Letter to the editor

Re: “A president’s perspective on Experimental Biology 2014,” June/July issue

Freeman Hrabowski  

I found it deeply gratifying that Jeremy Berg chose to discuss the Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award in his final presidential perspective for ASBMB Today. The recipients of that award (Michael Summers and Freeman Hrabowski III, honored for their work on the Meyerhoff Scholars Program) have proved that students traditionally marginalized in STEM can excel and achieve in those disciplines.

Summers is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, accomplished and recognized as a leader in his field of research with many award lectures behind him and many more likely to come. And yet I believe that his most significant long-term impact on science will prove to be the effect he has had on increasing minority participation and success in scientific research. For that reason, I didn’t quite share the regret Berg expressed over the fact that a discussion about Summers’ research in RNA structural biology was not part of the Kirschstein award presentation.

But I was sorry that his award lecture was not better attended. The previous award lecture – the Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry – was delivered to a standing-room-only crowd of an estimated 1,000 people. At the end of that talk, there was a mass exodus from the room, and some 150 people, primarily educators, remained to hear Summers talk about the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. This stark contrast does not go unnoticed by those most interested in (and affected by) issues of diversity in science.

Michael Summers  
Michael Summers gives his award lecture at the ASBMB annual meeting in San Diego in April  

One undergraduate student wrote: “Just before the (Kirschstein) award ceremony started, I was surprised that many people left after the protein folding talk, but not many new people came into the room. The room felt a lot more empty. It was probably because only a few people are interested in and care about the inequality of races in the science field. I think everyone should be showing an interest … I was inspired and realized that everyone’s awareness of inequality is essential, and bringing equality requires everyone’s effort.”

My colleague Regina Stevens-Truss arranged for a few students attending the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting to interview Summers about his work in the Meyerhoff program after his award lecture. The interview is archived at the ARCUS Center for Social Justice Leadership in the Praxis Center ( http://www.kzoo.edu/praxis/category/science/).

At the end of his talk, Summers said, “We are all in the right place at the right time to have an impact.” Let’s make that impact happen by showing up for this award, supporting inclusivity in science and building sincere interest in the many benefits of diversity in science.

- Laura Furge, the Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney professor and chair of chemistry at Kalamazoo College