Dr. Vernon Morris: A Modern-Day Scientist to Celebrate
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest post by Anwar Dunbar
Every Black History Month there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated in Science (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). It’s worth noting, however, that there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing. One such scientist is Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University. Dr. Morris granted an interview to discuss his background, the path to his current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM.
Anwar Dunbar: First Vernon, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. There are African American scientists that we usually recognize such as George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Mae Jemison and Percy Julian for example, but I realized that there are many African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge, and in your case making a difference in the community. You’re doing great things in and out of the lab so I thought it would great to get your story out. So with that, let’s get started.
Talk a little bit about your background. Where are you from?
Vernon Morris: I’m an Air Force brat so I don’t have a traditional home to claim, because I’ve lived in 14 different places growing up. I finished high school in eastern Washington State; Spokane. I’ve been living in Washington, DC longer than any other place, so this is my home now.
AD: Now growing up, were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age? What got you interested in science?
VM: No, I actually was not exposed at all. I never had the chance to do science fairs or any of that stuff. I think my first exposure to anyone who was in science was actually one of my mother’s friends, Carolyn Clay, who was an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). I used to talk to her a little bit and she actually got me into an engineering camp late in my high school years. After that time though, I wasn’t even thinking about going to college to be perfectly honest with you. Both parents were in the Air Force. For much of my later youth my mother was a teacher and then a principal. Truthfully, the only post high school institution I was thinking about was the Air Force Academy because they had a good boxing program. I loved boxing and I thought I was pretty good. My decisions throughout most of high school revolved around how to pursue boxing.
As I said, my mother’s friend got her doctorate in chemical engineering from RPI. She had to be one of the few at that time, and I think she was working at Hanford Research Labs in Richland, Washington, which was a nuclear facility. She worked there so I would see her from time to time when she would come visit my mother.
I always did well in science, but there wasn’t much encouragement to actually do science. I liked math a lot. I liked any kind of science; physics, chemistry, biology, all of those, but I got more discouragement in school than encouragement. So she was one of the first people to say, “You know, you’re good at this stuff, so think about doing it.” So the opportunity arose to go to Seattle (University of Washington), a more populated part of the state, where the camp was held and to see that engineering was cool. I actually linked up with one of my father’s friends (a Mason) who was a steam engineer at the camp. I apprenticed with him the rest of the summer on different projects. It was interesting to see how things are being built, and how to apply the science, but it didn’t really change my course.
I ended up going to visit some friends and relatives in Atlanta. There I saw the Atlanta University (AU) complex a little bit later and frankly speaking, that had a greater influence on me. I received scholarships to go to other places, and visited them, but they didn’t have the same appeal as the AU Center. Seeing my father complete his Bachelor’s Degree toward the end of high school, really made an impression on me as well.
AD: So you went to the famous AU Center. Did you go to Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, or Morris Brown? Which one?
VM: I went to Morehouse and I had not made up my mind on a major. I was literally running around trying to find a job and ran into Henry McBay, who is a very distinguished scholar and mentor for a lot of folks who got their chemistry degrees at Morehouse; and he basically offered to buy my books and a calculator, and take care of my school supplies if I would major in chemistry.
VM: Yes, and I didn’t have enough money to say no (laughing). I said, “Sure, it’s no problem.” He told me that I would have to major in math if I majored in chemistry so that I’d understand the upper level courses. And that’s actually how I selected my major in math and chemistry. It was through Henry McBay. I was literally running to get to another part of the campus and it was oriented in such a way that the Chemistry Building was my cut through. He happened to be in the hallway and I almost ran into him. He literally told me to slow down and then asked me about where I was going, what I was trying to do, asked what my major was, and through that conversation I wound up choosing my major.
AD: Had the two of you met before? You must have made quite an impression on him for him to make that offer.
VM: No, I had never met him before. It was my first or second week at Morehouse, and he was curious about whether or not I liked Chemistry. He also introduced me to another professor who actually became my mentor later and who gave me a research job, Mr. John Hall.
AD: So you earned your Bachelor’s Degree from Morehouse. Where did you go after Morehouse?
VM: From Morehouse I went to Georgia-Tech. My doctoral studies were in Atmospheric Sciences, with applications in physical chemistry, so I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and all of the core courses in atmospheric sciences. My thesis was a combination of theoretical and experimental investigations of inorganic chlorine oxides, and the chemistry of the stratosphere. It involved the application of matrix isolation, infrared spectroscopy, some ultraviolet spectroscopy to look at short-lived intermediates, free radicals that form from low pressure and low temperature reactions. I performed quantum chemical calculations to help interpret the experimental results.
AD: And just briefly, what did you find?
VM: We found that some low temperatures stabilize some novel free radical structures that are completely unstable in the gas phase, and influence some of the heterogeneous reactions, and some of the actual gas phase chemistry that showed depletion. It was actually related to the stratospheric depletion of the ozone. At that time the stratospheric ozone hole wasn’t a well-understood phenomenon and they were trying to figure out whether it was dynamic or if it was chemical, and it turned out to be a combination of both. We looked at the chlorine oxides in particular, extensively, and then some of the nitrogen oxides and how they contributed to the ozone depletion.
AD: Now one last question about your thesis; what got you interested in atmospheric sciences?
VM: It was John Hall. I was again in a quandary about what I wanted to do, but it was either go into chemical physics, which is what he had done, or go into a more applied field. At that point the ozone hole and stratospheric depletion of ozone in general was a really big deal and there were a lot of open questions. It just seemed like a really exciting way to take the math, the chemistry and the physics and go after these larger scale environmental problems that were presenting themselves. A single discipline wasn’t enough to address them. You had to come in with a very multidisciplinary background. I liked physics. I tried to triple major in physics, but I it would have taken too long to finish so I just minored in it, and majored in the other two. I liked applying chemistry and physics, and I liked understanding the environment.
John Hall actually had a joint appointment between Georgia-Tech and Morehouse, and while he was encouraging me to go to UC-Berkley or to Harvard, or some of his alma maters, the opportunity to go to a different school and still work with him was appealing, and actually my first daughter was born before I graduated, so weighing the prospect of leaving and not being near her sort of factored into my decision.
AD: So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there. Just briefly, talk about your research.
VM: 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 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 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.
AD: So regarding the low participation in STEM in the DC schools, would that just be in Southeast DC? And would you say that’s due to budgeting? Is it an economic or a cultural issue when the parents aren’t really pushing their kids to be involved in or fostering that love for science?
VM: I don’t think it’s cultural. I think it’s socioeconomic. I think you’d find a similar thing across all cultures if the economic stresses are great enough. If the economic stresses are lower, parents have more time to go to the family science fairs or AAAS for two days. There may be some cultural aspects, and I wouldn’t say that its limited to southeast, but we know which Wards have the majority African American populations, and we target those Wards preferentially. The schools we know in those Wards tend to have the least parental engagement and that tends to be the case wherever schools are disadvantaged or challenged. You find that the parents aren’t necessarily involved and making sure the standards are met. I think cultural is too strong a way to say it. I can’t accept that as an African American culture, we don’t expect the highest in educational standards.
AD: Are the schools you go to receiving adequate resources from the school system?
VM: I think it’s changed over the last couple of years. Some of the schools have significant investments, while at other schools, there’s not enough. There’s a big differential in who gets what in DC. If you look at the overall budget in DC, people argue that it gets more money per student than a lot of other school districts that are performing better. I think some of that is the culture of the school system and the dichotomy between the governance of the school systems in Washington, DC. That’s always been vulcanized and it’s tough to enforce standards when the body who generates the standards has no authority over what goes into the schools.
There is a separate body that governs what goes into the schools. The politics of the DC schools, Michelle Rhee and all of these education gurus, its seen as a big experiment to a lot of people and the investment in the child has not been there, from what I’ve seen until recently, and I think they’re trying to do some good things now. The turf wars also create a lot of turnover of good people. It’s tough because the charter school system has degraded the amount of money that goes into the public schools and most of the schools. Now the private schools actually have access to government funding for education in DC. So you have rich kids who get additional resources, the best teachers and the smallest classroom sizes, at the expense of schools who really need novel solutions to improve education in general, but STEM education in particular.
Dunbar High School did not have a lab. There was no teaching lab in Dunbar High School until they built the new school a couple of years ago. You’ve got one of the more famous high schools in Washington DC, and they couldn’t possibly teach a lab in that school. They couldn’t teach any biology or chemistry.
AD: So when you say a turf war, are you referring to competing for dollars between public and private schools?
VM: Typically, you’ll have a public school office and the state, but since DC is a district and not a state, you have two different offices; DC city public office and then you have another office to govern the schools, but it doesn’t make any sense. You have two offices that are in charge of the public school system. So the way that it was drawn up I think is that when the schools were failing, the federal government created another office that would then take over. The authority of that office, however, never quite usurped the powers that the city already had in existence. The money goes to this other office, so they get to implement programs, but they don’t have the authority to tell the teachers what they need to do. That comes from the office that doesn’t have the money.
So you have this schism in managing the school system. And because you have that infighting there, you have the charter schools that have edged their way in, insisting they’re a part of the school system and should get some of the money, and you have the private schools that have been able to make a similar argument, because charter schools are essentially private schools as well. You have some very elite private schools in Washington DC (the International School for example), but I don’t know that they need the resources from the DC government. At the same time, you’re shutting down historical schools in the District because there are so few kids left going to them. The students get shuttled off to another school that gets over crowded as far as teaching goes. It’s very nuanced here in DC. It’s different than a state school system where you have counties and districts and where you have a well-defined hierarchy of management. Here it’s split. It’s bifurcated.
AD: What advice would you give to young African American students who are interested in science, or those who have a curiosity about it, but are not sure that they can do it?
VM: I would say this about a science career in general, it’s a very rewarding career. I really enjoy what I do and I love coming to work every day. It’s part exploration, mentoring and teaching, and writing and being creative. It’s being quantitative and using both sides of your brain. And you can give back to the community and the nation in a very unique way. And I think there are so many opportunities in science. People think, “I don’t want to do chemistry and I don’t want to sit in a lab and mix chemicals”, but there’s a whole world of stuff outside of the lab that you can do. It’s the same thing for physics or mathematics, or biology. It’s an area that if you study it, the world is open to you.
If you study science for example, you can become a writer, but if you study writing only, you won’t necessarily be able to become a scientist. I think you have much greater opportunities if you study science and follow that pathway. And I think the fulfillment is a wonderful thing for me. I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My advice would thus be: do not fear it, really engage it, and see where it can lead you.
AD: Well Vernon, thanks a lot. There were a lot of valuable nuggets that you shared and a lot of people will benefit from this. Keep up the good work and I will definitely see you soon at one of your community science festivals.
VM: Okay, that would great. We’d love to have you come out and help out Anwar.
Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist in the Federal Government where he registers and regulates Pesticides. He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University. In addition to publishing numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals, he has also published over one hundred articles for the Examiner (www.examiner.com) on numerous education and literacy related topics in the areas of; Current Events and Culture, Higher Education, Financial Literacy, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). He actively mentors youth and works to spread awareness of STEM careers to minority students. He also tutors in the subjects of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. He is a native of Buffalo, NY. He can be contacted via email at [email protected], and can be followed on Twitter @anwaryusef.