Kojo Mensa-Wilmot knows how strangers feel on unfamiliar turf.
When he left his native Ghana to study in Baltimore, he was the only minority student enrolled in his department’s Ph.D. program. Three years later, a second minority student joined the program, but after only two semesters, that student left.
“It was a shame that he abandoned the program,” Mensa-Wilmot recalled years later. “He was an excellent student, but the university had no system to help non-mainstream students adjust to life in Baltimore involving a rigorous Ph.D. program in biochemistry and molecular biology.”
Mensa-Wilmot persevered and earned his doctorate, but he never forgot the difficulties he experienced.
“I survived because I built relationships with students in other programs,” he said.
Years later, as a professor of cellular biology at UGA, he now searches for ways to recruit minority students and help them to thrive once they get here.
Since becoming chairman of the Division of Basic and Translational Biomedical Sciences at the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute in 2002, Mensa-Wilmot has visited numerous historically black colleges and universities.
“Faculty at HBCUs have the greatest influence on their students’ choices of graduate school,” he said. “We must win them over.”
In 2002 Mensa-Wilmot also began to attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, the nation’s largest conference for students interested in biomedical sciences. The conference was an eye-opener.
“Students come to this event from all over the country,” he said. “It not only provides them with research presentation experience, but exposure to recruiters from top universities who are competing fiercely for them.”
Financial support was found to bring 12 undergraduates, four graduate students, five faculty members and one administrator to the 2007 conference -the most ever sponsored by UGA.
While undergraduates presented work and attended seminars, the rest of the group staffed a new exhibit touting UGA research. Visitors to the booth were impressed; the UGA attendees were thrilled.
Michael A. Johnson, assistant dean of the Graduate School, believes the increased visibility attracted more attendees to the UGA group.
“Our faculty established and renewed contacts with HBCU program directors,” said Mensa-Wilmot, who also mentors minority students from several departments and advises the Minority Premedical Students Association. “One of the best ways we can enhance our relationship with HBCUs is by providing a friendly faculty face behind our graduate programs, so they will send us their best students.”
The “friendly faculty face” made a difference for Jerrod Bryson. The cellular biology graduate student attended ABRCMS and is president of the campus organization Scholars for Diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, also known as (SD)2, which is advised by Mensa-Wilmot.
“UGA’s commitment to support diversity in the sciences was a significant factor I considered when deciding where I would attend,” Bryson said.
Mensa-Wilmot credits UGA President Michael F. Adams for support in 2007 from the President’s Venture Fund, as well as Garnett Stokes, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences; Maureen Grasso, dean of the Graduate School; David Williams, director of the Honors Program; Cheryl Dozier, associate provost for institutional diversity; Deborah Dietzler, executive director of the Alumni Association; Regina Smith, associate vice president for research; and Terry Hastings, director of research communications in the Office of the Vice President for Research. Randy Groomes, Alumni Association director of multicultural programs, initiated the collaboration.
While Dean Stokes has committed funds for the next ABRCMS, the President’s Venture Fund support was provided for 2007. Mensa-Wilmot hopes other units will help ensure that a similar group attends the upcoming ABRCMS in November 2008.
“We need to sustain this momentum,” said Mensa-Wilmot. “I look forward to greater participation by other colleges at UGA.”