Dr Bernard Harris delivers STEM passion to young minds
The first African American to walk in space created the Harris Foundation and a successful summer STEM camp. Universities are lining up to participate
Inspired by Star Trek as a child, he now invests in technology to bring telemedicine to remote places
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
Medical doctor, researcher, astronaut, entrepreneur. Most people would be happy with just one of those careers, but one driven young man has embraced all of them. And his resume is still growing.
As a youngster, Bernard Harris, Jr had a keen interest in science, medicine and space exploration. These aspirations led him to the University of Houston (TX), where he got his bachelor of science in biology in 1978. That launched his first career as a medical doctor, researcher and astronaut at NASA.
Twenty years later, in 1999, he left NASA to get his MBA from the University of Houston Clear Lake, to prepare himself for a new career in business and entrepreneurship.
More education and work followed and today, Dr Harris is chief executive officer and managing partner of Vesalius Ventures, Inc, a Houston venture capital firm that invests in early to mid-stage healthcare technologies and companies. He is also founder of the Harris Foundation (Houston), a nonprofit organization that supports math and science education and crime prevention programs for America’s youth.
Early flickers ignite a passion
Harris’s parents divorced when he was six years old. His mother was an educator who found a job through the Bureau of Indian Affairs teaching elementary school at Navajo Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.
By the time he was in middle school, Harris’s main aspiration was space. “I was always drawn into science,” he remembers. “Like a lot of kids of that day, I was watching the space program. I was thirteen years old when we landed on the moon in 1969 and when I saw that, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.”
In high school, when it came time to pick a field that he would pursue, he chose medicine, partly because of a mentor’s influence. “We had moved to San Antonio, Texas, and there was an African American physician who befriended me and showed me what medicine was all about,” he reflects. “I also learned that there were doctors who worked at NASA in roles like flight surgeon and researcher, and some of those folks became astronauts. It was a nice way for me to put together those two aspirations.”
This is not to minimize the contribution of another of Harris’s heroes, Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy on the television series Star Trek. “He was the first person I ever saw practicing space medicine,” smiles Harris. “If you go back and look at the technologies depicted on that show,” he says, “they’re all the technologies of today. The handheld communication devices, the laptop computers and tablets were all in that show, and it inspired us.”
He continues, “In our venture capital business, one of our portfolio of companies actually has a technology that was in the sick bay on that show. When Bones would put someone on the bed, their vital signs would automatically show up on a display above their head. Our company has that technology available now.”
On to space
Harris joined NASA in 1987 as a National Research Council Fellow in endocrinology, working at Ames Research Center (Mountain View, CA). “That was my first job,” Harris recalls. “About a year later, I moved to Johnson Space Center (Houston) to work in the research area.”
In addition to his undergraduate degree and fellowship, Harris had earned a masters of medical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and completed a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN).
He joined the astronaut corps in 1990. Harris was a mission specialist on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993. Later, as payload commander on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995, he served on the first flight of the joint Russian-American space program and became the first African American to walk in space.
“I spent three weeks or so in space – over 400 hours – and traveled 7.2 million miles,” he says. “I worked as a mission specialist, crew medical officer and, on my last flight, payload commander, the highest rank that a mission specialist can have.”
Harris could have stayed at NASA. In fact, he was selected for another mission, but after ten years he elected to leave. “People don’t realize that, for every mission at NASA, we go through two to three years of training. If I had accepted, I would have been on another of those stints and, as it turned out, that mission didn’t fly for five years so I would have been there a long time.
“After a pretty complete career, I began looking at what I would do next,” says Harris. “Another interest that I had was becoming an entrepreneur. But when I left NASA, I realized I had no expertise in business, so that was my impetus for going to business school. I wanted an opportunity to go after another dream while I was still young: the dream of becoming an entrepreneur.”
Stepping into a new role
For the next three years, he served as vice president and chief scientist of a venture-backed aerospace company called Spacehab, Inc (Houston), which did space commercialization. He directed the company’s space science business. “I became very interested in the investment side and later joined Vanguard Ventures (Houston) for a year or two. I convinced them to be the lead investor for Vesalius Ventures, the company I now run.”
Founded in 2002, Vesalius is specifically involved in telemedicine. “Telemedicine started out at NASA as remote medicine,” explains Harris. “When we sent people into space, we had to monitor their health remotely, so we had to pick up information like their respiratory rate, heart rate and EKG signals and send them back down to Earth where flight surgeons would assess their health. That was the beginning of telemedicine.
“Now, it’s becoming the way we practice medicine,” he elaborates. “Back in the old days, physicians physically made house calls. Today, we can do virtual house calls and monitor patients remotely.”
Vesalius Ventures, says Harris, invests in “those technologies that enable better delivery of healthcare.”
The Harris Foundation
Before his career as an entrepreneur, Harris founded the organization that bears his name. “This was a direct result of my time at NASA,” he explains. “As astronauts, we were asked all the time to come and speak at schools in different communities. I discovered there were gaps in education for young people, particularly for disadvantaged youth.
“I wanted to do my part to develop programs that would be relevant to those communities around the country. I had the visibility, and I talked with parents, kids and educators. We created some programs, initially a crime prevention program called Dare to Dream, followed by the summer science camps. We learned that the best way to attract partners was through the creation of a 501(c)(3) organization. That became the Harris Foundation in 1998.”
The Harris Foundation has partnered with NASA, the National Science Foundation, and ExxonMobil, which was the foundation’s main education partner for eight years, notes Harris. “With their help, we were able to expand our signature program, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp (EMBHSSC). Initially, we were involved with only two universities, but today that number is twenty.” Each university accepts fifty students annually who come to the camp at no charge. Only one out of five or six applicants is selected.
Getting kids in on STEM
The camps started as a means to get minority youth interested in the science field. “When we started over fifteen years ago, we didn’t use the term STEM,” Harris points out. “Today, we realize that this isn’t just a concern for minority youth, but for all youth. But we still maintain our focus on the socially and economically disadvantaged.”
The composition of the participants reflects the composition of the community in which the college is located. “City College of New York will have mostly minority students, whereas colleges like the University of Colorado will have a majority of white students coming from rural areas, but they have similar issues.”
There are several benefits to universities that sponsor these camps. “First of all, most universities want to do community outreach, and this program is a great way to do that. These summer programs bring in top students from the community who might eventually come to the university.”
Harris proudly points out that 98 percent of camp participants graduate from high school and attend college. Among these students, 75 percent pursue STEM degrees. About 90 percent credit the camp with influencing their thoughts about college.
There is a waiting list of colleges and universities that want to participate. “We go through a call for proposals every October,” says Harris. “The selection happens in December, and then we bring in staff from each university for spring training. After the summer camp, we bring the school back in for a ‘lessons learned’ seminar. Every school has to reapply because we don’t want anyone becoming complacent. It’s a competitive program for students and schools alike.”
WPI: a case study in camp success
One of the colleges hosting a camp this year was Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI, Worcester, MA). Founded in 1865, WPI is one of the nation’s first engineering and technology universities. This is the fifth time in six years that WPI has been selected to host.
WPI’s theme for this year’s camp was “Materials and Methods for a Sustainable World.” “Sustainability is top-of-mind right now globally,” explains Bonnie Hall, WPI director of multicultural affairs. “It encompasses a lot of different areas of STEM: all the engineering disciplines, as well as the sciences, even including system dynamics. The fact that we can expose middle school campers to these concepts is pretty exciting.”
Students stay overnight on campus during the two-week camp and participate in classes taught by university faculty, secondary teachers and local STEM professionals. As part of the interactive, inquiry-based curriculum, campers explore local museums, nature centers and ecosystems to discover science at work in their communities.
“What is unique about this camp is that it is coed, residential, and geared toward middle school, so it really targets students at fundamental developmental stages socially, personally and academically. It’s that threshold when they’re impressionable, and you can guide them into STEM. This is when they start to go in tracks: they’re either going to take more rigorous STEM courses in high school or they’re not. It’s a challenging program,” Hall admits, “but it is very, very impactful.”
WPI begins recruiting for the Bernard Harris camp in March. The school uses a variety of outreach mechanisms including its networks of community-based organizations: churches and groups like the YMCA and YWCA that serve underrepresented populations. It does targeted mailings to city support programs as well as to Worcester public schools to be sure the point people at these places get applications to students.
What does WPI get out of all of this? “We get support for what we’re doing in STEM outreach,” says Hall. “This is not the only outreach that we offer, but the camp is a phenomenal addition to our programming. It’s very successful, the statistics are high, and it’s something that we want to highlight.”
The rewards of helping others
As for Bernard Harris, after successful careers in medicine, science and business, what’s next? “There’s always something,” he says with a laugh. “I get the most from working with young people, helping them to discover their dreams and their abilities.”
He also points out the rewards of helping others through healthcare technology. “When I put on my Vesalius hat, we are investing in and promoting companies that are going to change how we deliver healthcare.”
Harris cites a project in Africa, working with groups to bring cancer centers to the continent. “In all of Africa, there are only three cancer centers,” he explains. “In many countries, they don’t even have oncologists. Cancer is growing, and by the time a lot of people get to see someone, the disease is already in its end stage. We can put cancer centers there and use telemedicine to link them to academic medical centers here in the United States and provide care that has been unavailable in the past.”
For a man who’s achieved so much, Harris still carries the enthusiasm of someone on a brand new adventure. “This is a very exciting time for me,” Harris believes, “because I feel I’m doing things that are making a difference.”
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