Pictured above, left to right: Steven Richardson, James Lillard and Christine Hohmann

KEY INSIGHTS

  • Three HBCU professors are among a class of 564 scientists, engineers and other innovators elected as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Steven Richardson, James Lillard and Christine Hohmann are from Howard University, Morehouse School of Medicine and Morgan State University, respectively.
  • These professors were recognized for their research in engineering, pharmaceuticals and neuroscience.


Three HBCU professors are among the newly announced class of 564 scientists, engineers and other innovators elected as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS),  the world’s largest general scientific society, publisher of the Science family of research journals and one of the most prestigious general scientific organizations in the world.


Steven Richardson, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Howard University, James Lillard, Professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, and Christine Hohmann, Professor of Biology at Morgan State University, were all chosen this year for their research and service efforts.


AAAS Fellows are chosen annually, a tradition that goes back to 1874. This is not the first time HBCU professors have been chosen. Most recently, in 2020, there was one, from Morehouse College. In 2019 there were three, from Florida A&M University, Howard and Morgan.


“If you told me as an eight-year-old child reading books about science and growing up in Brooklyn that one day I would become a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I would have looked at you with a face of disbelief,” Richardson told The Plug.


Richardson has been at Howard since 1988, also serving currently as co-principal investigator in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center for Integrated Quantum Materials and a faculty associate in applied physics at Harvard University.


His research focuses on supercomputers and quantum materials, using these computers to calculate the total energy of molecules and materials. He works to understand how to make new materials and new molecules that have applications in electronics and the pharmaceutical industry.


Over decades at Howard, Richardson taught hundreds of students in fields like electromagnetic theory and mathematical methods for scientists and engineers, though he only focuses on research now. He has also brought in around $10 million worth of funding in federal and private grants to Howard for his research.


James Lillard from Morehouse School of Medicine was named an AAAS Fellow due to his work in pharmaceutical sciences. He has done research in the development of target-based cancer and immunological therapies and researching ways to better understand the impacts of cancer disparities in minority populations.


“Dr. Lillard’s appointment to the AAAS Fellows is truly a well-deserved recognition for his contributions, expertise, and accomplishments,” Dr. Joseph Adrian Tyndall, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, told The Plug


“Our work at Morehouse School of Medicine in creating and advancing health equity, includes educating and training a diverse workforce for success in healthcare careers that leverage technology. Dr. Lillard’s contributions to the Research and Morehouse School of Medicine are immeasurable.”


For Christine Hohmann, her HBCU teaching and research career started in 1993, after working at Johns Hopkins University.


“At Hopkins I was purely engaged in research, and I wanted more student, especially undergraduate student contact,” Hohmann told The Plug. “I felt that at [Morgan], I could really make a difference for my students and the institution.”


She was recognized as an AAAS Fellow due to her work in neuroscience and for her commitment to diversity in STEM. Her research has helped establish that a specific neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, is essential to early brain development and can affect learning. She has also led undergraduate research training and mentoring programs at Morgan funded by the National Institutes of Health.


For Hohmann, being recognized as an AAAS Fellow is deeply meaningful.


“​​Personally, it is a crowning achievement in my nearly 40 year-long research career,” Hohmann said.


“The award validates that one can have a very successful research career at an HBCU. Sometimes people doubt that. I hope it can show young faculty that they can do it too,” She added. “I look upon my AAAS fellowship as recognition for Morgan State University and not just for myself.”


HBCUs play an important role in diversifying STEM


Though they are just three percent of all the nation's four-year colleges, HBCUs are small but mighty institutions. Almost 18 percent of Black STEM bachelor's degrees are awarded from HBCUs and one-third of all Black students who have gotten a doctorate degree earned their bachelor's from an HBCU, according to the NSF.


Preliminary findings from a nearly million-dollar research project conducted by professors at Howard, Claflin University and Jackson State University also show Black students who go to an HBCU are more likely to graduate with a STEM degree than those who attend a non-HBCU.


Their initial findings show that controlling for factors like SAT score, high school GPA, other pre-college conditions like family income and the characteristics of the college a student attends, Black students are 13 percent to 15 percent more likely to graduate from college in general if they attend an HBCU.


Of those who graduate, Black students who attend an HBCU are 5 percent to 10 percent more likely to get a STEM degree than those who do not go to an HBCU. 


“If we're going to increase the number of folks of color who are going to go on to have successful and significant careers in STEM, HBCUs are clearly meant to play a role in this,” Richardson said.


Since 2018, AAAS has hosted an annual HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase where student teams design inventions to address one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 


In 2021, the three winning innovations were a UV sanitation drone created by students from North Carolina A&T State University to battle airborne pathogens like Covid-19, a robot guide dog created by Morgan students and a chatbot system created by students from Philander Smith College that connects healthcare workers to potential blood donors.


As Richardson works with the next generation of scientists and innovators, one thing he makes sure they know is that the journey to success is not a straight line.


“There are gonna be challenges, ups and downs, obstacles. There are going to be people who are going to be supportive of what you're trying to do, there are people who will stand in the way of what you are trying to do,” Richardson said. 


“At the end of the day, it's all about perseverance and resilience.”