Manu Platt is a Black man in America. He is a big man who wears earrings and dreadlocks. That is what the public sees. Now, the public will get a deeper look into who Dr. Manu Platt is, thanks to a special report cover story in the January edition of the magazine Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
Platt, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (a partnership between Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology) is pictured on the magazine cover and featured inside as one of the 2015 Emerging Scholars of the Year, a diverse group of individuals, all of them under 40, recognized for the uniqueness of their fields of study and a commitment to service and teaching.
In the article, Platt’s groundbreaking research as a biomedical engineer is heralded. But the writer, Ronald Roach, also mentions that Platt is, “excelling as an educator and humanitarian,” and, “he has been active in efforts to increase the success of biomedical engineering students and postdocs from underrepresented minority groups.”
The article about Platt is titled, “STEM Innovator.” STEM, of course, is an acronym that refers to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. President Obama has prioritized increasing the number of students and teachers proficient in these critical areas.
Platt has taken a lead role in addressing that national priority here at the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, as co-founder and co-chair of Project ENGAGES (Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science), a program that brings marginalized inner city high school students into Petit Institute labs to work on year-round research.
The magazine featuring Platt lives up to its name, focusing on issues around the broad topic of human diversity in education. And this particular issue is timely, coming in the wake of recent incidents involving police violence against Black men. In the front-of-the-book editorial, executive editor David Pluviose writes about becoming “aware of the extent to which the fear of Black men had pervaded American society,” and given this, “it is not altogether surprising to me that there seems to be a shoot first, ask questions later mentality among some in law enforcement across the country when it comes to encounters with Black men.”
Pluviose then goes on to write, “I believe that the work of our 2015 Emerging Scholars could help turn the tide of public perception concerning the value of the Black man.” Then, spotlighting a few of the scholars in his editorial, he notes Platt’s appearance: “If he donned some sweats and sneakers, it might be easy to confuse our cover subject, Georgia Tech and Emory University’s Manu Platt, with many other Black men on the street donning dreadlocks and earrings. Yet Platt’s cutting-edge computer modeling-enhanced research into new ways or of reducing stroke risk among children with sickle cell disease and better investigating HIV-mediated cardiovascular disease and cancer metastasis is truly world-class.”
Platt says he was pleasantly surprised when he found out he was being considered for the cover (in December, during the photo session). But he deeply appreciates the magazine’s tone, the bigger picture human focus that goes well beyond career highlights.
“They’re writing about what’s happening in America today, what it’s like to be a Black man, how someone like me might look to other people, and I love that,” Platt says. “It’s all about professors with a purpose. That’s something I’ve always thought about, and work like this, the Emerging Scholars program, just reinforces the notion.”
The publication of the magazine was timely for another reason, something closer to home, closer to Georgia Tech. One of the Project ENGAGES students, Katrina Burch, was invited by the White House to be part of a two-person panel (Thursday, January 15) in the nation’s capitol at a conference called, “Front and Center: Bringing Marginalized Girls into STEM and Career and Technical Education.”
The conference brought together federal, state and local agencies, service providers, researchers, the private sector, and youth to discuss policies and programs designed to increase access for low-income girls and girls of color, girls like Katrina Burch.
A senior at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Burch is in her second and final year of ENGAGES, a program that has its share of success stories – all of the first high school graduates who went through the program are now in college, and many are the first generation in their families to do so. That will be the case for Burch, whose inclusion on the panel was the result of fortuitous connectivity leading to communication leading to action.
Basically, it started with a conversation between Georgia Tech Community Relations Director, Chris Burke, and his friend Marcus Bright, who is executive director of the non-profit, Education for a Better America. Bright was organizing a discussion with the White House around the topic of attracting young minority women to STEM education and asked if Burke would participate.
“There were probably four or five universities represented in the conversation, and we each shared what we were doing,” says Burke. “Fortunately, I got to go last. Most of the universities are doing some similar things, so after everybody else talked about what they were doing, it was my turn.”
Burke could have kept the conversation going for hours if he wanted to, because Georgia Tech has implemented a number of programs that build sustained partnerships with nearby communities. For example, the Westside Communities Alliance works to foster neighborhood unity and develop sustainable models that address challenges facing low to moderate income communities that neighbor urban campuses.
He told the White House about Project ENGAGES, and one of President Obama’s senior policy advisors, Becky Monroe was on the line. She was really interested, and a few days later called Burke to follow up. He steered her toward Platt, which led to Burch.
“I am so psyched to be part of this,” says Burch, who spoke with Valerie Jarrett, another senior advisor to the president, and chair of the White Council on Women and Girls (one of the conference’s organizing agencies, along with the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, and the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality).
“Initially, they just wanted my input. They asked me if the direction they were moving in was appropriate, and I was like, ‘why do they care what I think?’ I thought what they were trying to do sounded great,” says Burch, who grew up in Atlanta, one of three kids – the only daughter – raised by a single mom, who also has a young son with developmental disabilities (due to a genetic disorder called di George syndrome).
“They want to hear my life story, basically, the challenges I’ve faced, how I got to where I am now, my younger brother and his challenges, my mother,” adds Burch, who took only the second flight of her life. Her first was about a month ago, when she and her lab mentor, Dr. Kristi Porter, attended the American Society for Cell Biology annual conference, where they presented their research.
Platt, Porter and Katrina’s mother also attended the conference in Washington, D.C. It was her mother’s first time on a plane.
“That’s a cool thing, my mother’s first flight,” says Burch, who has been busily applying for different schools (Tech is her first choice).
A little experience – taking your first flight, for example – can be a very empowering thing. So can working in a university lab, gaining the confidence and the steady mind of a scientist, taking on responsibilities within the framework of a highly skilled research team. That’s basically the ENGAGES experience. It’s empowerment. It’s liberation from the tired, old restrictive norm.
“The White House wanted to know about what we were doing to help keep girls interested in science, so I ran down a history of the program, told them about the importance of the personal touches, as well as having high expectations, all of these ENGAGES stories,” says Platt, whose tireless efforts have helped make he and Burch part of the national discussion on diversity in education. “I could hear a lot of expressions on the other end of the line. They seemed impressed, and they hadn’t even met Katrina yet. I told them, ‘you have got to meet this girl and hear her story.’”
And now, they have.