students are committed to paying it forward. Dzirasa comes back to UMBC one day a month to mentor students. That’s the legacy of Meyerhoff.

What’s a surprising fact about you?

I did not decide to study another language, French, until I was around 65 years old. Students sometimes look at me strange and say, “Don’t you think you’re kind of old?” I have studied one hour a day for the past seven years and I jump at every chance to speak French with others.