Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, is 72 years old and holds more than 50 honorary degrees, but the self-described “mega nerd” still gets goosebumps when he sits down with elementary school students to work on math problems.
It’s an enthusiasm that goes back to Hrabowski’s childhood in Alabama, where he would do word problems with his math teacher mother, and one that led him to pursue degrees in math and education, and a career as a pioneer in STEM education as the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“It’s the culture that matters,” Hrabowski, now president emeritus at UMBC, told a sold-out crowd of Janelians, HHMI employees, Loudoun County educators, and guests during the May 2 Dialogues public lecture at Janelia. “If we want more students in science, we have to find ways of wanting them to be unapologetically aspirational to want to do science, to want to ask good questions, to want to love math.”
Hrabowski’s energy was palpable during a wide-ranging conversation with Janelia Executive Director Ron Vale. He regaled the audience with stories about the influence of his grandmothers and parents, participating in the Children’s Crusade with Martin Luther King, Jr., meeting his wife in a college math class, leading and transforming UMBC, and founding the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.
— Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president emeritus at UMBC
Hrabowski shared the lessons that have shaped his decades of work developing the next generation of scientists and increasing diversity in the scientific workforce. For Hrabowski, that means changing the culture of science and higher education and creating a world where intellectual curiosity and science is valued and getting goosebumps when doing math is the norm.
“I think scientists have a responsibility to think about the language we can use to get so many Americans to just open their minds to the power of data, of the truth, of scientific reasoning, of how we use that reasoning to solve problems and to help humankind,” Hrabowski said. “We have to find ways of pulling people into the work. Not because they are going to become scientists, but because we want them to appreciate how critical this work is to the future of humankind.”
On May 9, HHMI announced 31 inaugural Freeman Hrabowski Scholars. The program, named after Hrabowski, supports early career faculty who have potential to become leaders in their research fields and to create diverse and inclusive lab environments in which everyone can thrive.
The next Dialogues public lecture, with physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, will be held June 7 at Janelia. If you live in the Washington, DC, area and would like to receive announcements about upcoming Dialogues events, please join our mailing list.