Showing the way in science
Edison Fowlks has created pathways for generations of students from diverse backgrounds.
Imagine you’re a student at Hampton University, and Edison Fowlks walks into your classroom with a syllabus in hand. You’re well aware he’s a giant in his field.
Fowlks is a professor of biology, director of the biotechnology laboratory and director of The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Education Program at Hampton, a historically black college in the Virginia city of the same name. One of the first African Americans to work in the field of molecular biology, he earned his doctorate in plant pathology from Ohio State in 1965 and is widely regarded for his commitment to diversity in his field.
With this legend at the head of your class, would you worry that you had more questions than answers? That would be fine with Fowlks, actually.
“I teach my students that the questions are more important than the answers, that the questions are really the answers that we’re looking for,” he says. “Using this approach, I’ve found very effective.”
At Ohio State, plant pathology achieved the status of a standalone department two years after Fowlks earned his PhD. He went on to do post-doc work with renowned molecular biologist Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat at UC Berkeley and to develop and use innovative molecular tools to study RNA viruses such as influenza and HIV. At Bishop College, a since-closed historically black college in Dallas, Texas, he oversaw research that led to the development of a two-dimensional RNA fingerprinting technique for studying mammalian viruses. And today at Hampton, his lab is using real-time DNA sequencing in his molecular studies.
While quite proud of his work as a researcher, Fowlks also is passionately committed to teaching and providing pathways to science careers for students from diverse backgrounds, an interest born during his Berkeley days. Young people need role models, he says, people who have gone before them to offer inspiration and help navigate obstacles.
“If you’ve never seen anybody like you, you begin to wonder, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s no hope for me,’” Fowlks says. “But if somebody else can do it, somebody who looks like you, that can be very inspirational.”
His mentoring of underrepresented science students has not gone unnoticed, including in 2014 with a Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education from the American Society of Cell Biology.
“He established some of the first outreach programs for the sciences at historically black colleges and universities,” notes Monica Lewandowski, an assistant professor-clinical leading an outreach program in plant pathology at Ohio State. “Dr. Fowlks’ passion for outreach is driven by his sincere desire to provide opportunities to others.”
Fowlks developed two important programs during his time at Bishop College in the 1970s. He received funding from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation to set up a summer outreach program in molecular biology for high school graduates. Then he set out to reach younger students. With funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, he worked with middle and high schoolers at predominantly black schools in Dallas on a program that eventually provided college scholarships to students interested in molecular biology. With private and public-sector funding, he also established an undergraduate curriculum in molecular biology and biotechnology and two research labs for students and faculty.
Some of those students went on to become accomplished scientists and physicians, Fowlks says proudly, adding, “Many of the major breakthroughs of late have been made through people who have come from diverse environments.”
Fowlks still teaches several classes each semester at Hampton, including one on genetics and another on research problems, and guides students in the use of research tools to address unanswered questions in medicine. His ultimate aspiration is to see his students go on to help others.
“That’s important, because if we’re really going to keep the process going, each generation has to help the next generation. That’s the best way to continue to transmit knowledge,” Fowlks says. “I’m going to keep doing this as long as I continue to enjoy it. It’s not work for me, it’s great enjoyment.”