Sidney Hill: Physical sciences need minority students’ talents

While in the first grade in his rural North Carolina town, Sidney Hill discovered what he said was the “sheer joy” of science while explaining in class the differences between a solid, a liquid and a gas. Science continued to wow him as he grew, providing him with realizations about the physical world around him, and the motivation to pursue a science-based career — not only to improve his socioeconomic status, but to change lives worldwide by engaging others in critical thinking.

UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Sidney Hill (Photo by Michael Barnes, College of Chemistry)

UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Sidney Hill (Photo by Michael Barnes)

Hill’s interest in inspiring the next generation of scientists began during his undergraduate years at North Carolina State University, where he earned a double major in textile chemistry and chemistry. He taught math and science to students in Madagascar one summer, and later mentored middle school-aged Science Olympiad competitors and his own university peers in the College of Textiles.

“Growing minds innately have a desire to learn,” he said, “so long as there is a positive environment and a role model that facilitates it.”

He wound up at UC Berkeley after a Berkeley alumnus he met while working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York suggested he apply.

“It’s a great department, I love it, it’s very intense, but very supportive,” 25-year-old Hill said of his life as a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry. He also acknowledged that, being one of only five African Americans in the department – there are 403 Ph.D. students altogether – he would have less stress if a few more faculty members and doctoral students closely shared his background and career concerns. Of the chemistry department’s ladder-rank faculty, three of the 54 professors are from underrepresented minority groups – one is black/African American and two are Chicano/Latino.

“People who haven’t grown up in a rural environment with a dad who wasn’t there much suggest paths for me with a Ph.D. in chemistry that aren’t always informed by where I came from,” said Hill, who has a fiancée from North Carolina, is concerned about financial security and is set on returning to the East Coast. “I need a mentor who knows me well and can help me identify the pros and cons of choosing a job in industry or a job in academia as it relates to my present and past. It’s a huge stress if no one can relate to you.”

He added that a more diversified faculty and student body in the STEM fields being targeted by the California Alliance not only would help minority student success, but the field of science.

“Lots of talent in the U.S. is not being used, especially the talents of underrepresented minority students in the physical sciences,” said Hill. “We can bring an interesting perspective to the table, a different way of thinking. A lot of scientists can lose sight of how their research can serve the non-scientific community. The day-to-day problems that an underrepresented student faces in his or her community, such as drug addiction, can foster intellectually stimulating research, become high-impact scientific research areas and serve the general population.”