The lasting legacy of Oklahoma State’s Earl Mitchell
Monday, June 7, 2021
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Helping students — particularly minority students — pursue their aspirations for careers in the sciences and related fields was a passion of longtime Oklahoma State University professor Dr. Earl Mitchell. He often called it his privilege.
The 83-year-old Mitchell died June 2 at his home in Stillwater. But his commitment to increasing awareness and involvement in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — continues to resonate in the careers of former students, educational programs for which he garnered funding, and the large number of teachers and young people he helped explore the societal benefits provided by scientific research and study.
“Dr. Mitchell was a fantastic mentor, an outstanding biochemist, a great listener and always had your best interest at heart,” said Janet Rogers, manager of the OSU Biochemistry and Molecular Biology CORE Facility. “It didn’t matter if you were an undergraduate or graduate college student, a lab tech, a fellow faculty member or a visiting high school teacher or student. He always had the gift of connecting with people.”
Mitchell joined OSU as a research associate in 1967 and became the university’s first tenure-track African American faculty member in 1969. He earned tenure in 1982, but was already renowned as an outstanding biochemist and researcher. He would later serve in key administrative positions, among them assistant dean of the graduate college and associate vice president for multicultural affairs. Mitchell officially retired after 42 years of university service, but he remained active as an educational advocate at the university, state and national levels.
Rogers first met Mitchell in 1985 when she came to work in his campus laboratory on a project for Mitchell’s fellow faculty member E.C. Nelson. That initial connection led to Mitchell actively recruiting Rogers to be one of his lab technicians. Seven years later, Mitchell helped Rogers secure a position at OSU’s new CORE Facility when he joined multicultural affairs. Their friendship continued, with Mitchell never more than a phone call away as Rogers took on increasingly greater responsibilities at the facility.
“As the first [tenure-track] African American professor at OSU, Earl had an intimate understanding of roadblocks that stand in the way of minorities, but he also knew what could be achieved,” she said. “If you were down, he would find a way to inspire you. His smile, his warmth, his voice — they just lit up a room.”
Always a leading advocate for underrepresented students, Mitchell served as the first director of the Oklahoma Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (OK-LSAMP). Today, that program continues to promote minority participation at 11 higher education institutions across Oklahoma.
“Engagement is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Dr. Mitchell, for he continued to work on behalf of underrepresented students and OK-LSAMP long after he officially retired,” said Jason F. Kirksey, OSU vice president for institutional diversity and chief diversity officer for the university. “I believe one key element was that Earl was a role model. Students were able to see themselves in him. He was the success story and was able to communicate the importance of so many things, just by having a conversation.”
A video segment Mitchell recorded with OStateTV in 2018 showcases this ability as he discusses key moments in OSU history. Little wonder that the National Science Foundation’s A. James Hicks, the recently retired director of LSAMP, looked upon Mitchell as a national resource.
“I could always call on Earl, even after his retirement as he continued to be an active advocate for STEM programs and underrepresented students in those fields, attend national events and be available to lend his support, however he could,” Hicks said. “Earl was steadfast — and needed.”
According to the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey, almost 281,000 Oklahomans identify as African American; about 321,700 as Native American; around 378,000 as Hispanic; and nearly 95,000 as Asian.
“Earl had a number of attributes that made him successful as a STEM advocate, in addition to being a role model,” Hicks said. “He was compassionate, dedicated and insightful about what it takes to be a good scientist or engineer. Earl was an uncommon man who could talk to the common man, explain complex ideas and make them more easily understood.”
OSU alumna and Oklahoma Panhandle native Melissa Booth always appreciated Mitchell’s ability to take science topics and make them relevant to everyone’s world, an ability she has worked hard to master herself — yet another way Mitchell has served as an inspirational role model. When Booth was a senior and working in Mitchell’s lab, he chose her to help teach high school students visiting OSU for his summer courses in basic biochemistry and molecular biology.
“The other two teachers were graduate students, but Dr. Mitchell had faith I could do the job and do it well,” Booth said. “I worked in his lab as part of the university’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. I remember sharing my career goals with him one day. He smiled that special smile of his and told me who I needed to call and what I needed to do to get accepted to the schools that would make it most likely for me to reach those goals. He was such a giving person.”
Booth has since traveled the world, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, to conduct scientific research. She spent more than two decades in laboratories and in the field studying links between microbes, their genes and the biosphere. In 2012, Booth stepped away from the microscope and took up a new journey. She launched The Science Communicator, a professional service that offers lectures and workshops to those who want to help expand awareness of science.
“Dr. Mitchell was all about engaging with people,” Booth said. “He loved to tell a good science story that captured the interest of his audience.”
Fittingly, all agreed the tale of Mitchell’s own life and the remembrances of those whose lives he touched represent what he would classify as a good science story — or, as Hicks said, a pretty good way to have one’s passion and compassion live on.
Friends and colleagues have an effort under way to fully establish the Dr. Earl Mitchell Scholarship Fund at $25,000 to support students through institutional diversity at Oklahoma State. Click here to make a gift to the fund. To learn more, contact the OSU Foundation by phone at 800-622-4678.