Michael Summers: Alumnus Works to Keep Minorities and Women in Science

This alumni feature story was written for the fall 2016 issue of the University of West Florida’s alumni magazine.

View the story in UWF Connection (PDF)

Ask Michael Summers, ’80, to describe his experiences with the chemistry professors at the University of West Florida, and he’ll tell you they were deeply committed and supportive of their students but held them to very high standards.

“I remember one day, I showed up to Dr. [Jerome] Gurst’s organic chemistry class wearing flip-flops,” Summers said. “It just wasn’t safe – we’re in there working with glass and acids. Clearly not one of my better choices, and he promptly threw me out of his lab.”

But it was also Gurst, professor emeritus of chemistry, who on his own time, drove Summers and his classmates to universities in Atlanta and New Orleans to visit some of the top graduate programs in chemistry. Summers would ultimately enroll in a chemistry Ph.D. program at one of the universities they visited – Emory University in Atlanta.

“It was that kind of support and involvement that made such an impression on me,” Summers said. “The bar was set high – there was no hand-holding. You weren’t given a result and asked to interpret it. We had to perform the experiment ourselves – make the samples, collect the data, get the equipment to work, get out the manuals, take things apart. Students would be in the lab all hours of the night, and it really got me excited about science and research.”

Now the Robert E. Meyerhoff Chair for Excellence in Research and Mentoring and University Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Summers is training the next generation of scientists.

As a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1994, Summers involves his students in his research activities, which focus on HIV-1, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. Using an imaging technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Summers’ lab has helped to develop new ways of inhibiting the virus, providing insight into how it functions and how new drugs could be developed.

In May, Summers became one of only 84 people from 14 countries to be elected to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Membership is one of the highest honors that a researcher can receive, and Summers’ election recognizes his exceptional contributions to the scientific community, along with his leadership in inclusion efforts and the retention of underrepresented populations in science.

“In the last 20 years or so, there has been a quantitative loss of interest in science,” Summers said. “It really scares me to know that even more so, large numbers of minorities and women start college intending to study science, but then end up changing majors. Why aren’t we retaining them?”

Summers now works with other universities to replicate the inclusion program he helped start at UMBC, helping science programs better engage with underrepresented students and establish structures and programs that are proven to be effective in retaining diverse populations.

Summers has been back on UWF’s campus to meet with Michael Huggins, chemistry professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Karen Molek, assistant professor of chemistry, about UWF’s inclusion efforts. He also provided initial funding to start an inclusion program at the university, an initiative that has taken off since the award of a $960,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health that provides support for underrepresented undergraduate students in the sciences.

“What our data show is if students can get into a laboratory and self-identify as a scientist, they will be retained,” he said. “We’re in the position to convince students they can make it in this field, and at a very high level. It’s about letting students know you’re paying attention to them, and you’re there to offer your support. That was something I had – something that was just part of the culture at UWF.”

Photo credit: University of West Florida