Thoyd Melton, Ph.D.

MeltonAssociate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies at NC Carolina A & T State University (NCA&TSU), dual roles he assumed in 1998, passed November 22, 2000 in Raleigh, NC.  During his shortened life - he lived a mere 52 years - of many outstanding accomplishments, and a life that overcame many barriers, Thoyd was fervent in his unquenching thirst for new knowledge and his desire to share this enthusiasm. Chief among his accomplishments were his contributions to increasing minority participation in the sciences. Those who knew him intimately remember his passion for research and teaching, his passion for asking questions and his passion for removing barriers that prevented the full participation of minorities in the sciences.  Those who knew him only in passing surely will never forget him.

Born, December 4, 1947 in Rich Square, NC, a small tobacco and cotton-farming town in the Eastern part of NC, Thoyd was the product of a segregated and unequal public school system.  According to Dr. Charles Williams, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at NCA&TSU and high school classmate who graduated one year after Melton, the school was small, consisted of 1 – 12 grades (all black) and routinely lacked basic teaching tools such as books and laboratory materials.  Yet, this did not hamper Thoyd’s passion to become a scientist and to demonstrate that though he came from meager and inadequate beginnings that he could compete with the best.  After receiving a B.S. degree from NC Central University in 1970, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in Microbial Genetics from Johns Hopkins University in 1976.  Thoyd then joined NC State University (NCSU) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship under the tutelage of Dr. Walter Dobrogosz, and subsequently accepted a faculty position.  Once Thoyd transcended from postdoctoral fellow to faculty member, he quickly rose through the ranks. In 1995, Melton was appointed Professor of Microbiology.  During Melton’s tenure at NCSU, he also held several external positions.  Among these were positions at Shaw University, the Office of Naval Research and the National Institutes of Health. (NIH).  In 1998, Melton joined NCA&TSU and while his former mentor, Dr. Dobrogosz, highly recommended him for the “Aggie” position, he admitted that it was done with serious reservations.

Also, to Melton’s credit was initiation of the Bioscience Research Initiative for Doctoral Graduate Education (BRIDGE) Program (funded by NIH), an innovative partnership between NC State and four historically minority NC colleges (NC A&T State University, NC Central University, Fayetteville State University and the University of NC at Pembroke). Finally, Melton was additionally involved in several programs that provided science education assistance to K-12 students and teachers. His apparent enthusiasm, dedication, success and his obvious hard work in increasing minority participation in the sciences led to his receipt of other support from the Department of Education, the Office of Naval Research and the NC Biotechnology Center.

It was for his outstanding work in training underrepresented minority students that he received the American Society for Microbiology’s prestigious Hinton Award.  Those who attended his Hinton Award Lecture will remember his eloquent and relevant presentation, “Forging the River” where he used William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s, “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions,” to reflect on his personal experience in achieving a Ph.D. degree and why targeted programs are essential tools to increasing minority participation in the sciences.  The presentation was great and by detailing his personal experiences in becoming a scientist and his work to assist others along the same path, he clearly justified the value of Bowen and Bok’s treatise.

Prior to his assuming heavy administrative responsibilities and before joining NC A&T State University, Melton ran a productive bacterial genetics research laboratory where he made significant contributions to understanding gene regulation, and served as thesis advisor to six Ph.D. students and ten M.S. students.  Thoyd worked extensively with students, whether they were his Ph.D. candidates or whether they were elementary students, receiving an overview about the wonders of microscopy.  Indeed, he spent time at the bench, in the classroom, as a consultant at scientific and civic organizations, as a recipient of numerous federal and private grants to support his research, and many, many hours initiating programs to increase minority participation in the sciences.  With every task he was always excited, always trying to do more and always asking questions. 

Thoyd’s list of professional contributions are many.  In addition to his ASM membership, he was a member of the Society of Sigma Xi, the National Technical Association and the Council of Graduate Schools.  He was an ad hoc reviewer for several peer reviewed journals and was a member of the NIEHS/NIH Board of Scientific Counselors. John McLachlan, Ph.D., Director, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane/Xavier Universities was NIEHS Scientific Director during Thoyd’s service.  According to Dr. McLachlan, “Tough does not describe Melton’s approach, he was a careful reviewer of the highest standard and was extremely astute in suggesting constructive remedies where there were flaws in technical approaches and results.  Thoyd was a great colleague and a valued member of the BSC.”

Valarie Petit Wilson, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane/Xavier Universities and Thoyd’s classmate at Hopkins had similar comments.  They became best friends at Hopkins and that friendship continued until his passing.  According to Dr. Wilson, “We were both relieved to see each other and forged a bond to complete the studies together, for each of us knew, that in those days and times, neither of us would have made it through, without each other. Another classmate and mentor was Jim Wyche, Ph.D., Associate Vice Provost, Brown University and currently interim Vice President, Tougaloo College, added that Thoyd was highly recruited by our mentor, Dr. Philip Hartman, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, Johns Hopkins who had recruited several other African Americans to come to Hopkins, including Drs. Wyche and Wilson.  This was during the middle sixties and early seventies, before there was focus on affirmative action. 

From my conversations with a variety of individuals who studied and worked with Thoyd and who in their separate ways overcame and broke barriers, just as Thoyd had done, a story began to emerge.  Melton captured an unlikely moment in time when he was given an unlikely opportunity and together with this he was provided human beings to help him move through a system that was not accustomed to him.  It was difficult but with the help of a good mentor, good peers and the drive and ability to do well, he succeeded.  What he could do then was to prepare a way for others like him.  He did this very well at NC State University.  His next step was to do the same at an HBCU.  After all, it was an HBCU that gave him his beginning.

When Melton joined NC A & T, he immediately began his work and again, forged a collaboration.  This time, he was on the other side and in collaboration with NC State University, established the Student Transition and Retention (STAR) Program.  The STAR Program, funded by a $248,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, provides first year graduate students with summer research experiences and other enrichment type activities that enhance their ability to successfully transfer from undergraduate to graduate school, or from the work world to graduate school.  He also persuaded the university to commit $150,000 to establish the Woodland L. Hall Fellowship Program for graduate students.  He named the program in honor of the first student to receive a master’s degree (1941) from NC A &T.  At the first Fellowship Award Program, Mr. Hall returned to NC A & T University at the age of 90 and presented words of thanks to those who had made it possible and words of inspiration to those who’d follow him.

Clearly, Melton’s contributions to teaching and research and the role he played in increasing diversity at NCSU and the programs he established at NCA&TSU will long be remembered. His legacy will live on in the future contributions of students whose lives he touched, the students who will become scientists and go to other universities and research organizations within the United States and abroad, and the students who will have learned the lessons of how to help others attain their goals.  (http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/research)

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