The Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge and NSF-IGERT programs achieve a milestone with the first Ph.D. graduate
by Kara Furlong
photography by Rusty Russell
When Stephen Babalola was growing up in Nigeria, his father, a U.S.-trained radiographer, encouraged all of his children to pursue studies in science. Babalola had no idea how far that pursuit would take him, or of the additional encouragement he would find along the way.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial chemistry from the University of Ilorin in Nigeria, Babalola set his sights on graduate school in the United States. Years earlier, a childhood friend had relocated to the states and settled in Nashville. That friend was now graduating from Fisk University’s physics program, and he encouraged Babalola to give it a try.
Fisk proved a good fit, and Babalola finished course work toward a master’s degree in physics in just three semesters. He also conducted research – and built strong relationships – with Fisk professor Arnold Burger and his Materials Science and Applications Group.
With master’s degree in hand, valuable research experience under his belt and now a U.S. citizen, Babalola was ready to join the work force. But a new opportunity would intervene.
In 2004, Fisk and Vanderbilt University began a partnership to increase the number of minority students pursuing doctoral degrees in the sciences. The Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program is designed to give students the course work and training they need first to earn a master’s degree in physics or biology at Fisk, then to bridge over to a Ph.D. program in physics, astronomy, materials science, biology or the biomedical sciences at Vanderbilt. Around the same time, the National Science Foundation awarded an IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) grant to fund a graduate training program bringing Fisk master’s students to Vanderbilt for Ph.D.s with a specific focus on materials science.
The under-representation of minorities in the sciences is a problem that has long persisted in higher education.
“It’s a very significant problem,” said Burger, who co-directs the Bridge Program with Keivan Stassun, associate professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt. “African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans represent more than 25 percent of the population, but only 2 to 4 percent of Ph.D.s in science and engineering are going to this segment.”
In Babalola, Burger saw an ideal candidate for the fledgling Bridge Program and encouraged him to apply.
“I knew from the moment Stephen joined me at Fisk that he would be successful,” Burger said. “The Bridge Program came along just in time for him.”
Leap of Faith
Babalola, however, had reservations. His perception of the Ph.D. process, shaped by friends and colleagues who had undertaken it, was that it was long and often mired in complications.
“There is a fear associated with the Ph.D. – that it’s really difficult,” Babalola said. “And Vanderbilt being a top-ranked school made a big impression on me. I didn’t think I would be successful. It was kind of a self-defeating thing.”
Stassun said this mindset is not uncommon, and combating it is at the heart of why the Bridge Program was created.
“For many students, particularly those who may be the first generation in their families to pursue something as advanced as a doctorate, the path to a Ph.D. can seem mysterious, distant and ultimately inaccessible,” he said.
“Through the Bridge Program, we do a lot of mentoring – a lot of discussing what the process toward the Ph.D. actually entails – so that we remove the mystery and help students see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Stassun said. “Instead of jumping headlong into what may seem like a very arduous process, we break it down into more bite-sized steps. First, get your master’s degree – get your solid preparation – then springboard the rest of the way toward the Ph.D.”
“Reluctantly, I applied. I actually applied on the deadline for applications,” Babalola said. “In the end, Dr. Burger convinced me a Ph.D. was not as hard as it seems. He said that if I went to Vanderbilt, I wouldn’t necessarily be leaving him – he would stay on my committee and continue to advise me. His support is the main reason I went for my degree.”
Babalola was admitted to Vanderbilt’s Interdisciplinary Materials Science and Engineering program, which combines intensive training in chemistry, physics and the engineering fields toward the development of new technologies. He also found himself teaching classes for the first time as a graduate assistant, with all the rigors and responsibilities that required.
“When I first got to Vanderbilt, it was something of a culture shock – taking nine credit hours at the graduate level and teaching,” Babalola said. “The days were very hectic, arriving at school around 6 a.m. and leaving at 9 p.m.” Through those challenging first semesters, Babalola said, Burger was his touchstone.
He soon found a second mentor in Leonard Feldman, the Stevenson Professor of Physics and professor of materials science and engineering, who became Babalola’s Vanderbilt adviser. Through the pre-existing IGERT grant, Babalola began research in Feldman’s lab.
Babalola’s research interest is in developing new materials for radiation detection, with applications for homeland security as well as the medical field.
“Most X-ray detectors need to operate at very low temperature – inconveniently low temperature,” Feldman explained. “Stephen was pursuing research to make a detector that would operate at room temperature without cooling. These new kinds of detectors would operate simply and be useful for seeking contraband radioactive materials.”
This work specifically dovetails with that of Burger, an expert in room-temperature nuclear detectors for more than two decades. Babalola frequently found himself back on the Fisk campus exchanging information and conducting experiments. He proposed to Feldman and Burger that his Ph.D. research be a collaboration between the two, and they agreed.
“The collaboration went extremely well,” Feldman said. “I know how to quantify these materials and how to treat them with respect to surface chemistry, but Arnold Burger is an expert in synthesizing them. In my view, that’s really the difficult part of the problem.”
“When the Bridge Program began, it wasn’t clear that once the student bridges if their Fisk mentors would continue to play a role,” Burger said. “But in the case of Stephen, that’s exactly what happened. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Babalola was presenting research at Fisk one day when he caught the attention of a visitor to Burger’s group: Ralph James, the associate director for energy, environment and national security at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
“Ralph James is an authority in room-temperature nuclear detectors, and his group has the most findings in this field,” Babalola said. “I knew that if I really wanted to focus on nuclear detectors, working with him would be a great opportunity.” Connecting students to prestigious internships and fellowships at top research labs, even as they are working toward completion of the Ph.D., is one example of how the Bridge Program’s flexibility helps to launch students toward successful careers.
At James’ urging, Babalola applied and was accepted for a summer internship at Brookhaven in 2007. There he made use of the lab’s National Synchrotron Light Source, a pair of electron storage rings that produce intense focused light spanning the electromagnetic spectrum.
“This is the brightest source of X-rays in the whole world,” said Babalola, who used the lab’s experimental stations, called beamlines, to conduct unique research. “Working there was a great experience. I was able to define my research much more clearly.”
Following the internship, Babalola stayed in touch with James, who invited him back to the lab in 2008.
“We were able to work out a core program whereby I was accepted as a full-time employee at Brookhaven to do the research that would lead to my Ph.D.,” said Babalola, who took the position with Feldman’s blessing.
“Stephen is one of the most determined people I know – an excellent example of a determined graduate student,” Feldman said. “It turned out that I was on a leave of absence at Rutgers University in New Jersey while Stephen was at Brookhaven on Long Island, N.Y. He would visit me at Rutgers and we would spend afternoons sorting through research problems and working on his thesis.
“It’s an interesting and horrendous drive from Brookhaven to Rutgers, because you drive through Manhattan, and Stephen – undaunted – did that many times.
“It was a pleasure working with Stephen, because he was extremely conscientious and brought new insights to the problem,” Feldman said. “What I saw in him early on was his propensity for creativity – his ability to think outside the box – which is one of the most important qualities a future scientist can have.”
Paying It Forward
To hear Babalola tell it, the credit for his success belongs in large part to his mentors, who shepherded him through times of immense growth and change.
Bridge Program faculty regularly avail themselves to the students with set-aside “Bridge Office Hours” when the students can drop in to discuss issues both professional and personal.
“Dr. Feldman was always very open. I could walk into his office, and he would make time for me. Most importantly, he would ask about my family,” said Babalola, whose wife Mary gave birth to the couple’s first child in January 2008.
“When we had the baby, Dr. Feldman’s wife sent us a blanket, and across the blanket in very big letters was Tolulope, my daughter’s traditional name,” he said. “It was such a nice surprise. We thought, ‘Wow, these people really care about us.’”
This type of caring, which often extends beyond the lab, is central to the Bridge Program’s mission. As the program has grown in size, its students have formed an increasingly important support network for one another.
“Recently another Bridge student had his first child, and the students took the initiative to organize a baby shower,” Stassun said. “I see it as a critically important sign of our success that not only faculty, but the students themselves, take responsibility for mentoring and celebrating one another.”
Babalola successfully defended his doctorate in September 2009, becoming the Bridge Program’s first Ph.D. graduate. Faculty and colleagues from Fisk and Vanderbilt gathered with friends and family at a local restaurant to celebrate. Babalola’s proud parents held their own celebration back in Nigeria.
Babalola soon had four jobs offers, two from universities and two from national laboratories. After careful consideration, he joined the faculty at Alabama A&M as a research professor on Dec. 1. Among his responsibilities is developing a new concentration of study in the university’s School of Engineering and Technology.
Before starting the job, Babalola went to Burger to talk through the challenges that lay ahead, just as he had done countless times before. Now, busy with his own students, Babalola appreciates more than ever the time and energy his mentor has invested in him.
“I’m finding that being a professor is more than a 9-to-5 job,” he said. “It’s challenging, but it’s exciting. I feel I’m in a position where I can impact other people’s lives, just as my life has been impacted.”
In addition to its first Ph.D. graduate, the Bridge Program is boasting other measures of success.
The program has grown from three students at its inception six years ago, to 30 students today, with two more Ph.D. graduates expected in the next year. It is forging new relationships with Vanderbilt faculty in order to expand its offering of Ph.D. disciplines. Along with Brookhaven, it is formalizing partnerships with the National Solar Observatory and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, both in Tucson, Ariz., to give students access to the top experts and research in their fields.
And Fisk and Vanderbilt are establishing a new Bridge partnership with Delaware State University, a historically black institution that offers master’s and some Ph.D. degrees in the sciences. Master’s students at Delaware State will bridge to Vanderbilt for their Ph.D.s, and master’s students at Fisk will have the option of bridging to Delaware State for their doctorates, creating a larger pool of quality students and giving them more opportunities to pursue their research interests.
“In 2006, Fisk became the No. 1 producer of African Americans who get their master’s in physics, most as a stepping stone to the Bridge Program,” Burger said. “Continuing their studies at Vanderbilt will make Vanderbilt the No. 1 producer – the No. 1 producer by far – of African Americans with their Ph.D.s.”
This kind of success has made other institutions take notice.
“A group of researchers from Columbia University has started working with us in order to, in essence, tell the story of the Bridge program,” Stassun said, “but tell it from a research standpoint and in an organizational language that our peers can understand and try to implement at their own universities.”
It’s a success, however, that can’t entirely be quantified.
“This is not just a graduate program that has its logistics to be administered,” Stassun said. “This is a heart-and-soul kind of a program that depends very strongly on the passion and commitment and sweat of individual faculty on both sides of the bridge, who build the program, advocate it, bring it resources, and most importantly, work one-on-one with its students.
“Stephen is a milestone for the program because he walked across the bridge successfully, even as we were, at times, laying down the planks just ahead of him,” Stassun said. “A very important goal of the program was that students not only move from Fisk to Vanderbilt, but that there be something that flows back in the other direction – enhanced research capability for the Fisk faculty and students, resources and infrastructure that end up at Fisk by virtue of the research done by Bridge students – and Stephen is a great example of that.”
Babalola will soon mark a milestone of his own: experiencing graduation for the first time, and all the pomp and circumstance that goes with it. As soon as he completed his bachelor’s degree, Babalola came to the states, missing his graduation ceremony in Nigeria. When Fisk awarded his master’s, he was taking an exam on the Vanderbilt campus.
Come May 14 when Vanderbilt celebrates Commencement, Babalola will be there to accept his hard-won diploma and the ceremonial Ph.D. “hood” that symbolizes the highest academic degree that one can achieve.
“I have friends who tell me if I don’t go to graduation, they will drag me there,” said Babalola, who won’t resist. “I want to have on record that I attended at least one.”
Additional photography by Neil Brake, Daniel Dubois and John Russell