Partnership to Increase Number of Black Scientists


Faculty from Vanderbilt and South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT) are working together to recruit and train more black scientists in South Africa.Vanderbilt and UCT will be core partners in collaborative research and study across several academic disciplines. The universities have agreed to jointly build an automated telescope facility near Cape Town at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Like African Americans in the United States, black Africans are underrepresented in the physical sciences, particularly in astronomy and space science. Vanderbilt has a program with historically black Fisk University to help increase the number of minority students pursuing doctoral degrees in the physical sciences. UCT has a similar program with historically black University of the Western Cape. Keivan Stassun, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is co-director of the Fisk- Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program and the Fisk Astronomy and Space Science Training Program.He is leading Vanderbilt’s participation in the astronomy research collaborations with UCT.

James Dickerson,Vanderbilt assistant professor of physics, and UCT physicists David Britton and Margit Harting are in talks to collaborate on research to produce novel nanocomposite metals.Other research partnerships in the areas of nanoscience and materials physics also are in the works.

“What makes this partnership so attractive is not only the astronomy and physics research, but the fact that we are developing the next generation of scientists– particularly those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups,” Stassun says.

The South African government has made astronomy its primary area of science investment and has constructed the South African Astronomical Observatory, which houses the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT)–the largest single- optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Funding from South Africa’s government and grants awarded through the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data- Intensive Astrophysics will help build the universities’ joint automated telescope facility near Cape Town.

Joel Harrington,Vanderbilt assistant provost for international affairs, heads the Vanderbilt International Office,which coordinated the partnership with the University of Cape Town.He says Vanderbilt’s goal is to establish partnerships with six peer institutions around the world by the end of 2007 and an additional three or four during the subsequent two years.”We want these to be deep, significant partnerships as opposed to the scattershot approach that often results from having hundreds of university partnerships without much depth,”Harrington says.

For more information about the grant program and the university’s international efforts, visit

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