Sara Aslam met professor Reginald Blake during her junior year at the New York City College of Technology, when she enrolled in his physics class. Blake introduced Aslam to a National Science Foundation-funded program he coordinates at City Tech to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The following year, he helped her land an internship with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Aslam received a bachelor’s degree in computer-assisted technology in 2016, now works full-time at DEP and has begun work toward a master’s in project management at New York University. She hopes to one day coordinate the information technology components of major city infrastructure projects, and says it was Blake who helped her understand the real-world applications of subjects she studied in college.
“I wasn’t aware how my major would apply to these kinds of positions in all these big agencies; he explained it,” Aslam said of Blake. “I got in [at DEP] and realized, he was right — it applies.”
Blake has a packed workload that includes full-time teaching duties and extensive geophysics scientific research, involving urban climate change and satellite and ground-based remote sensing. There are obligations stemming from his affiliations with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS); the Earth Institute at Columbia University and its Urban Climate Change Research Network; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies; and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to name only a few.
But it is his noted efforts to interest City University of New York students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the many programs he oversees through which they are mentored and nurtured, that could one day be Blake’s most lasting legacy. He was recently honored at the White House with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, an experience he describes as being “like a dream.”
His mantra is drawn from an African-American spiritual: “If I can help somebody as I travel along this way, then my living shall not have been in vain.” Blake says the maxim perfectly captures his point of view. “It’s all about giving back and helping somebody,” he adds. “That’s the challenge that human beings face: how best to care for each other.”
The professor has found many ways to fulfill that mission at City Tech. Since 2005, Blake has directed City Tech’s STEM-oriented Black Male Initiative (BMI), perfecting mentoring strategies that have been replicated across CUNY and beyond.
“The goal is to meet them where they are and then elevate them to heights they’ve never dreamed,” says Blake, who grew up on the island of Jamaica before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CUNY’s City College and a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center. His Ph.D. dissertation was done at NASA GISS and Columbia University. “It is all about access and opportunity, and once you get them on the road they can blossom.”
He has taken thousands of students under his wing, exposing them to STEM-related career paths, meaningful research experience, travel to academic conferences and graduate-level educational opportunities. With National Science Foundation funding, he’s built programs that have been heralded by the NSF as national models for increasing diversity in the sciences. He’s drawn recognition for City Tech from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization for education policy. One of his programs, Safe in My Brother’s Arms, provides college prep and academic support to hundreds of high school students who live in city homeless shelters, and all of Blake’s mentoring efforts give students what he calls a “safe space” to discuss social and emotional concerns.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Professor Blake and his accomplishments,” said Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz. “His record transcends the contributions he has made as a scientist, and his reach extends far beyond the lab. His efforts to engage thousands of students in the STEM fields, nurturing them and providing the tools and supports for their success, are emblematic of what makes CUNY an important driver of educational attainment and socioeconomic ascent.”
The fruits of Blake’s work are readily observed in his former students, and not only in the academic success they have had after CUNY. They have also made sure to emulate Blake’s pay-it-forward philosophy, what he calls the “self-regenerative process” of mentoring. One of those students, Kurt Sealey, says he was inspired by experiences he had in Blake’s BMI to develop youth programs of his own.
“He will do anything he can to help a young person accomplish, and I think that’s really admirable,” says Sealy, who met Blake at City Tech in 2010, graduated from Hunter College four years later and now runs Pittsburgh Learning Commons, a nonprofit that provides culturally-specific academic support and mentoring to high school-aged Pennsylvania students. Sealy says that Blake helped him become adept at nonprofit management and, by the example he set, illustrated the high value of STEM-oriented programming for minority youth.
Francois Mertil, a student in electrical and computer engineering, has already earned a master’s degree at Cornell since he graduated from City Tech in 2016, and he has moved on to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a Ph.D. student. He met Blake at a City Tech BMI meeting during his freshman orientation, and he says the professor’s involvement directly shaped nearly every aspect of his undergraduate experience, from internships and research opportunities to encouragement and assistance in applying to graduate school.
Mertil has helped launch an organization of his own, EMO Haiti, to increase the technological capacity in the country where he was born and spent most of his childhood. He considers that work, in which he’s applying technical concepts he mastered in school to real-world needs, as an opportunity to “give back” and very much in keeping with the lessons he learned from Blake.
“Whatever you get here, it’s good to return it,” says Mertil, recalling a message he frequently heard from Blake. “You have to help others, too. You have to have the same kind of passion.