Materials physicist Fernando Camino placed a silicon chip onto the stage of a powerful microscope at Brookhaven National Laboratory, then watched as the tiny electrodes of a micro-circuit emerged into focus on an adjoining computer display.
Gushing with the enthusiasm of a teenager activating a brand-new cell phone, Camino explained to a gathering of mostly black and Hispanic young men clustered around him how the equipment was helping to unlock the properties of graphene, a honeycomb layer of carbon atoms less than one-billionth of a meter thick.
“Its properties have thousands of applications,” he said, his eyes darting between the display and the young men, adding that manipulating materials at the scale of single atoms has allowed scientists to pack millions of transistors into a single computer chip.
“These are the kinds of things we do here,” Camino said.
The young men were among 165 area students invited to the Upton laboratory Wednesday to commemorate the second anniversary of President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
Wednesday’s event — a collaboration between Brookhaven and The College at Old Westbury — was designed to encourage students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects. It was a local part of “National Week at the Labs,” with more than 50 research facilities in 20 states welcoming some 5,000 elementary, middle and high school students.
Jourvonn Skeen, 19, an Old Westbury student who is contemplating a medical career, watched as Camino manipulated the silicon wafer using a robotic probe.
Skeen, who grew up in a section of Staten Island where black, Hispanic and Asian students make up more than 60 percent of residents, said having Brookhaven scientists explain their work excited him about the possibility of doing basic science himself.
“It really pushes you in the right direction, especially coming from an area where you don’t see too many African-Americans in the sciences,” Skeen said after Camino’s demonstration was over. “I was already thinking about being pre-med, but this makes me think of doing an M.D./Ph.D.”
Boosting achievement in STEM subjects among the nation’s black and Hispanic students is a key goal of the Obama administration, said Broderick Johnson, the White House coordinator for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Fewer than 4 percent of African-Americans and 9 percent of Hispanic-Americans complete degrees in STEM subjects, Johnson told a gathering of students and Brookhaven staff members.
“Every one of us needs to do more to ensure that every American, including those underrepresented in STEM like women and people of color, are exposed to this ecosystem through active and hands-on experience,” Johnson said.
The My Brother’s Keeper initiative is focused on addressing opportunity gaps that face young people of color by connecting them to science-related mentoring and other support networks, which can be conspicuously absent in economically disadvantaged areas.
Obama, speaking about the initiative at Lehman College in the Bronx last May, said persistent gaps in employment, educational outcomes and career skills hinder young people from reaching their full potential, depriving them of higher incomes and saddling their communities with lost economic output and other social problems.
“There is a tragic history in this country that has made it tougher for some,” the president said then. “It’s true for young people of color, especially boys and young men.”
The daylong event, in which students toured some of Brookhaven’s laboratories and lunched with scientists and engineers on the laboratory’s staff, drew students from Long Island and New York City. Attendees arrived from high schools in Hempstead, Westbury, Wyandanch, Brentwood, Longwood, Southampton and Bridgehampton, among others.
Students got a chance to speak one-on-one with Brookhaven staffers exploring some of science’s most fundamental questions, such as how nature’s first atoms were formed from quark-gluon plasma moments after the Big Bang.
Steven A. Coleman, a former Navy nuclear submariner who now manages the radiological control division at Brookhaven, was one engineer who took part.
An African-American who grew up in Deer Park, Coleman said he once was such a distracted student that he was forced to leave college because of poor grades. It was the support of mentors in the U.S. Navy that encouraged his pursuit of the natural sciences. He earned a Ph.D. at Stony Brook University after being hired at Brookhaven as a nuclear reactor operator in 1991.
“I think they need to hear our stories,” said Coleman, 50, who regularly mentors students interested in science careers. “Even if you fail the first time, you can pick yourself up. There can still be opportunities.”