This article is the continuation of A black history month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris. Dr. Vernon Morris is currently a professor of Chemistry at Howard University.
Anwar Dunbar: So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there. Just briefly, talk about your research.
Vernon Morris: We’re working on a lot of stuff, but the work revolves around trying to get a better quantitative understanding of how atmospheric particulates influence the chemistry of the atmosphere and climate across multiple scales. These are multiple spatio-temporal scales. There are time scales because the lifetime of aerosols tends to be days to months, but their influence in the atmosphere tends to range from that time scale to much longer time scales as clouds change their optical properties; that influences radiative balance and seasonal fluctuations. If you look at particle evolution, once an aerosol is formed and injected into the atmosphere from the ground layer, how does it influence and have these multiplying effects across larger spatial fields as it moves around the atmosphere, and through larger temporal scales as it effects something that has a multiple “follow on” effect?
The ship experimental cruises allow us to look at the transport of aerosols that are transmitted from Africa either from the Sahara Desert or as a result of burning biomass from Slash and Burn agriculture. Particles get into the atmosphere and influence tropical cyclone development, and they influence acidification of the upper ocean. They also influence microbiological transfer, the transfer of microbes across hemispheres. They influence cloud properties and precipitation properties downstream and food security. So they have all of these implications that are much longer and much larger than a particular fire, or a particular dust storm. You have to connect that with field observations, laboratory studies and with space-based observations as well.
AD: My first time meeting you was here in DC at the 2012 National Organization of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference where you won the Percy Julian Award for excellence in teaching. Was that for your teaching activities at Howard, or was it for the community outreach that you do at various local schools?
VM: I think it was for the combination of teaching and mentoring. In fact, I think it was the Henry McBay award actually, though there was a separate award for Percy Julian. That was very special for me because I was a McBay mentee. I think it was a combination of teaching and producing students at the university, the outreach internationally, and then the outreach locally, the way we try to get science to the community; the underserved communities in particular.
AD: I’m a pharmacologist, so my knowledge of all of the notable African American chemists is admittedly limited.
VM: Percy Julian actually designed the chemistry building here on the Howard campus. He designed this building, designed the labs, and then laid out everything and then, because of a personal dispute with the provost and the president at the time, actually left before the building was commissioned.
AD: You know, Vernon, as you were talking just now, I was just reflecting on how important it is to know these things. A couple of years ago a mentor who himself isn’t a scientist, but who saw that I was trying to develop my own writing and mentoring voice, gave me a copy of Forgotten Genius, the documentary about Percy Julian. When I was I watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Julian’s story would have been so valuable to know when I was going through my own doctoral studies. I didn’t deal with the racism that he endured, but just the scientific process; so many experiments have to be done before you finally get to the ones that actually work and generate quality data. That documentary conveyed the essence of science, and it took me a while to figure that all out while I was working on my own thesis. It would have been so valuable to know beforehand.
VM: We actually screened that film here. We used to show it on a regular basis to our chemistry majors because it’s very eye opening and shows the commitment that you have to have, in addition to some of the resilience you have to have for things to work out. That guy was brilliant.
AD: Yes, and there is a whole culture to what we do as scientists, and the story conveyed that as well.
At the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference there were numerous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) panels discussing what needs to be done to get African American kids involved in STEM. You actually go out and do it on the grassroots level though. You and Miles Holloman, you guys get the chemistry experiments and scientists together, and you go to the various schools in Washington, DC, which is very, very impressive and it’s very necessary. How did you all get started doing the Community Science festivals? Also, what was your motivation for doing so?
VM: We started in 2009 and part of our motivation is that we were seeing fewer and fewer students from Washington, DC who were coming to chemistry, or even coming to Howard and majoring in STEM at all. Secondly, Miles is from DC. He grew up here and went to Dunbar High School and was thus familiar with the school systems close to campus. I had become more and more familiar with the school systems and some of the deficiencies that needed addressing: retention in science, challenges to science education, and so it was really a response to the fact that our kids weren’t getting science. They weren’t getting access to science mentors. They weren’t getting access to why science is fun and it’s an exploratory kind of thing. Even when I was young, while I didn’t get encouragement from the school, I was always encouraged to get out and explore nature. I had telescopes. I had microscopes. I had computing machines and equipment that my father would buy. There was no resource for science that I didn’t have access to in the house. It’s just that when I went to school, I had teachers shuttle me to things like woodshop.
But here in DC, Howard is sitting right in the middle of the community and there wasn’t an effort that I could readily latch onto that was readily going into the community or to the schools and saying, “Here is a network of Ph.D.s and professionals in STEM, and now here is your resource for your teaching or for your classes.” I couldn’t find anything, so I said let’s just start going out a little bit. We can put together some experiments, and it will help both the undergraduate and the graduate students communicate science, and build some of that giving back mindset towards the community. It has been sustained, which is great, and I think the students have picked up on it and really enjoy it.
AD: So the kids at the schools you’re going to, they really enjoy it?
VM: Yes, the kids really enjoy it in addition to the Howard undergraduate and graduate students. I think we’re getting better at it as well. At the most recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Day, the coordinator actually came over to our booth, thanked us and told us that we were one of the favorite tables there. I think we find things that are engaging and bring the science to the kids’ level. And the community is important. Its good to have those more polished events and venues to go to, but I think it’s equally, if not more important, to get out into the community because it not only brings experience and exposure to the kids, but we can also talk to the parents about how to support them, and I think that’s what is missed.
All of these diversity programs are great, but the parents and the schools are deficient, we know that. One of the things I notice about our Caucasian and Asian counterparts is that their parents are heavily invested. Even for me, without my parents encouragement, it was not going to happen. And so one of the things we try to stress when we go out is that the parents come. So before they drop off the kids, or when they’re standing around watching, we always have a student or someone talking to them saying, “Your child really likes this. Do you know about this or that resource? We’ve got these camps that they can come and apply to, some of which are free.” We try to get information to their parents to support their kids, so that’s what the difference is going to be. We’ve had STEM programs for the last 30 to 40 years, but the percentage of African Americans going into STEM hasn’t changed, and it’s because we haven’t engaged the parents.
This interview will conclude in part three of A black history month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris.