Monthly Archives: January 2012

Conversation with African American Leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) Series: University of Maryland’s Dr. Darryll Pines, Ph.D.

By Talib I. Karim
Health & Tech Writer

Dr. Darryll Pines, Ph.D., Dean of the University of Maryland’s Clark School of Engineering (Courtesy).

On a wintery morning in early January of 2009, days before President Obama was sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States, another African American history moment was set to take place.  That day, Dr. Darryll Pines, Ph.D. took office as the 13th Dean of University of Maryland’s Clark School of Engineering.

In Pines’ opinion, his rise to lead Maryland’s engineering program, joining an elite club of African American Deans of top 20 engineering schools, was not “magical.”

Pines was born and raised in northern California.  In 1986, Pines earned a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of California Berkley’s School of Engineering (no. 3 nationally).  From there Pines headed east to the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology engineering school (no. 1 in the nation) where he earned his masters and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering.

Pines joined Maryland’s faculty as an assistant professor in1995, almost a decade after earning his undergraduate degree.  From there, Pines rose up the ranks at Maryland, leading the University’s program to increase engineering Ph.D.-bound students of color (1996), then its program to recruit more women engineers (1999), and the Department of Mechanical Engineering (2006).  Not all of Pines’ career was spent in academia.  Pines also worked on a team at the Livermore National Laboratory that helped develop a spacecraft now in display at the National Air and Space Museum.  Part of Pines’ time has also been in the corporate sector with companies like Chevron.

In an exclusive interview with the Afro American, Pines gives students and parents some straight talk on how they can pave their own paths to a six figure income through engineering.

Afro:  With the recent celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, what’s been the impact of his message in the tech sector?

Dr. Pines:  The impact of Dr. King’s dream in the technology fields has been a slow to evolve. While we are indeed graduating more minority engineers than every before, the pace of growth could definitely improve.  One positive sign is that today, along with myself, there are African American Deans at several major top 50 engineering schools including Georgia Tech (no. 4), Illinois (no.6), and Cornell (no.8).  We must pay particular attention to increasing our pool of graduate students and faculty of color.  Community colleges can continue to play a very important role for minority students in offering a pathway to four-year engineering schools.

Afro: Of your 3500 engineering students, and 198 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, what’s your diversity break down.

Dr. Pines:  We have 450 (nearly 13%) students of color, and 20 (10%) faculty of color.

Afro: Now are you including in those figures international students, because we understand that many university engineering schools are predominated by Asian and other non-native US students?

Dr. Pines: I cant give you exact breakdowns, but I can say that our graduate student population is approximately 60 percent international and 40 percent US.  And our number of US-born graduate students has been increasing each year.  At the graduate level, to increase our pipeline of native-US students, we have increased our efforts to recruit US students from numerous Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  This past fall 2011, 17 percent of our enrolled graduate students were from underrepresented backgrounds.

Today, its not like the way things were when I started engineering school.  Students of color early on just need a support network.  Its not rocket science to getting accepted into engineering school.  There’re lots of students in the pipeline in the Maryland, DC region.  The question is can they close out and get into schools, and graduate.  And I don’t really care if they come to College Park, I just want students, particularly African Americans, to go into science and engineering because we just need more scientists and engineers.

Afro: Once you get students of color in, what is your graduation rate?

Dr. Pines: Our graduate rate 56% which is impressive because the national average is 49%.  We put our best professors in lower level classes.  Once admitted, African American students can join the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) [the nation’s largest student organization], which provides internships, a network, and conferences.  And there’s a sister organization for Latino students, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.  That starts the network, and I benefited from these networks myself.  Today, some of the people I knew as students are running engineering programs in colleges across the country.

Afro: What is Maryland doing to help prepare its engineering school grads for the tough job sector?

Dr. Pines: If you’re a high school student debating what to study in college, and I told you that I could guarantee you a job making around $65,000 if you graduate from Maryland’s School of Engineering after graduation, I would be right almost 85% of the time (including acceptances in to grad school and the military).  Maryland engineering school grads have no problem getting jobs, there is still a large demand for people to solve technical and non-technical problems.

Afro: Economists and others point to a decline in innovation in the US as the primary cause of the ongoing recession.  What is the University of Maryland doing to reverse this trend?

Dr. Pines: Maryland has a reputation for helping to launch or create new businesses. Examples include Hughes Satellite Networks, MedImmune, and Martek Biosciences. In addition, Maryland added a second honors program curriculum in entrepreneurship for undergraduate students.

We’re also attached administratively to the Maryland Technology Institute (Mtech), which encourages faculty and students to launch firms, file patents, or work with corporations to translate their ideas into practice.  And Mtech is not just for the University of Maryland family, but for anyone with a good idea for starting a tech business in Maryland.  If we decide your business makes sense, we can offer you up to a year of near free housing, internet service, and administrative support to help launch your business [some businesses have been incubated for up to 18 months].

But given the economy, one has to be prepared for the reality that it’s more difficult to launch anything unless it’s a slam dunk.

Afro: How can an African American graduate of Maryland Engineering School or any other position himself to rise up the ladders of academia like you?

Dr. Pines: The people who head engineering programs around the country are all of my contemporaries.  I knew them in undergraduate school.  We’re African Americans who were afforded opportunities to go to top-tier undergraduate and graduate schools.  After graduating, if you want to teach and if you do reasonably well, you are given a chance to be dean.  With the right opportunity and right skills, you can succeed.  I know its not that simple, but its not magical either.

I’d add to those junior faculty members seeking to become an engineering school administrator, its important to put yourself to get the attention of the school’s administration.  A junior person must be willing to serve their university in a variety of roles to get noticed.

The writer can be reached at TKarim@teclawgroup.com


District’s Top Doc Says in 2012, Take Responsibility for Your Own Health

By Talib I. Karim, Esq.
Health Writer

DC DOH Director Dr. Mohammad Akhter, MD, MPH, prescribes taking responsibility for our own health through eating better foods, exercising, and regularly visiting your doctor in 2012 and beyond (Courtesy/DC Department of Health).

Washington— With the new year, many in the Washington region are taking stock of their health and making resolutions.  More exercise.  Drop pork.  Only one dessert per day.

If only everyone in the District of Columbia would live up to these commitments.  Such is the professional and personal desire of Dr. Mohammed Akhter, the Director of the DC Department of Health (DOH).

Yet, no amount of government intervention can make someone healthy, says Akhter.  “An individual needs to take responsibility for his own health.”

Health prevention has been a constant theme over Akhter’s distinguished career.  For more than 20 years, Dr. Akhter, a native of Pakistan, has made DC his home.  Over that time he’s held some of nation’s top public health positions, including a prior term in his current post under then-Mayor Sharron Pratt Kelly.  Prior to being asked by Mayor Vince Gray (D) to return to District government last year, Akhter served as Associate Dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine.  Before that, Akhter led two of the country’s largest medical organizations, the National Medical Association and the American Public Health Association.

Known for his respectful yet candid advice, Akther once called the national health reform proposal offered by President Bill Clinton (D) in the 1990s as “insufficient.”  Instead, Akhter pushed for a single-payer health insurance model that would bar for-profit insurance companies and provide everyone with access to quality health care.

Today, Akhter’s dream of universal health care for all in DC is nearly a reality.  DOH boasts the fact that 93% of all adults in the District, 96% of children have health care insurance.

Access to health insurance does not necessarily translate into improved health outcomes in the District.  Most notably, the District has the nation’s highest per-capita AIDS rate (according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control study) and the highest rate of infectious disease (131 cases per 100,000, quadruple that of the next worst jurisdiction, Maryland).

One cause for these low health performance indexes is the fact that many health providers in the District do not accept public or even private insurance.

This is an area wherein Dr. Akhter believes that government can play a role.  And according to Akhter, the District has done just that, to the tune of $500,000 invested on a network of privately operated community health care centers.  DOH reports that these centers, mostly based in Wards 7 and 8 (see chart) were built or expanded through District funding, and given two years operating expenses.  In addition to these publicly funded private facilities, Dr. Akhter also highlights two community clinics operating out of DC Public School buildings.

Physicians at these centers accept all health insurance, says Akhter, and “[w]e’re working to expand [their] hours of operation…from 10am-8pm,” he adds.

However, one group listed as receiving a DOH grant to build a community health center, the United Planning Organization (UPO) says it did not get its funding.  While the non-profit was promised approximately $6 million to build a clinic in Northeast, DC, somehow the funds were removed by the Council from last year’s budget asserts UPO board chairman, Keenan Keller.

Despite this issue, the Gray administration has been credited for placing a new emphasis on health by establishment of the first ever Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.  Beatriz “BB” Otero, founder of the Columbia Heights-based multicultural learning center, CentroNia, currently serves in this post.  Through emphasizing inter-agency cooperation, Otero has helped create a system that now allows a person with substance abuse issues, mental health challenges, and heart disease to be screened and provided a mix of care at a single location, according to Akhter.

And what about the remaining 7% of adults and 4% of children in the District without health care insurance?

By January of 2014, these DC residents would get help from a new system proposed by legislation passed by the DC Council late last month and awaiting the Mayor’s signature.  Similar to a travel website, such as Orbitz, the DC Health Exchange would offer a one stop resource for signing up for either publicly funded insurance or shopping for the best private insurance your money can offer.

But even then, as Dr. Akhter reminds, it will still be up to the public to take responsibility for getting the screening and care they need to stay healthy.