Before he had even set foot on the Dartmouth campus, theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander looked upon the E.E. Just Program as a priority. In March 2012, the newly hired faculty member said, "I regard the E.E. Just Program as a big mission of mine and it figured prominently in my decision to come here.”
Physicist and E.E. Just Program Director Stephon Alexander, center, stands with E.E. Just Scholars, from left, Jordan Kunzika '16, Luis Martinez '15, Salvador Almagro-Moreno (E.E. Just Postdoctoral Fellow), Arianne Hunter '14, and Jared Boyce '16. (Photo by Eli Burakian 'oo)
Alexander is the Ernest Everett Just 1907 Professor, a faculty chair that honors the pioneering cellular biologist and one of Dartmouth’s earliest African American graduates.
A Trinidadian by birth, Alexander appeared on scene as a human dynamo, channeling his seemingly limitless energy into the E.E. Just Program. The goals of this undertaking focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, primarily targeting Dartmouth undergraduate students of color. In addition to the support he offers to undergraduates, Alexander also mentors graduate and postdoctoral fellows for professional success.
The E.E. Just Program provides a community of undergraduate, graduate student, and postdoctoral mentors that can offer strategies for academic and research success. It comprises a national network of some the world's leading scientists, with whom E.E. Just Scholars can interact and conduct research. George Langford, now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, was the E.E. Just Professor at Dartmouth from 1991 to 2005. After his departure, the program was not active until Alexander's arrival in 2012.
"My aspirations include growing our network to provide research, mentoring, and employment opportunities for our E.E. Just Scholars, who now number 28," says Alexander. "Also, we want to develop personal and leadership skills for tomorrow's scientists, focusing on the creative and collaborative side of the scientific endeavor. Ultimately, we want to increase the diversity of Dartmouth students who matriculate to graduate programs in STEM."
Alexander says that in its first two years, this embryonic enterprise has placed several of its undergraduates in world-class research labs, including positions at Google, Rockefeller University, and Microsoft Research. "We have significantly increased the percentage of students of color who declare majors in STEM and have increased the number of students applying to graduate programs in STEM."
Perhaps the best measure of the program's success is the E.E. Just Scholars themselves.
Jared Boyce '16 describes the program as "amazing." In addition to the network of professors and students, Boyce says, the E.E. Just program provided him access to research opportunities. As a neuroscience major, Boyce is specifically interested in pediatric psychiatry and neuropsychiatry.
"When I told Professor Alexander I was interested in psychiatry, he jumped right in. He was able to cut the time in half to actually find someone, email them, and then meet with them in person."
Tracking students from their first year through graduation, Boyce noted the staggering number of minority dropouts in the STEM fields. "The E.E. Just Program is like a network and a support group to help you get through those challenges and overcome the obstacles."
Boyce is a native of Melville (Long Island), N.Y., whose parents, like Alexander, came from Trinidad.
Boyce sees an M.D. in his future, possibly along with a PhD. "I'd like to be treating patients, but it is all rooted in doing research, creating new methods and ways to treat patients more effectively."
Boyce is currently working with pediatric neurologist Richard Morse on a project involving myelin communication with implications for epilepsy and ADD/ADHD.
Jordan Kunzika '16 of Hartford, Conn., has won the prestigious Generation Google Scholarship of $10,000 for the next school year, an award for which Alexander recommended him.
Kunzika found Alexander's experiences inspiring. "He shared his own life story about how and where he has come from and, even though he is a renowned professor now, he struggled through school himself, and it was because of people who believed in him and his work ethic that he got to where he is today."
Kunzika would have missed out on a summer opportunity if not for Alexander's intercession. "This program at the University of California-Berkeley dealt with energy-efficient electronic science. Professor Alexander arranged to have the missed deadline extended, enabling my participation.
"It was a really amazing experience and it broadened my horizons. Berkeley provided exposure to other student research, such as quantum computing, that kind of blew my mind. For me personally, the experience allowed me to see a little bit of both worlds—industry and research—which has really been good for my aspirations and career development."
Arianne Hunter '14 is from Oklahoma City. She was recruited by Dartmouth to play basketball, but a knee injury at the end of her second year sidelined that pursuit. As she prepares for graduation, she reminisces about her college career and the E.E. Just Program. "I have been involved in the E.E. Just Program since my freshman year because when you sign up for your interests, mine were in the sciences from the get-go, it automatically put me on the E.E. Just Blitz list," says Hunter.
A chemistry major, she found inspiration in an organic chemistry course with Professor Peter Jacobi. "I have always been passionate about chemistry ever since I was little, but with that course it just sparked all of my interests."
It was in her junior year that she decided to become a chemistry major. "I was very late in the game," she says. "People thought I couldn’t do it." Nonetheless, she persevered, applying to graduates schools, and was recently accepted into the PhD program for chemistry at the University of Oklahoma.
"I didn’t think I would be able to get in because I actually had a significant amount of chemistry coursework to complete prior to submitting my application," says Hunter. "So I called up Professor Alexander and told him I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this and he said, ‘No, you are going to do it and I know you can.’
"The E.E. Just Program in general, just having the people around you to believe in you, it is so, so important, especially as a minority in the sciences, especially as a woman in the sciences."
Alexander told her, "I am going to be in your ear starting now and until you finish the PhD program and until you find your career. So the EEJ program is going to stick with you forever. You will always be an E.E. Just Fellow."
"That was very comforting," Hunter says.