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N.C. school nets science grant, a first for HBCUs

Natasha Robinson

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina AandT State University has become the first historically black college in the country to lead a multimillion-dollar National Science Foundation project to develop a research center on its campus.

The school in Greensboro will receive more than $18 million from the foundation over the next five years to fund the Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials. The center will do research in biomedical engineering, including implants that could help children with birth defects and minimize invasive procedures.

“It is a great opportunity for us to show that even as a HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), the quality of our research and quality of our teaching is on par with other universities,” said Shena Crittendon, assistant vice chancellor for communications and operations at North Carolina AandT.

The school’s proposal was chosen from 143 submissions. Researchers will work with the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Cincinnati, along with eight companies in the market of nanobiotechnology.

Their focus will be on biodegradable implants that could reduce complications for patients with conditions such as cleft palate, bone fractures and coronary heart disease.

The devices will be designed to adapt to physical changes and dissolve once patients have healed, reducing the number of follow-up surgeries and potential complications of major procedures.

The center’s director, Jag Sankar, has been an engineering professor at the university for 24 years and said it’s “phenomenal” to have the center based at AandT.

“Big universities have won things, but this sends a strong message at the national level, the importance of every human being getting involved,” Sankar said.

North Carolina AandT is among the nation’s 110 HBCUs founded before 1964 to serve the black community.

AandT has built a foundation for biomedical engineering and the funding will help with building and human infrastructure, Sankar said. The school also will establish a Department of Bioengineering.

“That will open a field up to minority students that hasn’t always been available unless you go to a majority (non-HBCU) institution,” Crittendon said.

Foundation data show the number of blacks earning master’s degrees in science and engineering grew from 4.5 percent in 1995 to 6.3 percent in 2004, the most recent available. From 1997 to 2006, North Carolina AandT produced 89 black science Ph.D.s, the sixth highest of any U.S. university, according to the data.

Leon Esterowitz, a National Science Foundation program director, said the selection process took nearly two years. He said foundation officials narrowed their search to eight schools, and visited each campus.

Esterowitz said this wasn’t the first time a smaller university was chosen.

“We wanted this process done purely on the technical merit,” he said. “I’m very excited about it myself, and if they’re very successful, I think they’ll do a great benefit to society.”

The university was among five schools the National Science Foundation chose for research center funding.

(Associated Press)