Pioneering Champion of Diversity
Photo above: Edison Fowlks and his family
Story By Matt Marx
The study of “Plant Path” led Edison Fowlks down a long, illustrious path researching genetics and guiding people of color into careers in biological and life sciences.
Fowlks has been teaching biotechnology and molecular genetics ever since he graduated from The Ohio State University with a doctorate in plant pathology in 1965.
Still actively teaching and leading research, Fowlks is a professor and director of the Biotechnology Laboratory at Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia.
He has been named recipient of the Diversity Champion Award by The Ohio State University Alumni Association, and will return to Columbus to be recognized in the awards ceremony Sept. 21. In March, Fowlks received a 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
He plans to use the accolades as a springboard to expand his work to new generations, “especially to diverse communities where they don’t have a chance to get this experience in the genome sciences.”
Spartan, Buckeye and Golden Bear
Fowlks had earned a bachelor of science in agriculture from Prairie View A&M University in 1960. He was interested in pursuing graduate training at Texas A&M University but was not allowed because of his race, he said. “So, I decided to enroll at Michigan State University.”
After receiving his master of science in crop science/breeding at Michigan State in 1962, Fowlks came to Ohio State for his doctorate. When he arrived, he was the third black student to enter the Department of Plant Pathology.
“With agriculture, you see the gestalt of it all: of living systems, of plants and animals, and everything,” Fowlks said. “From agriculture, I was able to evolve by seeing the interconnectivity of the various disciplines. Ohio State was part of my evolution into becoming a scientist and geneticist.”
He remembers working alongside students who were driven to become plant pathologists.
“Everybody had a crop. Somebody was going to work on cotton; somebody was going to work on peas or some of the other crops. I never got caught up in this crop thing. I got caught up in the basic principles of plant pathology. That’s what propelled me.”
Fowlks became deeply involved in plant genetics and biochemistry and was fascinated by the viruses and fungi causing various diseases. He remembers the inspiration and advice he received from longtime faculty member Clyde C. Allison, among others.
“C.C. Allison was a great motivator. He said, ‘You are the third black student to enter this Department of Plant Pathology.’ He told me about the others, then he said, ‘At the rate you are going now, you will graduate in about three years.’ When he told me that, I was motivated to work ever harder to achieve my goal.”
Fowlks recalls enjoying nightly suppers with Allison and other students who met in a dining hall inside the dental school that was close to the Botany and Zoology Building, now called Jennings Hall. “Everybody ate and went back to the lab to continue the research, which was a time of great enjoyment.”
For several years after his graduation from Ohio State, Fowlks was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and Michigan State. Both labs were making groundbreaking discoveries, and Fowlks was able to study early chemical procedures for examining the ends of ribosomal RNA and plant RNA viruses and other areas of focus in molecular biology.
Opening doors to careers in science and research
Fowlks brought his molecular biology experience to two historically black institutions, Bishop College in Texas (1970-1988) and Hampton (1988-present), because of a desire to make an impact on “people who looked like me: people of color” through the introduction of undergraduate research.
“The ethos of my family provided the inspiration to serve the community to help create a more diverse culture. … Knowing that people of color were not well-represented in the sciences, increasing diversity in the then-emerging areas of molecular biology and genomics became a part of my commitment to the wider community.”
He noticed that he and his peers from other historically black colleges and universities shared a common goal: serving others through education.
“We didn’t focus on money, we focused on rendering service. In my case, I got enjoyment out of it. It didn’t dawn on me until later on that there was impact. That wasn’t on my mind.”
It was the inspiration of his mother, who had been a schoolteacher for 30 years, that motivated Fowlks to become an instructor himself.
“She had six children. Of the six, four of us became teachers of one form or another,” he said. “I am the one who has taught the longest — 53 years.”
Over the years, Fowlks has taught more than 8,400 students. While employing the scientific method as an active learning tool, he has taught courses in biology, botany, genetics, microbiology, evolution and genomics/bioinformatics, among others. Approximately 250 former students went on to pursue further studies in graduate and health professional programs. Four more of his former students earned doctorates in June.
“I have enjoyed the success of my students,” he said. “Many have reached out and thanked me.”
His research has netted numerous grants and awards, including the Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education from the American Society of Cell Biology in 2014, a prestigious national honor that recognizes "someone who has made both innovative and sustained contributions to undergraduate research and science education."
“I have enjoyed the success of my students,” he said. “Many have reached out and thanked me.”Edison Fowlks
Fowlks was an early proponent for incorporating research at historically black colleges and universities. Although funds for costly molecular biology labs were scarce at Bishop and Hampton, Fowlks shared that he used his "diverse experience and tenacious style to secure grant funds" to equip and modernize teaching and research laboratories.
He was a co-investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project to provide genomics training to over 140 undergraduate faculty members, particularly those who were teaching minority students, although all students in these classes received training.
Since the early 1970s, Fowlks has been an innovator in providing molecular biology education to students of all levels, and establishing research opportunities for undergraduates as well as outreach programs for high and middle schools at Bishop and Hampton.
He is particularly proud of his role in the implementation of two programs through the National Institutes of Health, NIH-Minority Access to Research Careers, and NIH-Minority Biochemical Research Support. “Those programs are 40 years old. They are having great impact on increasing minority representation, black men and women, Latinos, and increasing diversity in science and medicine.”
The path continues
While teaching three courses this semester at Hampton, Fowlks watches for students from outside majors who might only be taking the class to fulfill a science requirement.
“My goal is to recruit some of those students who are able to think differently," he said. "I have been able to recruit some of them to medicine and sciences.”
Fowlks continues working because of his enjoyment in helping students achieve their goals.
“Also, I have the opportunity to mentor students in applying new genomic technologies to some old unsolved problems in biology," he said. "The joy of discovery, the importance of STEM disciplines, and service to society are elements of a legacy I’d like to pass on to my students and children.”