Brian Argrow reflects on time as chair and future of DEI in STEM

Brian Argrow reflects on time as chair and future of DEI in STEM

By Josh Rhoten

Like many young people across America at the time, Brian Argrow was mesmerized by images beamed back to Earth of American astronauts engaged in the Space Race.

He was just a little too young for Mercury but was certainly enraptured by the Gemini and Apollo missions. And he clearly remembers the moon landing – an event that still gives him goosebumps to this day to think about.

“That was also the golden age of aircraft in general with the advancements in supersonic aircraft like the X-15,” he said. “I was really fascinated by all of it. And my early love of astronomy fed into that as well. Put it all together and what else could it be for me than aerospace engineering?”

Today, Argrow is a professor and Schaden Leadership Chair of the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU Boulder. He was also recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his work to advance uncrewed aerial systems to increase our understanding of supercell thunderstorms that can spawn tornados.

However, Argrow’s path into aerospace engineering and research wasn’t always clear and set. He actually grew up wanting to be an astronomer and later wrote in his high school yearbook about plans to be a nuclear physicist before eventually taking courses in the new field of computer science during his first year at the University of Oklahoma. He said those early courses were exciting, but it wasn’t until he got onto campus and worked with an aerospace professor that he found and entered the field that would define his career and combine all of his interests.

A national merit scholar and co-valedictorian of his high school class, he said he came out of a small school where no one could really envision that sort of path for him.

“To be honest, they were more interested in where I was going to play football than what I was going to study when I got there,” he said. “And I think I would have been a good candidate for something like the GoldShirt Program we have here in the college now because I had never taken a math course above algebra at that point – that was all that was available to me even though I was a merit scholar and interested in these science fields.”

Argrow would go on to get all three of his degrees from OU, finishing his PhD in 1989 as a dual National Science Foundation and Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) Fellow. Having both funding opportunities allowed him to stay in Oklahoma to take care of his family during grad school. And the GEM fellowship provided him with a key internship opportunity with the Aerospace Corporation in southern California, where he worked on projects related to Vandenberg Air Force Base’s development into a space launch complex. He said that was an incredible opportunity, but it also really confirmed his undergraduate preparation.

“I think I arrived there with some imposter syndrome because of who I was and where I was coming from. Most of the other students were from places like Stanford, but I quickly realized that the fundamentals of my education at Oklahoma had prepared me well, and I was more than able to hold my own – and more,” he said. 

Argrow’s path to CU Boulder

Argrow had many mentors in his career but said the time he spent with John E. Francis – an aerospace engineering professor at OU who went on to become Bradley University’s dean of engineering – was especially pivotal. He also noted that Howard Adams was another great mentor and responsible for getting Argrow into the GEM fellowship program, which was still new at the time.Brian Argrow talking to a colleague in the field Professor Brian Argrow talks with IRISS Lab Manager Michael Rhodes between deployments. Photo by Josh Rhoten, CEAS

“Howard was the executive director for that program, and he was one of the best speakers I had ever seen. He was so inspirational, and I loved to hear him speak when he came to campus,” Argrow said.

Argrow joined CU Boulder in 1992. When he was hired, he was one of just three Black tenure-track professors in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. And between 2010 and the summer of 2021, he was the only Black tenure-track professor in the college. Coming out of a small, rural high school and attending OU, he said it was a familiar pattern, but something he has worked to change during his time as department chair and throughout his career.

He said events over the last two years in America have brought aspects of non-inclusion and discrimination to the forefront in ways that can no longer be easily denied or dismissed. He said that is true for STEM, academia and many other aspects of modern American life – but that for every push forward there will be a push back.

“You have to be realistic about the pace of change so that you don’t become too discouraged, and I think a significant change in these areas will be measured in decades,” he said. 

Argrow said within academia specifically, true change will come when reward structures such as tenure and pay are re-examined. 

“Those are the kinds of spaces where we codify values. And you can’t deny that people tailor their behaviour to be rewarded,” he said. “I think for years we have focused on the minority population regarding these issues. And what we should be doing is getting the majority population to invest in them in parallel and in a much deeper way. We can continue to talk, but we can’t depend on altruism to see significant change. The way you get it done is through encouraging behaviours through institutions if we really want to see equity in our field and in this country.”