Professor, Marine and Environmental Science, Hampton University
Benjamin Cuker was one of six white kids in his graduating class at Detroit's Mumford High. "And Mumford was putting more kids into college than any other high school in the city," he says.
The reason? Dedicated teachers. That's a lesson Cuker, 52, took with him after earning his PhD in zoology from North Carolina State and through seven years of teaching biology at Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh, NC.
Cuker has been a driving force in getting more minority kids into aquatic science since joining Hampton University, also a historically black college, nearly 20 years ago. "The programs he's developed and is now running have been instrumental in creating a very vibrant, diverse community of students and scholars in aquatic science, one that just wasn't there before," says Abraham Parker, education and outreach program associate at the American Institute of Biological Science.
In 1990, Cuker organized the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography's (ASLO) Minorities Program, which receives National Science Foundation funding and typically includes 65 minority students and a dozen mentors. "Some have been through the program six times or more and have ended up becoming mentors themselves," says Cuker. "It's all about continuity and community. We're not just about pumping up the numbers, we're about building networks."
Then there's Multicultural Students at Sea Together (MAST), whose seed money came from a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation that Cuker received in 1999, after reading about the important but little-known role of black seamen in the great age of sailing. "Family and friends often tell black students that, 'Aquatic science isn't a black thing to do,'" he says. "But going to sea is actually part of their birthright, their heritage. That gives them a real context."
That context comes alive for one month every summer, as 12 students sail a 53-foot ketch around Chesapeake Bay while visiting oceanography laboratories and museums, taking part in mock marine-policy sessions, and gathering water samples that measure the health of the bay. "It provides the real hands-on experience that was missing with the ASLO program," says Cuker. "There's also amazing community-building."
Cuker's own research focuses on the depletion of oxygen in the bay's bottom waters. He uses data collected on MAST voyages to document changes in the extent of the "dead zone" in the bay, and to study the relationship of the data to algal blooms and other water-quality parameters.
In 2003, Cuker spearheaded Hampton's Hall-Bonner Program for Minority Doctoral Scholars in Ocean Sciences, which has 14 students enrolled this fall, all on full scholarships. This NSF-sponsored effort supports graduate students at Old Dominion University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Over the past 17 years, the three initiatives have resulted in minority students graduating or expected to graduate with more than 400 bachelor's degrees, 140 master's degrees, and 30 doctorates in marine science or related fields. One of Cuker's new faculty colleagues, Deidre Gibson, was recruited out of the ASLO program. Gibson, an African-American, was instrumental in starting up Hampton's Diversity in Research in Environmental and Marine Sciences (DREAMS) program, a partnership between the university and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science that targets minority undergrads for financial and academic support.
The more diverse the pool of scientists, the better the science, says Cuker. "It increases the pool of perspectives. Our graduates can then 'prime the pump' as role models and mentors for those yet to come."