UMBC’s Freeman Hrabowski is namesake of new $ 1.5 billion scholars program

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One of the country’s largest biomedical research institutions has pledged $ 1.5 billion to support scientists of color in university laboratories, an effort heavily influenced by the work of outgoing University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, officials announced Thursday.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will sponsor up to 150 early-career scientists – with a focus on scholars from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds – over the next decade and cover their salaries, a research budget, equipment and other costs, the organization said in a statement. The support could total up to $ 8.6 million for each scholar, the institute said.

Hrabowski, who is retiring from UMBC at the end of July, said he was moved by the institute’s decision to name the program after him.

“This will help us diversify the workforce, the professorship, and that is such a major challenge in America right now,” he said in an interview.

He transformed a small university in Maryland. Now Freeman Hrabowski is ready for his next act.

Hrabowski rose to national prominence as he transformed UMBC, a small public school outside Baltimore, into a leading producer of engineers and scientists of color. The university’s banner Meyerhoff Scholars Program has been the training ground for Black scientists including former US surgeon General Jerome Adams and Kizzmekia Corbett, the immunologist who led the team that developed the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.

Throughout Hrabowski’s 30-year tenure, university leaders across the country have pressed him for the secret to building a university at which students of color – traditionally underrepresented in science, math, technology and engineering fields – excel. He has also been criticized, he said, by people who have said the Meyerhoff program only works because Hrabowski is Black.

In reality, he said, it takes a committed leader who is willing to invest in professors of color to replicate UMBC’s success.

Leslie B. Vosshall, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer, offered a similar analysis. “The problem is that people are isolated, they’re under-resourced,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s about a systemic problem.”

The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program will attempt to offer a solution by providing long-term resources to biomedical researchers, Vosshall said. With the new funding – two to three times what a starting assistant professor typically has access to, according to Vosshall – the goal is that these scientists will have more time to build their labs, work with students and conduct research. She also hopes faculty can evade the “minority tax” – extra duties typically assigned to professors of color, such as sitting on diversity committees or running equity programs, that could take them away from their research.

“They’re distracted because they’re the one person in the department that can be sort of a beacon of diversity. A lot of their time is taken away, ”Vosshall said. She added that Freeman Hrabowski scholars would be expected to spend 80 percent of their time directing their labs and performing research, a stipulation that “gives them the power to say ‘no'” to other demands for their time.

University of Maryland Baltimore County joins ranks of the country’s research powerhouses

While private organizations such as HHMI can help campuses become more inclusive, Vosshall said it is important that universities follow through on their own promises to increase diversity and achieve equity. “We want them to have some sort of longer-term plan for how they’re going to take the principles of our program and apply it to everything that they do,” she said.

Hrawbowski said the rollout of the program is timely. Exaggerated by the pandemic, the public’s trust in science and medicine is waning. The share of Americans who said they do not have much or any confidence in medical scientists grew from 14 to 22 percent between November 2020 and December 2021, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center.

“We need the public to trust science and medicine, and they will only trust us if we can see more people from more backgrounds as experts,” Hrabowski said. “Often when we talk about diversity, it comes across something we ought to do because it’s the right thing… this is about the future of humankind.”

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