May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

A Faculty Testimonial

Jonathan A. King

Years back I was privileged to have a very talented African-American graduate student. She was awarded her PhD for a superior thesis in physical biochemistry. Though offered a prestigious research fellowship, she decided that the best way to serve her community was to go into science education. She did a postdoctoral fellowship in that field, and then wrote a proposal to the NIH for an outreach program directed to high school biology and chemistry teachers, based on her thesis research, to be located in the Biology Department. She was awarded the grant (very few such grants were then awarded by NIH) as well as full salary as an Instructor.

When we received the notice, I started the process of getting her appointed as an Instructor. At the levels of Department, School, and Institute I was told her appointment had to be as Technical Instructor, not Instructor, because of some argument that the teachers she would be instructing weren’t MIT students. Neither she nor I viewed that appointment as recognizing her substantial accomplishments and professional stature. This was during a period of considerable discussion of the need to make MIT friendlier and more supportive of scientists of color. In her experience, the ensuing reports turned out to be merely public relations.

I told members of the Administration that she wouldn’t stay under those conditions, and that we would lose a unique member of our scientific and educational staff. Even the chair of the committee responsible for increasing diversity offered no support. Note that despite the current substantial pool of highly-trained African-American biomedical and biochemical scientists (some of whom have benefitted from Mandana Sassanfar’s summer programs), the MIT Biology Department has no Black faculty members. Is it any wonder that Black members of the biomedical research community, inside and outside of MIT, don’t all view MIT as a bastion of progress?