Franklin Institute woos young African Americans

Physician Albert Hicks III talks to youngsters about diseases of the heart at the Franklin Institute.
Physician Albert Hicks III talks to youngsters about diseases of the heart at the Franklin Institute. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Leon Funchess listened closely as the black man in the white coat spoke about how African Americans are especially prone to heart disease and how they can fight it with diet and exercise.

Even better: They can aspire to wear a white coat themselves.

Funchess, an 11th grader at Masterman High School, was sold.

"I see him as a person I want to be," Funchess said.

The teenager was listening to Albert Hicks III, a cardiology fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Little scenes like that occurred throughout the Franklin Institute on Saturday morning as part of a two-day program, "The Color of Science." Nine African American scientists and medical practitioners performed experiments, spoke about why science is important, and explained how they made it in their fields.

More than 250 students of color were registered to attend the event from a half-dozen city schools, and anyone else at the museum was welcome, too.

The program, in its fourth year, was conceived by Frederic Bertley, a Franklin Institute senior vice president who holds a Ph.D. in immunology. He has helped launch sister programs at five other institutions, including his alma mater, McGill University.

African Americans are underrepresented in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. In 2013, for example, they accounted for 6.4 percent of physicians and 4.2 percent of electrical engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though some of that deficit is due to disparities in educational opportunity, another reason is simple lack of awareness, Bertley said.

"It's not even a black issue," Bertley said. "It's just in general, people can't name scientists."

The "Color of Science" event began Friday night with a dinner and panel discussion moderated by Franklin Institute chief astronomer Derrick Pitts, who is African American.

Students also were invited to attend lunch with the nine science promoters at the museum on Saturday.

The hands-on exposure to science took place in the morning.

Hicks, the Hopkins physician, stood near the museum's giant model of a heart as he displayed slides that depicted diseased arteries.

Nearby, Thomas Jefferson University student Felicia Cooper gave a lesson on the phases of matter. She dropped chunks of dry ice into soapy water, filling a container with bubbles that smoked when they popped. Cooper is conducting dermatology research at Jefferson while earning a master's degree.

Downstairs, Columbia University electrical engineer Christine P. Hendon let students hold shiny coils of wire that are used in optical coherence tomography - a method for capturing images of the cardiovascular system.

Science is hard work but fun, Hicks told students:

"You're not sitting in a cubicle 9 to 5. You're putting your hands on things."


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