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CAMPUS AND CAREER GUIDE | SPACE-AGE PIONEER

A Career That's Just Taking Off

Science: Danny D. Howard, who recently became the first African American to earn a PhD in aeronautics engineering at Caltech, is trying to get other blacks to follow his lead.

July 21, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Trying to figure out how airplanes lifted themselves off the runway near his Mississippi home was Danny D. Howard's favorite pastime as a child, and that fascination later became his ticket to higher education.

Last month, Howard, 29, became the first African American to earn a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Howard is not only an anomaly at Caltech--which has only graduated two other blacks in his field, one from Africa and a science major who did his doctoral work in aeronautics--but he is one of just a handful of black students pursing aeronautics degrees at any of the nation's colleges. In fact, only 6% of the estimated 94,000 graduate students across the country are black.

Howard's position on being an academic pioneer is as no-nonsense as the hard sciences he chose to pursue.

"I think it points out a problem with our society," he said recently, sitting in his small third-floor campus office. But having the distinction noted is "not anything that makes me uncomfortable. Someone has to be first."

Driven and self-confident, Howard sees himself as a kind of missionary, preaching the value of studying the sciences and trying to encourage other African Americans to follow his lead.

At Caltech, he served on a task force formed to examine why so few minorities enrolled at the school. In fact in 1994, the year before the group was formed by the college's president, the entering undergraduate class had no blacks and no women minorities.

That committee made recommendations that the college begin recruiting minorities--a major adjustment for a school that rarely recruits at all--and offer scholarships for minority students. Two such scholarships are now granted each year.

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Howard travels to college fairs across the country on behalf of Caltech. "If there is a location I hear about and want to go to, they say, 'Here's the plane ticket,' " he said.

Another concern is keeping minority students in school. He helped found a campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers--10 members strong--which works to bring black scholars to speak at Caltech.

Students and faculty at the campus are very isolated, he said, "for some good reasons: People are very focused here and they're busy. So sometimes the mountain has to come to Muhammad."

Beyond trying to pry open Caltech's insular world, Howard has sought ways to humanize the hard sciences, to make them more approachable and desirable for minority undergraduate students.

His selection of a doctoral research project reflected this concern. Instead of choosing something abstract or theoretical, Howard studied the tissue damage caused when shock waves are used to dislodge kidney stones.

"I wanted to do something more applicable to an actual problem," he said, "something where I could see an actual result of my work."

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For four years, Howard has kept a link to budding scientists, tutoring in the space academy program at Pasadena's John Muir High School.

His advice to students who may may have an interest in a science career is to take as much math and science as they can in high school, then declare a major among the physical sciences--such as chemistry or physics--early in college, even if they're unsure what area interests them the most.

"The first year or so the curriculum is about the same for all the hard sciences," he said. "So you're pretty much OK if you want to change."

This was the advice Howard received from a high school math teacher, whom he credits with being the first of two academic mentors.

Howard was raised in Columbus, Miss., on what he calls "the black side of town." Neither of his parents was college educated, and his father, a truck driver, never finished high school. His mother is the janitor at his alma mater.

The public schools Howard attended were 99% black, which "was good in the sense that it gave you pride in who you were," he said. "But the funding of our schools was way lower than the white schools. Not until my senior year [in high school] did we get a gymnasium."

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The legacy of his separate schooling shocked Howard on his first day of college at Mississippi State University. Although he had been the valedictorian at his high school, his college entrance test results were mediocre, leading the head of the school's aerospace department to greet him with bad news.

"He said, 'You're not ready to take any of the freshman courses,' " Howard recalled.

But Howard refused to be discouraged. He enrolled in remedial courses, progressed through the university's curriculum at lightning speed and wound up graduating first in his class among aerospace engineering majors.

More important, Howard met a professor at Mississippi State who became his second mentor, offering him a job as an undergraduate research assistant and later encouraging him to apply for the graduate program at Caltech, the professor's alma mater.

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