When Texas A&M University took to the gridiron against its sister institution Prairie View A&M University for the first time in 2016, a new college football rivalry was born. But despite their fierce competitive nature on the field, when it comes to research and education, the two colleges couldn’t be more strongly united.
More than two dozen chemistry majors from Prairie View A&M visited the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry before the Panthers’ most recent encounter with the Aggies on Nov. 20. The students were welcomed by department head Simon North and learned about Texas A&M’s central initiatives in chemical research through presentations by esteemed faculty members Sarbajit Banerjee, a Davidson Chair in Science and 2019 Chancellor’s EDGES Fellow; Wenshe Liu, a Gradipore Chair in Chemistry, 2021 Chancellor’s EDGES Fellow and 2018 Presidential Impact Fellow; and Karen Wooley, a distinguished professor, W.T. Doherty-Welch Chair in Chemistry, 2021 SEC Professor of the Year and 2017 Presidential Impact Fellow.
David Powers, an associate professor of chemistry at Texas A&M who led organizational efforts to bring the two departments together, sees potential for a partnership capable of uniting the chemical research enterprises of the two schools and creating a new pipeline for traditionally underrepresented students to achieve a graduate education.
“I think that there’s been a longstanding interest in trying to build relationships between the faculty, between the students, between the research initiatives of our universities, and it seemed like a great opportunity to combine scientific interaction with a football game,” Powers said. “The diversity of Prairie View A&M’s student body is an exciting chance to engage new people in chemical research and get them thinking about graduate school.”
Pregame events wrapped with a tour of the department’s laboratory facilities led by chemistry graduate student volunteers in which Prairie View A&M students were able to ask questions and get a close-up look at some of the state-of-the art instrumentation accessible to researchers.
The day marked a homecoming of sorts for Prairie View A&M chemists Sameh Abdelwahed and Marco Giles, both of whom were postdoctoral research associates in Texas A&M Chemistry (Abdelwahed in the Tadhg Begley Group from 2009 to 2018 and Giles in the Wooley Research Group from 2014 to 2015) prior to accepting assistant professor positions at Prairie View A&M. When it comes to successfully diversifying STEM, Giles says “representation matters,” citing his own personal experiences as a college student as tangible proof.
“As an African American male who attended a historically Black college for undergraduate study, it was a bit of a culture shock migrating into graduate school,” Giles said. “Thankfully, I had a strong support system of peers from a broad array of cultural backgrounds, including my own. The blended atmosphere helped us all to endure the rigors of graduate study much easier, and gatherings like this one are necessary to introduce students to the graduate environments that they could one day be a part of.”
Prairie View A&M is one of the more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities in America. It’s a public land-grant university and second-oldest institution of higher learning in the state, located less than an hour from the Texas A&M University System’s flagship campus in College Station. According to their website, fall 2021 enrollment figures indicate that more than 90 percent of students at Prairie View A&M identified as either Black or Hispanic.
As the numbers of minority and first-generation college students continue to increase nationwide, Powers notes that larger universities should be taking a keen interest in the demographics of their graduate school enrollment.
“The reason historically underrepresented groups are underrepresented is because we need to encourage participation,” he said. “I think one of the things we’re trying to do here is remove some of the anxiety that comes with entering a new environment in which they’re suddenly part of the underrepresented by trying to build that personal connection.”
Powers’ idea to establish a partnership between Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M’s chemistry departments originated from a program he had started under a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant he received in 2019 to give presentations about advanced science education at historically Black colleges across the state. After a visit to Prairie View A&M later that year during which he personally witnessed their sense of community and passion for science, Powers decided that establishing these relationships would be more impactful if reciprocal visits were involved — a chance for both their students and faculty to come to Texas A&M and learn about its chemistry graduate program firsthand.
“Building the human infrastructure of science requires us to engage with student populations from all over the place,” Powers said. “Texas A&M Chemistry is dedicated to finding and retaining the most talented and diverse set of students we can find. We think that Prairie View A&M is a great partner in developing those students, and together we’re going to advance the research enterprise of the Texas A&M System.”
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