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HBCU Students Present STEM Findings to Southern Research Professionals

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Tuskegee University student Yesutor Soku earned $500 for his presentation during Southern Research's “Moving Science with STEM Stars” event for HBCU students. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

Dezmond Spencer, a Tuskegee University alumnus, was among the Southern Research staffers at Homewood Suites by Hilton on Thursday as a group of invited Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) students gathered for a STEM Stars presentation.

An alumnus of Vestavia Hills High School, Spencer knows the importance of students being able to talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) research, both with scientists and laypersons.

Dezmond Spencer, a Tuskegee University and Vestavia Hills High School alumnus, was among the Southern Research staffers at the event. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

“I am a biology pre-med major from Tuskegee,” he said. “I was able to do a little bit of research … in the foods and science department. I remember getting presentations together, getting my poster together and being nervous and presenting in front of a group of people and just trying to show my love for science and hope they connect with the masses.

“I’ve been in their shoes before and done the same thing,” he added. “It’s great seeing it from the other side. It’s awesome to see it.”

Spencer was on site as Southern Research connected HBCU students to the organization and its strategy through the “Moving Science with STEM Stars” event, first held last year as part of the Magic City Classic, awarding three scholarships totaling $2,000.

On Thursday, Muhammad G. Khudary, Tuskegee, was announced as the winner of the $1,000 first-place scholarship. Two other Tuskegee students – Dr. Terrance Platt and Yesutor Soku – earned $500 for their presentations.

Muhammad G. Khudary, Tuskegee, was announced as the winner of the $1,000 first-place scholarship. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

Brantley Fry, the company’s vice president of People and Community, said the company looks at STEM education as an important role to create workforce development.

“The STEM field is traditionally underrepresented by African American scientists so we are looking for ways to increase connectivity to students who are studying in the STEM field,” Fry said.

“We have partnered with both Classics, the Morehouse-Tuskegee as well as the Magic City Classic to introduce students to Southern Research and obviously us to them,” the vice president continued. “We had the opportunity to hire a student from ASU (Alabama State University) last year as a result of our STEM Stars event that we did with the Magic City Classic. We expanded it this year to include the Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic” this year held Saturday, Oct. 7 at Birmingham’s Legion Field.

The STEM event on Thursday, conducted at Homewood Suites by Hilton, drew nine Tuskegee students. “We’re super excited to have all the students here,” said Kristin Garrett, Southern Research’s special projects manager.

Fry said Morehouse was unable to attend. “We look forward to partnering with them at the 2024 Classic,” she said.

The morning event involved STEM students displaying posters that detailed their work and discussing that research with professionals from Southern Research. Three of the company’s staffers – Paige Vinson, Marcus Davis and Sharell Westry Lewis – judged the entries and announced the scholarship winners.

Khudary’s research investigates the HSP60 protein as a potential target for CAR-T cell immunotherapy of triple negative breast cancer. He said he was motivated both by the instruction he received at Tuskegee and the knowledge of people who were suffering with the disease.

Dr. Terrance Platt, of Tuskegee University, earned $500 for his presentation during Southern Research’s “Moving Science with STEM Stars” event for HBCU students. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

Platt’s study centers on cardiovascular disease induced by systemic lupus. “We’re looking at the impact of dietary intervention with the green vegetable called purslane,” the Selma native said. “We’re looking at the impact of that diet on cardiovascular disease and an induced mouse model of systemic lupus to see if there might be potential cardioprotective and neuroprotective effects of the diet on the model.”

Soku, who is originally from Ghana, did research on seafood safety. His study involved escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacteria that normally lives in the intestines of both healthy people and animals. In most cases, E. coli is harmless but certain strains of the bacteria can cause symptoms including diarrhea, stomach pain and cramps and low-grade fever.

As students presented their research, Dr. Deloris Alexander, the interim dean of Tuskegee’s graduate school, snapped photos with her cellphone like a doting parent.

“One of the things we teach our students is scientific communication, and not scientific communication just to other scientists,” Alexander said. “We teach them that it is their responsibility to be able to distill their science into a way that people can understand, no matter where they come from.

“Not only do they present these posters here, they present similar posters to kindergarteners, to K through 12 kids in the public school systems, to grandmas, cousins, and lay people, church groups.”

Southern Research will host another “Moving Science with STEM Stars” as part of the Magic City Classic between Alabama State and Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical universities. The game will be held October 28 at Birmingham’s Legion Field.

Updated at 5:56 on 10/6/2023 to correct name of one of the winners.