Students of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt meet Dr. Mae Jemison. Vanderbilt photo

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Twenty one high schoolers graduate this spring knowing science and math are important for democracy largely because of their four-year class at Vanderbilt University.

Metro public schools and donors fund an operating budget of nearly $265,000 for the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt. The university provides classrooms, personnel and role models including Dr. Mae Jemison, NASA’s first black female astronaut.

She and former Congressman Russ Holt were interviewed by Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos April 30 at the university. Holt recalled a congressman who lumped physics and biology together as science when anthrax spores arrived in offices mailed just after 9/11.

That congressman told Holt, a physicist, “‘You’re a scientist, you know what to do, right?’” SSMV Director Angela Eeds reported. Physics and biology are different.

It’s a reason for SSMV according to: Eeds; Maya Johnson, who’s graduating from MLK High School; and Ella Halbert who’s graduating from Hume-Fogg.

“Everyone can benefit from a basic scientific understanding,” Halbert said. Taught about the late Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells, Halbert appreciates ethics in science. A guardianship lawsuit was pending for Lacks’ 68-year-old cells, reported. Halbert said, “It’s still her DNA.”

It’s important to Lacks’ heirs. Lacks’ cells were used to help eradicate polio and create treatments for cancer and HIV.

Halbert has a science scholarship to Oberlin College and said Jemison asked “‘What child doesn’t deserve a great education?’

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the stars,” said Halbert who, with classmate Johnson, Eeds, and Amanda Dixon, SSMV assistant director of admissions and MNPS liaison, all advocate evidence-based arguments.

Zeppos’ interview emphasized scientific literacy (see Better Science Education at and touched on climate change.

It “definitely” exists, says Johnson. “I’ve looked at the graphs of global temperatures … There’s a steady increase ever since we started putting carbon monoxide … into the environment.”

Johnson is to attend Bryn Mawr College. Dr. Jemison was set to be Bryn Mawr’s commencement speaker May 18.

Jemison testified before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology May 9. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, asked about minority students, scholarships and promoting diversity in science.

“It is not necessarily fair when … students are working and in classes with people who do not have to work their way through school,” Jemison said. “Our responsibility, as a nation, is to make sure that people have access and opportunity to develop their talents that we are going to need.”

Cohen said , “We need more need-based scholarships.” Tennessee’s lottery funds need-based and merit-based scholarships.

SSMV is part of Metro’s free public education. Applications are accepted from eighth graders in January and February.

“We would like kids finishing seventh grade now to know about it,” Eeds said. Applications require an essay and a letter from the student’s teacher. Applicants must demonstrate an interest in science and math. For more, search the Internet for School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...