Release Date: December 8, 1994 This content is archived.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Bernard Hubbard, a graduate student in the Department of Geology at the University at Buffalo and one of the relatively few African Americans in the U.S. who is studying geology, has strong advice for inner-city kids.
"Don't fear the professional fields," he advises. "There are more of us going into these fields than you'd ever know. You'd be surprised at the number of people who come from the ghetto who really make it to the top, but you never hear about it. Your people are there!"
While the under-representation of minorities in all the sciences has received much attention lately, many studies and programs focus on biology and chemistry, and other more "popular" sciences. But African Americans are especially under-represented in geology.
The American Geological Institute estimates that out of 26,522 students studying geology at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the U.S., only 362 are black.
The National Association for Black Geologists and Geophysicists estimates that of the 80,000 working geoscientists in the U.S., just 0.4 percent are black.
Michael Sheridan, Ph.D., chair of the UB geology department, says there are several possible explanations for why African Americans have traditionally been so under-represented in the discipline.
For one thing, geology has a lower profile among students in general than do some of the engineering or biomedical disciplines. The downsizing in the oil industry, which employs many geologists, in the 1980s also discouraged some students, according to the National Association for Black Geologists and Geophysicists.
But the group notes there are some encouraging signs: Membership in the association is up and so is industrial support for its scholarship program.
Hubbard, who grew up in a public-housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, doesn't downplay the obstacles. But he is optimistic about his future.
He has been passionate about planetary and earth sciences from the time he was very young. As a boy, he maintained an impressive rock collection, which he supplemented by searching carefully throughout Prospect and Central parks.
At A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem, Hubbard concentrated in the biological sciences. It wasn't until he went to a city-wide science competition that he realized he should concentrate on geology and planetary science.
On the spur of the moment, he entered the rocks and fossils contest. He ended up winning third place.
"When I won, it made me think that this is where I was headed," he says.
Hubbard was the first on the block to go to college, but it had always been expected. He laughingly describes his family as including "three Moms:" His mother, his aunt and his grandmother, all of whom helped raise him and nurtured his interest in science.
With loans and scholarships, and a 20-hour-a-week job, he enrolled as an undergraduate in Cornell University with a concentration in earth science. He fell into debt, charging textbooks and other necessities on his credit cards and taking out loans to stay in school, a path he says is typical for inner-city kids who attend college.
"That's one reason why few African Americans go on to graduate and professional schools," he says. "There's this need to get a job in order to replenish funds."
After graduation, he worked for a year as a customer-service representative for Chemical Bank in New York City, then applied to graduate school.
A key reason he came to UB, he says, was the availability of the New York State Minority Graduate Fellowship Program. The program features free tuition for minority graduate students, as long as they do well in school.
Hubbard is performing research under the supervision of Sheridan, doing computer modeling of volcanic eruptions to assess risks to people living near active volcanoes.
"Some scientists get so focused on one small problem," he says. "But you wonder, 'How does that help people?' Volcanic hazard assessment helps people directly. The most dangerous volcanoes are in the Third World, where people grab land to live on wherever they can, even if it's right on top of a volcano. With this research, we hope to save lives."
Closer to home, Hubbard feels he has some other lives to "save" as well. His extended family still lives in the projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and while he has fond memories of his neighborhood, he dreams of a day when he will be able to get his family out.
He says that to get out of the ghetto, people have to sacrifice and resist the urge to make money in the short-term.
"Believe it or not, there are quite a few people like me out there," he says. "Our stories are just overshadowed by all the bad news."