Western Horizons:
A Workshop in Wyoming Opens New Vistas

Winter 1995. By Scott Lowry.

If you want to get people thinking in unfamiliar ways," says Skip Bollenbacher, director of PMABS and a biology professor at UNC-CH, "it helps to throw them into unfamiliar surroundings." That's why a team from PMABS--including eight members of the Academic Operations Committee--journeyed from North Carolina to attend a grant-writing workshop in Sunlight Basin, Wyoming, this summer. With the Absaroka Mountains as a backdrop, workshop participants were stimulated to develop innovative proposals that may yield funds for PMABS programs now that they're back in North Carolina.

PMABS is committed to finding innovative ways to shepherd minority high school students through college and into careers in the biomolecular sciences. "Minorities are projected to comprise 40 percent of the work force early in the 21st century," explains participant Eugene Baskerville, a professor at Shaw University, "yet the percentage of minorities attending college peaked in the early '70s and has been declining since then. That's such a waste of manpower. We need to motivate young people so that they can contribute."

Thomas Jordan, a professor at North Carolina A&T State University, points to an important outcome of the week-long workshop: "We began to bond as a partnership. Working together helped us to see each other as people, not as strangers over the phone. It also helped us communicate." "We brainstormed, fed off each other," says Marilyn Sutton-Haywood, a professor at Johnson C. Smith University. "It allowed us to get new perspectives from each other as we added to the idea bank."

The 'idea bank'--a term coined during the busy, first day by John Mayfield, a professor at North Carolina Central University--is a growing reservoir of elements from which PMABS faculty may dip to write individual as well as collaborative grant proposals. It includes projects aimed at all levels of the process of producing tomorrow's molecular biologists: an outreach program in which PMABS trains high school teachers in techniques needed to bring biomolecular sciences alive in their classrooms and laboratories, or a PMABS database that includes information ranging from people willing to serve as mentors for biology students to suggestions about how to work laboratories more effectively into the curriculum.

Participants recognize that the workshop was only the beginning. As Sutton-Haywood puts it, "We were in Utopia out there; we could conquer the world. Now it's time for reality. We need to deal with the specifics of grants, and we need to know which agencies to tailor the grant proposals to."

Jordan adds, "We need to make sure that the basic program that Howard Hughes Medical Institute has already funded gets firmly established, then go to other agencies to supplement that basic program. We need equipment and supplies, but we also need to make sure we have student experiments that work and that students come out of our courses inspired and well trained in the biomolecular sciences."

Looking back on the week, Baskerville is struck by how much participants accomplished. "After the first three days, I thought I was too tired to keep going," he remembers. "But then I managed to get more done in the last three days than in the first three. I guess we felt pressured to keep up with each other."

"If others could have been there watching," says Beth Dolan Kautz, one of the three facilitators at the workshop, "they would have realized just how much these people care about their students, how committed they are to the education they provide. It was inspiring to see how willing everyone was not only to work hard but to learn new things, whether it was new ways of thinking, writing, and collaborating--or how to ride horses or to live for a week in cabins heated by wood stoves."

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