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In the 15 months since he was named the inaugural director of the new Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, Damani Piggott has become something of a scholar of Vivien Thomas himself.
He recites, with equal parts ease and admiration, the remarkable story of Thomas, a gifted scientist born and raised in Louisiana, in the Jim Crow South, forced to drop out of college amid the Great Depression, who despite never being able to enroll in medical school forged a career as a pioneering research and surgical assistant and who trained generations of surgeons and scientists at Johns Hopkins. Thomas is perhaps best known for his work to develop and refine a lifesaving surgical technique to treat "blue baby syndrome" at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s.
"I have much more to learn," says Piggott humbly, noting that his friend and former Hopkins colleague Bob Higgins is the true Thomas scholar, with robust ongoing work to document Thomas' life and legacy. "I definitely have been trying to continue to build that knowledge. Here was this tremendous talent who had amazing impact. And I think that's the premise for this whole initiative, that there is this wealth of talent out there that is ready to assume the mantle of leadership and transform our STEM enterprise."
Inspired by and named for Thomas, the initiative aims to address historic underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math fields by creating pathways for exceptional students from historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions to pursue PhDs in STEM fields at Johns Hopkins. The program—announced in May 2021 and backed by a $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies' Greenwood Initiative, whose mission is to accelerate the pace of wealth accumulation for Black individuals and families and address systemic underinvestment in Black communities—formally welcomes its first cohort of 20 scholars to campus this week.
The group comes from across the country—from California to New England, from the Midwest to the Deep South—and, in one case, beyond—one of the scholars earned a bachelor's degree in physics at the University of the Virgin Islands. They have studied at some of the nation's top HBCUs, including Howard, Morehouse, Fisk, and Morgan State.
Their credentials are incredibly impressive, their interests many and varied. One scholar created a 600+ member organization dedicated to fostering gender diversity in the data science community; another set up food pantries to address food insecurity. They are musicians, poets, podcast hosts, athletes, mentors, volunteers, and so much more.
"I consider this to be a phenomenal group of human beings," Piggott says. "They've had an excellent record of scholarship. They've been engaged in outstanding research. They already have an exemplary record of leadership. They are innovators, founders, presidents and vice presidents of various organizations. They are committed to service and devoted to advancing the pathways of those coming in the journey behind them."
Over six years, the program will grow to support 100 PhD students in JHU's more than 30 STEM programs at the schools of Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, and Public Health. Vivien Thomas Scholars will receive up to six years of full tuition support, a stipend, health benefits, as well as mentorship, research, and professional development opportunities.
"The Vivien Thomas program adds another layer of excellence to graduate programs at Johns Hopkins," said Nancy Kass, vice provost for graduate and professional education. "By attracting top talent from hundreds of undergraduate institutions across the country, selected not only for their academic achievements but also for their leadership potential and likelihood to have an impact, Vivien Thomas Scholars likely will influence the quality and environments of our STEM PhD programs far beyond their numbers."
Welcome and orientation events for the Vivien Thomas Scholars begin Friday with a reception at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore that will be attended by JHU President Ron Daniels, Provost Sunil Kumar, and members of the late Vivien Thomas' family, including two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A two-day retreat will follow featuring team-building activities as well as speakers on topics including leadership, effective communication, mentor/mentee relationships, graduate journeys, and equity.
Welcome activities conclude Monday at the Mount Washington Conference Center with introductions to key Johns Hopkins faculty and staff as well as fellow graduate students.
"For us to get the best output in terms of our STEM enterprise, we can only do that if we are able to harness excellence, creativity, and innovation from every single corner of our society," Piggott says. "The data is very clear. We see it in business, we see it in educational journeys, and this is very much true in STEM. There's no way around that premise, that we have to connect the full human potential that exists across our society to be able to solve maximally the world's greatest challenges."
Added Garnesha Ezediaro, who leads the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Greenwood Initiative: "Bloomberg Philanthropies' Greenwood Initiative is committed to increasing equitable access and opportunity across higher education. The endowment will help to address the historic underrepresentation in STEM by preparing a new, more diverse generation of researchers and scholars to assume leadership roles in tackling some of the world's greatest challenges. We look forward to supporting this next part of the scholars' academic journey and wish them the best as they start their school year."
Inaugural Vivien Thomas Scholars cohort
Aliyah Penn, Cellular and Molecular Medicine
Undergraduate institution: California State University, Sacramento
Alyssa Columbus, Biostatistics
Undergraduate institution: University of California, Irvine
Bassil Ramadan, Biomedical Engineering
Undergraduate institution: University of Arizona
Benvindo Chicha, Cell, Molecular, Developmental Biology, and Biophysics
Undergraduate institution: Bowie State University
Carlos Villapudua Gastelum, Biomedical Engineering
Undergraduate institution: University of La Verne
Christopher McDonald, Chemical Biology
Undergraduate institution: Texas State University
Clarke Bagsby, Cell, Molecular, Developmental Biology, and Biophysics
Undergraduate institution: Fisk University
Cynthia Schofield, Neuroscience
Undergraduate institution: University of Massachusetts Boston
Darryl Joel Sop Tueam, Cellular and Molecular Medicine
Undergraduate institution: New Jersey City University
David Horsey, Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology
Undergraduate institution: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Hannah Tsingine, Immunology
Undergraduate institution: Fort Lewis College
Idris Sunmola, Computer Science
Undergraduate institution: University of Illinois Chicago
Ime Essien, Biomedical Engineering
Undergraduate institution: Morgan State University
Kodi Harris, Human Genetics and Molecular Biology
Undergraduate institution: Morehouse College
Mikias Balkew, Physics
Undergraduate institution: Georgia State University–Perimeter College
Naomi Rankin, Civil and Systems Engineering
Undergraduate institution: Howard University
Orian Stapleton, Biomedical Engineering
Undergraduate institution: University of the Virgin Islands
Sierra Williams-McLeod, Cellular and Molecular Medicine
Undergraduate institution: Hampton University
Uche Onuchukwu, Human Genetics and Molecular Biology
Undergraduate institution: University of Maryland Eastern Shore
Victor Omoniyi, Cellular and Molecular Medicine
Undergraduate institutions: University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Prince George's Community College