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photo From capturing light from a long-dead star, to collecting a deadly poison from tiny sea-dwelling creatures, to engineering a new, improved compact disc, the field of science offers a diverse and ever-changing array of career choices. Today, there's more diversity not just in science but also among the people who are actually doing science - a trend chronicled in a new documentary series called BreakThrough: The Changing Face of Science in America, produced by Blackside, Inc. and presented by WGBH Boston.

BreakThrough profiles 20 contemporary African-American, Latino and Native-American scientists and engineers who are making advances in biology, astronomy, physics, mathematics and many other scientific disciplines. Narrated by André Braugher, star of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, the series of six, hour-long programs aired on three consecutive Monday nights: April 8, April 15 and April 22, 1996, from 9-11pm ET on PBS (contact your local public television station for rebroadcast information).

BreakThrough paints an honest picture of what it's like to "do" science. The exciting aspects - like the thrill of a new discovery and the adventure of traveling around the world - are tempered by the frustration of failed experiments and the ongoing struggle for funding and recognition. photo

With his hometown of Mexico City as a backdrop, chemist Mario Molina describes his Nobel Prize-winning discovery about the thinning ozone layer. In an IBM lab, viewers see researcher George Castro smile as a long-awaited result - an x-ray image of a single molecule - comes into sharp focus. Up near the Arctic Circle, geologist Richard Glenn sighs with frustration as his ice-shearing chainsaw bites the dust. In Washington, DC, astrophysicist France Cordova testifies before Congress in support of new space missions.

Whether their work takes them high atop a mountain in Chile, or to the bright blue waters off the coast of Puerto Rico, each scientist also faces long hours in meetings, on the phone or writing grants to support their studies. Unlike their white colleagues, however, the scientists in BreakThrough also grapple with unique challenges that arise from their cultural beliefs. For example, biologist Wilfred Denetclaw, Jr. was reluctant to dissect a cat during an anatomy class because touching dead animals conflicted with the sacred principles he grew up with as a Navajo Indian.

Others had to cope with negative pressure from peers or professors. As Neil Tyson, an African-American astrophysicist and Bronx native puts it, "In the streets of New York, to get any respect at all, being smart is not at the top of the list." Donna Auguste, an African-American computer programmer, recalls when a professor bluntly told her she was admitted to her university only because of lowered admission standards. photo

But these scientists also tell stories of the support and encouragement they received from their families and communities. As a result, many are actively engaged in programs to help students of color experience the wonders of science - in hopes of further increasing the diversity of America's scientific community.

The Path of Most Resistance features four physicists who are extending our understanding of the forces that govern space and time. Profiled scientists are George Castro, a senior research scientist at International Business Machines (IBM); France Cordova, chief scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); S. James Gates, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Neil Tyson, an astrophysicist at Princeton University.

An Atmosphere of Change, focuses on three scientists who are tackling environmental hazards that threaten the health and safety of their communities and of the Earth. Karen Medville, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental toxicology at Cornell University; Keith Miles, a biologist with the National Biological Service of the United States Department of the Interior, and Nobel Prize-winner Mario Molina, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and chemistry at MIT, are profiled. photo

With Nerve and Muscle gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of cells and the scientists who strive to decode their secrets. Featured are Wilfred Denetclaw, Jr., a post doctoral fellow in the Department of Anatomy and Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco; Gladys Escalona de Motta, a professor and dean at the College of Natural Sciences, University of Puerto Rico, and George Langford, the E.E. Just Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College.

Engineering from the Inside Out features engineers who are helping to reshape and enhance the material culture. Featured scientists are Victoria Aguilera, a mechanical engineer at Walt Disney Imagineering; Steve Grey, a manager at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory field office, Navajo Community College; Hector Medina, a program manager for the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc., and Michael Spencer, director of the Material Science Research Center of Excellence and professor of electrical engineering at Howard University.

Science and the American Dream chronicles the efforts of three entrepreneurial scientists and engineers working to improve their businesses and communities. Donna Auguste, senior director of applied research and multimedia at US West; Israel Galvan, an engineer and entrepreneur developing a radical new rotary engine, and Richard Glenn, a geologist and businessman working 350 miles inside the Arctic Circle, are profiled.

A Delicate Balance features scientists who use their expertise in mathematics and computer science to solve problems in a variety of scientific fields. Freda Porter-Locklear, an assistant professor of mathematics at Pembroke State University; Richard Tapia, the Noah Harding Professor of mathematical sciences in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University, and Valerie Taylor, an assistant professor of engineering/computer science at Northwestern University, are featured.

BreakThrough is a production of Blackside, Inc. The series is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. Major funding for the series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the National Science Foundation and the Intel Foundation.

BreakThrough: The Changing Face of Science In America is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by The Caption Center at WGBH.

Executive producer: Henry Hampton. Co-executive producer: Joseph Blatt.

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Copyright © 1996 Blackside, Inc. All rights reserved.