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‘Trickle-up’ diversity and the 21st-century workforce

Cadet Simone Askew, of Fairfax, Va., who has been selected first captain of the US Military Academy Corps of Cadets at West Point for the upcoming academic year, was one of 32 Americans awarded Rhodes scholarships in 2018. AP

Anyone dismayed by the veneration of white nationalism on display this year in Charlottesville – or on Boston Common, for that matter – need look at only the 2018 class of US Rhodes scholars for an antidote. The prestigious scholarship, which draws from colleges and universities across the nation, funds study at the University of Oxford in England for students who show not only academic excellence, but potential for making an impact on the world.

The latest group of 32 scholars includes 10 African-Americans, a transgender man, a ballerina, a wrestler, African and Indian immigrants, an Aleutian Islander, and students from four colleges that have never had a US Rhodes before. Student bios are peppered with references to stratospheric grade point averages, open-hearted community service, and brilliant research in STEM fields.


It’s no surprise that many young talents were nurtured in universities and research institutions in Boston and Cambridge — places that cultivate a culture of diversity and devote all-important funding to back up their promises.

Some examples: Tania Fabo, of Saugus, was born in Germany to parents from Cameroon and created the first annual Black Health Matters Conference at Harvard University. If there’s a common thread running through her academic career, it’s a determination to investigate what she calls “the emperor of all maladies” in health care: race. She intends to devote her time at Oxford to oncology research.

Kendall Square has also been an incubator for diverse talents in life sciences and engineering. Of some eight African-American women focused on science who won Rhodes scholarships in the last decade, three have come through an intensive summer research program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which matches students with mentors and gives them hands-on lab experience on some of the hardest problems around. Jasmine Brown, a 2017 alum of the program, was just awarded a Rhodes to pursue a doctorate in physiology, anatomy, and genetics at Oxford. Indeed, 80 percent of the Broad program graduates are working in biomedical research, are graduate students, or are enrolled in medical school.


Another noteworthy lesson: Diversifying the biomedical workforce takes a serious investment in human capital. The National Institutes of Health has granted $16 million in project funding since 2014 as part of its National Research Mentoring Network. The Broad raises funds for its own 12-person program, which costs about $25,000 to $30,000 per student each summer, including a stipend. As Eric Lander, president of the Broad, put it: “In science, diversity is a necessity. The fact that we’re not as diverse as we should be slows down progress.”

In a week when President Trump is retweeting a fringe ultranationalist to stoke anti-Islamic sentiment, the 2018 Rhodes class is a glimpse of a more equitable future. And in a political landscape befogged by hot air about trickle-down economics, the trickle-up possibilities should clarify any discussion about the role of education as a stepping stone to a 21st-century workforce.