Johns Hopkins University officially welcomed the inaugural cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars during a reception on Aug. 19 on the waterfront in Baltimore's Harbor East neighborhood.
The Vivien Thomas Scholars 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 inaugural cohort is made up 20 scholars from across the country.
"Thank you for entrusting us with your life journeys," VTSI Director Damani Piggott said during remarks delivered at the welcome event. "Each of you are absolutely remarkable, and we know you will continue to bring so much light, not only to our community here at Hopkins, but to our broader humanity. There's no greater privilege for us than to be able to travel this journey together with you. Our community will be stronger and better because of your presence."
Added JHU President Ron Daniels: "We stand ready to support you every step of the way in realizing your dreams. You're here, quite frankly, because we saw in you incredible promise as researchers and thinkers, and we look forward to all that you will accomplish alongside an incredible cohort of peers with whom I am confident you'll forge lifelong bonds."
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—is named for Vivien Thomas, a gifted scientist 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.
Among the attendees at the welcome celebration last month were five members of the late Vivien Thomas' family—two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
"Everyone here is already aware of Dr. Vivien Thomas' achievements in the medical field," his granddaughter, Ursula Dijkhoffz, said at the gathering. "So I would like to share with you a little bit about his character. We indeed recognize that he did something remarkable, but what I find interesting is he never remarked. We recognize that he was humble in his achievements and that this quiet confidence is what allowed him to keep to the task and keep his passion at the center of his focus. His work was not about him as a Black man. It was for the greater good of mankind. We recognize also that he was good at what he did and his excellence could have not been ignored. Had he not had this beautiful character, we may not be here today."
Garnesha Ezediaro, who leads the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Greenwood Initiative, spoke about the tremendous potential of both the inaugural scholars and the program as a whole to bring more diverse viewpoints to fields where they are often lacking and to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in invention and patenting.
"We are so excited for the ongoing pipeline of diverse students, as well as the researchers and scholars represented in the cohort today," Ezediaro said. "Together with JHU and in partnership with the HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, Bloomberg Philanthropies' Greenwood Initiative is committed to increasing equity, innovation, and opportunity in STEM fields. We look forward to being there in support of you every step of the way."
The welcome celebration was followed by a two-day retreat, where scholars engaged in team-building activities and heard from speakers on topics including leadership, effective communication, mentor/mentee relationships, graduate journeys, and equity. Welcome activities concluded on Monday, Aug. 22, at the Mount Washington Conference Center with introductions to key Johns Hopkins faculty and staff as well as fellow graduate students.
"To be in the inaugural cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars, I feel not only grateful, I feel hopeful," said Sierra Thomas-McLeod, who will pursue a Hopkins PhD in cellular and molecular medicine. "Hopeful for what's to come with my cohort, and the change that we can make at Johns Hopkins, but also for future generations of scholars to come. I hope that we not only increase diversity, but we also create a community here, for everyone to feel included and accepted, and feel like they can make a difference."
Added Alyssa Columbus, who will join the PhD program in biostatistics, when asked what it's like to be part this community of scholars: "I'd say in a word, energizing. Everyone has such unique skillsets and backgrounds and interests. I'm so honored. I couldn't believe it when I was selected. I'm thrilled to be here, and I'm excited to learn and grow with all of these incredible people."