The committee found that science education was so poor, it posed “a grave long-term threat” to the nation. Among other recommendations, it asked that the foundation provide undergraduates with real-world opportunities for research.
From that recommendation came the foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, which now enrolls more than 9,000 students a year. Dr. Neal also started a summer internship and semester abroad program at Michigan, allowing a few dozen American students to work at CERN every year.
Such work experiences are now crucial for students applying to graduate schools, Dr. Orr said. “That just wouldn’t exist without Homer,” he said.
Homer Alfred Neal was born on July 13, 1942, and grew up in Franklin, Ky., then a town of about 4,000. His mother, Margaret Elizabeth Holland, taught economics and music in high school, and his father, Homer Neal, shod horses.
Homer was a ham radio operator in his teens, which gave him a sense of the wider world. Town leaders were unhappy, he once said, that he, an African-American in the segregated South, and a white boy worked together on ham radio projects; the collaboration ended. But Dr. Neal said he had learned from that work that skin color did not matter in science.
Dr. Neal did not often talk about race, Dr. Orr said, but he once recalled that as a child he had been encouraged to play basketball rather than pursue a career in science.
In becoming a physicist, the odds were against him. Even today, only about 40 African-Americans earn a doctoral degree in physics each year, representing roughly two percent of the 2,000 or so doctorates awarded, according to the American Physical Society. There were far fewer when Dr. Neal went to graduate school.