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A Legacy of Breaking Barriers

November 28, 2023 by Sara Falligant

Since 1998, the Nathaniel Boggs, Jr. Ph.D. Memorial Fellowship has deepened ties between Hopkins and historically Black institutions

When Paula Boggs, A&S ’81, first arrived to Johns Hopkins in 1977, women had only recently been granted admission as undergraduates. Campus buildings didn’t have women’s restrooms, everyone who entered the athletic center received a jockstrap, and there was no women’s running program.

johns hopkins alum paula boggs holds her 2023 johns hopkins alumni association heritage award
Paula Boggs, A&S ’81, established the Nathaniel Boggs, Jr. Ph.D. Memorial Fellowship in honor of her father, who received Howard University’s first doctorate in zoology in 1963. She also received the 2023 Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Heritage Award.

There were also only 24 African American students in her year, roughly 3.5% of the class.

“If you were Black at Hopkins, everybody knew everybody. You had no choice; there were so few of us,” Boggs remembers.

As a student, Boggs co-founded the women’s cross-country team, which has won eight NCAA championships in the last decade. As an alum, she been an active volunteer leader and was awarded the 2023 Heritage Award by the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. And just before she was named the first Black woman to serve as a full member on the university’s board of trustees, Boggs established the Nathaniel Boggs, Jr. Ph.D. Memorial Fellowship in honor of her father. He received Howard University’s first doctorate in zoology in 1963, and the fellowship supports Krieger School of Arts and Sciences students pursuing graduate work in the natural or physical sciences.

“Here we were in 1998, and the number of African Americans with PhDs in biology was not that much higher than in 1963,” Boggs says. “So, I decided to create something that ties my father’s experience to my own.”

Through the fellowship, Boggs endeavors to deepen the connection between Johns Hopkins and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), though not all recipients have graduated from an HBCU. She also hopes to offer students the same benefits of Hopkins’ reputation she has experienced, noting her diploma has been one of the most important tools for every career she has pursued.

inaugural nathaniel boggs jr phd fellowship recipient nakisha holder
Nakisha Holder, A&S ’04, was the inaugural recipient of the Boggs Fellowship. She says being named a fellow was “the boost I needed that helped me validate my presence here at JHU.”

“Nobody believes anybody skates through Johns Hopkins,” Boggs explains. “For me, it’s about breaking stereotypes and doing what I can to fuel an environment where anyone can be whatever they want to be.”

In a way, it’s what she’s doing in the music industry.

“Some of the genres in music historically have not been associated with people who look like me,” Boggs says. “But music is music. Someone who looks like me can be a bluegrass virtuoso. I feel the same way about these young African Americans in astrophysics, biochemistry, and all these other amazing things they do.”

Nakisha Holder, A&S ’04 (PhD), was the first of those “whizbang” researchers. Holder came to Hopkins from Morgan State University with an undergraduate degree in biology and now works with inventors from across JHU to commercialize their work in Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ (JHTV) Tech Transfer Office.

News of the inaugural award came just when Holder needed it most — as she was progressing through graduate board oral exams and working in a lab studying molecular genetics and protein engineering.

“Graduate life was sometimes difficult. It was wonderful to get the fellowship and be recognized for my diligence, hard work, and persistence,” she says. “I’m so thankful to Paula for honoring me as the first fellowship recipient named for her father, who was a trailblazer, and it’s my hope that I continue to represent the fellowship with pride, integrity, and respect.”

boggs fellow and johns hopkins graduate student Gemechu Mekonnen
Current Boggs Fellow Gemechu Mekonnen says getting the Boggs Fellowship was a source of attraction when deciding where to pursue his graduate training.

Holder says Boggs has encouraged former and current fellows to remain in touch and support each other, including at annual get-togethers. Boggs even connected with incoming fellows at the height of the pandemic via LinkedIn, something current Boggs Fellow Gemechu Mekonnen valued as he moved to Baltimore from his home in Minnesota in 2020. The two were able to meet in person last year.

Now a fourth-year doctoral student, Mekonnen’s research combines the basic science of biophysics with direct applications and therapeutic outcomes for people with different diseases. He is particularly interested in the neurodegeneration associated with ALS.

Both the financial aspect and the knowledge of the meaning behind the fellowship have been a source of support for Mekonnen. The Boggs Fellowship — and its namesake — helped attract him to Hopkins.

“Before coming to Hopkins, I researched Nathaniel Boggs and his impact on underrepresented people in scientific investigation,” he says. “It was genuinely an honor to get the fellowship.”

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Topics: Alumni, Students, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Strengthening Partnerships, Support Scholars