BE Matters to Robert Dunn, Saginaw’s Son

By Elizabeth Leake

September 22, 2014

Robert Dunn, Jr. was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1985. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (CS) from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in 2011, and is making progress toward a CS graduate degree. His thesis involves the use of Google Glass technology to reduce the amount of time it takes for emergency teams to respond after a traffic accident. Robert was one of more than 20 million people involved in automobile or motorcycle crashes in 2011. Thankfully, he only suffered a bad case of road rash, but the experience enlightened him to the difficulty injured motorcyclists would have calling 9-1-1. He therefore hopes to develop life-saving, smart technologies that will automatically alert responders, in addition to giving motorcyclists a safe way to view the console without taking their eyes off of the road.

“The Supercomputing Conference Broader Engagement (SC-BE) program, and those who are involved, continue to influence me, as a person, and my career as a computational scientist. While my academic goals are taking a while to achieve since I’m working full time, I remember how much confidence BE Program Chair and FAMU Adviser Dr. Suarez-Brown had in me. Her memory gives me the strength to continue,” said Robert Dunn, Jr.

Robert-DadAs a third-generation Saginaw, Michigan, Dunn, it isn’t surprising that Robert has a passion for transportation innovation. His maternal and paternal grandfathers moved to Michigan from the Deep South to find work in the mid 1940’s when General Motors’ grey metal casting foundry workforce was expanded to support the needs of WWII. In the late 1960’s, Robert’s grandfathers took a break from foundry work to serve in the Vietnam War. His father also served in the military and was the first family member to attend FAMU where he pursued a degree in Business Administration. He later worked for the city of Saginaw for more than 25 years before retiring in 2012.

Saginaw is a well-positioned manufacturing hub. From the Saginaw River, goods are shipped by barge to Lake Michigan, Detroit, and around the world. While the lumber industry dominated Saginaw’s 20th century economy, in the 1900’s most were employed by the automotive industry in one capacity, or another. They worked in factories earning decent union wages, making a variety of parts–everything from gears to glass. The community enjoyed nearly 80 years of prosperity until the late 1990’s when the first plant closed. The automotive industry’s eventual withdrawal from Michigan devastated its Detroit epicenter which, in July, 2013, was the thirteenth, and largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy since the 2008 global economic downturn.

A number of factors have influenced the health and vitality of urban economies since 2008. As the global population explodes, and agricultural efficiencies require less labor, some urban areas are expected to double in the coming decades, while others have shrunk. Since Saginaw’s workforce was largely employed by a failed industry, their population has decreased 30% since 2000, which mirrors the 30% decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2013. Since the world is more interconnected and mobile than ever, many moved when they couldn’t find work. For anyone left behind, a jobless culture has been fundamentally linked to crime and a host of social and health problems. Generally, children in these circumstances are more likely to enter the criminal justice system before they reach adulthood, and according to the National Juvenile Justice Network, the overwhelming majority of Michigan’s juvenile offenders who receive life-long sentences without the chance for parole are black–some are as young as 13 when sentenced.

As Robert approached the down-hill slope of his undergraduate experience in 2010, Michigan unemployment had peaked at 14.2%, and the rate was double for black workers. Forty-two percent of Saginaw residents lived below the poverty line, and 73% of the city’s poor were single female heads of household (the majority of Saginaw’s poor are children). While Detroit’s demise made the global headlines, some might be surprised to know that many other Michigan cities were affected, including Lansing, Flint, and Saginaw whose urban landscapes are blighted with acres of abandoned factories, businesses, schools, and homes. As city budgets tightened, administrators were forced to lay off municipal personnel, including teachers, police officers, emergency responders, and dog catchers. Pets were abandoned along with mortgages. Although fewer than 3,000 stray dogs roam Detroit streets today, only four years ago it was estimated that 50,000 feral dogs traveled in packs, and terrorized the community. Detroit’s postmaster reported that 59 postal workers were attacked in 2010. In Saginaw, a culture of crime had begun to thrive. In 2012, with more than 870 violent crimes and 76 rapes reported per 100,000 residents, Forbes rated Saginaw the most dangerous U.S. city for women. It’s wasn’t any less dangerous for men, with 90% of homicide victims being male.

Under the best circumstances in an uncertain economy, fewer pursue advanced degrees. According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, only 47% of Michigan’s black male students graduated from high school in 2010, vs. 76% of white males. Needless to say, Robert had few hometown peers in grad school where he was taking a full course load, had an internship with DataMaxx Group of Tallahassee, and spent many hours studying each day. There was little time for a social life or trips to Michigan to visit family. He was mindful that the average graduate had $27, 253 in student debt–a 58% increase over seven years (currently, the amount is closer $30,000), and loans were being defaulted on at an alarming rate. Around the world, Robert’s generation faced one of the highest unemployment rates in recent history.

BE matters to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)

Robert was first acquainted with SC by his adviser, Tiki Suarez-Brown, and entered as a member of the general student program where he competed in the SC10 Student Cluster Challenge. He also attended TeraGrid’10, and returned to SC in 2011 and 2012 through the BE program where he had the opportunity to meet SC-BE Committee Members Roscoe Giles (Boston University), Raquell Holmes (Improv Science), and Tony Baylis (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

In 2012, the NSF supported a multi-year program review led by Principal Investigator Raquell Holmes (Improv Science) titled “Beyond Broader Engagement: Evaluation of the NSF-Sponsored BeBE Project” to determine if the BE program was meeting its objectives to foster leaders, reduce barriers to entry, and expand the overall impact of the SC program. They found that it does all of these things, and more. In a final report authored by Dr. Sarah Hug (UColorado-Boulder, Colorado Evaluation and Research Consulting), the majority of BE participants surveyed expressed the added value of networking with BE program committee role models whose volunteer effort to support underrepresented communities was an activity they hoped to emulate once they are experienced. By interacting with a critical mass of identifiable role models, participants are able to see themselves as successful STEM professionals. BE’s pay-it-forward tradition is demonstrated by the fact that many SC14-BE program committee members are former program participants.

Robert found solidarity with others who had also struggled, but in different ways. Each took the opportunity to share how they had triumphed over adversity. That’s why Robert felt comfortable calling on members of the SC-BE community when Tiki passed away the week after the SC12 conference ended. Her death was a tipping point for Robert and he decided to leave grad school shortly thereafter. With few employment options at home, Robert joined the 30% who left Saginaw and traveled to Peoria, Illinois where he accepted a systems analyst position with Caterpillar, Inc. He hasn’t lost sight of his academic goals, and with sustained encouragement from BE friends and mentors, he has chosen to work while completing his graduate degree requirements.

For more information about SC-BE, visit the web site.

Tony Baylis-recent“As BE fundraiser, I’ve learned that industries are committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce that will drive progress and change. I try to find industry supporters and partners who believe in the opportunities we provide for scholars, like Robert. Many have demonstrated their commitment through generous donations to support female and minority scholars who wish to attend the SC conference,” said Tony Baylis (LLNL).


The future holds promise for next-gen Saginaw sons

Michigan is a microcosm of the nation with pockets of extreme poverty, beautiful beach retirement communities, and campus towns that are national hot spots for research excellence. When Detroit was experiencing the highest unemployment rate in the country, only 40 minutes away, Ann Arbor had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, comparable to the 2010 national average. Ann Arbor is a vibrant campus town with a cultural scene that’s breathing life into the Detroit metro region. Sleeping Bear Dunes on Michigan’s western shore was voted ‘Most Beautiful Place in America in 2011 by Good Morning America, and in 2014, USA Today readers voted Saugatuck, Michigan the best weekend escape destination in the country.

As Saginaw struggles to recover, it continues to claim a higher number of manufacturing jobs than the U.S. average, but now focuses on clean energy innovation. According to the Brookings Institute’s Michigan Economics Condition Assessment Report (Flint, Kalamazoo, Holland, and Saginaw), Saginaw is a community of innovators, with a disproportionate high number of patents per employee, and more than 81 times the average U.S. number of photovoltaic technology research and production jobs. In 2013, five Michigan cities received $100 million in federal funds to combat blight, with $11 million going to Saginaw. The money was used to raze derelict properties.

This story was featured on the STEM-Trek site.

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