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June/July 2018

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Four college pals stick together through PhDs and beyond

Graduate school requires mental endurance. These four friends helped each other stay the course

Friendships forged in college can last a lifetime, especially those formed around shared interests and aspirations.

That’s how it was for four young African American men who came together at Southern University Agricultural and Mechanical College (Baton Rouge, LA) and encouraged each other through their undergraduate years, all the way to their PhDs in electrical engineering.

Each one found a discipline that suited him best: biomedicine, materials science and optics, RF and microwave engineering, and nanotechnology.

“We have our own little fraternity going,” says Justin Boone, now a radio frequency microwave design engineer for defense contractor Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, VA) at its Baltimore, MD site. “We kept each other motivated.”

Brandon Richard, who specializes in materials science and optics, works for Northrop Grumman in Huntsville, AL. Eric Huey, who did his PhD work with nanowires, is a chemical etching process engineer for Intel Corp (Santa Clara, CA), working in Hillsboro, OR. Frank Alexander is heading to Munich, Germany to do postdoctoral research in biomedical micro-electro-mechanical systems for cancer diagnostics as a Whitaker Scholar, working at biotech company cellasys GmbH.

Forming a close bond
Before Boone and Alexander entered Southern University as freshmen in 2005, they had met at the school’s Timbuktu Academy, a pre-college summer program for students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Boone grew up in Lake Charles, LA and Alexander was from Georgia. Boone’s older brother, already a student at Southern, introduced them to Huey and Richard, who were both from Baton Rouge. The friendship among the four began to grow. They often had classes together and would team up for class projects.

“We spent a lot of time in the engineering building,” says Alexander. “Sometimes we were there until twelve or one o’clock in the morning studying and helping each other. We formed real bonds while doing coursework together.”

As they got closer to their 2009 graduation date, Richard was fairly sure that he wanted to pursue a post-graduate degree. Boone was considering pressing on to a doctorate, but couldn’t see how he could afford it. Huey had been awarded a GEM fellowship, but hadn’t yet found a grad school to attend. Alexander was not yet committed to graduate education.

In spring 2009, three of the four friends attended the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) national convention in Las Vegas, NV. There they met Bernard Batson, director of the diversity and outreach program for the College of Engineering at the University of South Florida (Tampa). He also knew Huey through USF’s GEM coordinator, and recruited all four into the school’s PhD program.

Batson connected the friends with support from the Florida Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate program. Bridge to the Doctorate is funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide eligible universities with funding for LSAMP alumni: $30,000 for the first two years of a doctoral program, full tuition, fees and health insurance.

NSF created the initiative in 2003 and has funded five separate site awards at USF. Boone, Alexander, Richard and Huey were in USF’s fourth cohort.

“LSAMP is a signature NSF program for students from underrepresented groups,” says Batson. “Over the past ten years, USF has created a critical mass of minority STEM graduate students. We’ve created a community of scholars, a family atmosphere.”

Fewer than two percent of PhDs in STEM disciplines go to African Americans, according to several sources, and an even smaller percentage to African American males.

A bridge to new possibilities
When the young men first visited the USF campus, they knew it was the right fit for them. “We fell in love with the locale and the idea of conducting research,” says Alexander. “We all knew that it was a great opportunity.”

They got a warm welcome and were taken under the wings of other doctoral students. The student mentors introduced them to the research culture and helped them get their programs set up.

“When you are in a program where everyone is so supportive, it’s important to do well,” Alexander says. “We celebrate each other’s successes.”

Although the Bridge to the Doctorate program is generous, it only gets graduate students started. They must then secure additional funding to support their research. With the help of knowledgeable advisors, the four friends all found funding through NSF and other sources. “If you don’t have funding, you’re dead in the water,” says Huey. “You need to align yourself with people who have networks and funding know-how.”

Their programs opened opportunities to travel across the nation and around the world as well as to do research. Huey presented a paper in Athens, Greece. Richard presented one in Marrakech, Morocco. Alexander and Boone spent three months on an academic research project in China. “People would ask to be photographed with us,” Boone says. “Once, somebody called me Obama!” Boone also traveled around the U.S. and to Montreal, presenting papers and speaking on campuses. Richard did research at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Shekhar Bhansali was an additional influence in the young men’s lives. He became an advisor to all four of them. When he left the University of South Florida for Florida International University (FIU, Miami), he continued to work with them; Boone and Huey eventually followed him there. His connections at FIU expanded all four men’s professional networks.

Alexander and Richard earned their doctorates from USF. Boone and Huey earned theirs from FIU.

Pursuing present-day endeavors
As an RF microwave design engineer at Northrop Grumman, Boone works on projects involving fighter jets, aircraft control design, radar design and defense electronics. He creates design specifications, then tests the devices. “We are involved with everything that goes into the cockpit and beyond,” he says.

On his first day as an electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman’s Huntsville, AL plant, Richard was excited to see a large military tank behind the building. His work involves ground combat vehicles, including tanks. He also is a consultant in system integration for a variety of subsystems.

During the ten long years Richard spent in school, he didn’t have much time to devote to relationships. Now, one friend from those years has become more than a friend, and they’ll be married in July. She’s a licensed pharmacy technician working as a health insurance company customer service representative. After they get married, she’ll train as a physician assistant.

Huey is a process engineer in dry etching at microchip technology giant Intel. He works in the laboratory and the processing plant. “I’m a problem solver. I was always drawn to engineering,” he says. “I leaned toward electrical because of the need for people in that specialty. I wanted to participate in something that would be useful.”

Alexander wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a doctor or an engineer before he went to college. He volunteered at a local hospital and gravitated to the biomedical department where there weren’t any patients but plenty of machines to fix. He majored in electrical engineering as an undergrad because there was no biomedical engineering program, with the intention of specializing in graduate school or on the job.

In grad school, he used impedance spectroscopy to monitor cancer cells and research potential individualized treatment options. He’ll continue this work either as a post-doc or at a biomedical company.

Helping the next generation
The four friends benefitted from each other’s support and support from the people who reached out to them; now they do their best to help the next generation. They are role models for students, showing them that doing well in school can take them all over the world.

“We try to instill a sense of belonging and responsibility in our students as part of the culture here,” says Batson of USF. “When one of us succeeds, all of us succeed. When one person succeeds, many people had a hand in it.”

Boone is working on a book about his experience, and he blogs about it at justinboone06.blogspot.com. He wants to share the ideas and successful strategies he and his schoolmates developed as they made the transition from undergraduate to graduate school.

“Hard work, and some fun, gets you through,” he says. “We had each other to keep us motivated.”

Job security, higher starting salaries, and faster advancement are just some of the advantages of earning a doctoral degree. With the economy still sluggish, that higher level of education opens more doors, they say. However, getting there can be a long slog. Time management is critical to stretch twenty-four hours to cover all that needs to be done.

“You have to be organized and persevere to make that treacherous climb,” Huey says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to sprint, you will burn out.”

“It’s been quite a ride,” says Alexander. “I started at the University of South Florida during the summer after graduation and now I’m the last one of us still here. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing where I could end up. Maybe I’ll be a professor.”

“Graduate school is not about who is the smartest and who is the fastest,” Richard says. “It’s more mental endurance. It’s tough on even the best. The bags under my eyes are proof that you can do it.”

“I can’t find the words to say how proud we are of all these young men,” Batson says. “They are role models lighting the way.”


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