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Carrying on the Family Tradition of Enriching Lives

Lehigh University Professor Vassie Ware ’18P and her husband, William Taylor ’18P, established The Braxton Endowment Fund to help underrepresented students enter science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Valuing education as a means to enrich one’s life, members of Vassie Ware’s family tree made it their mission to ensure that their children received a college education. Her maternal grandparents, Vassie and Richard Braxton, opened the door for their four African American daughters to earn college degrees in the 1930s and 1940s while growing up in the south. Ware’s father, Wilbert Ware, a WWII Navy veteran, invested his G.I. money to help send her and her brother to college.

“Our families have a long-standing history of trying to help people,” said Ware, professor of molecular biology in Lehigh’s department of biological sciences. “All you have to do is make a difference in one person. That one person is going to do something else. That one person can be motivated and spread the message further.”

Ware is continuing the family tradition by helping others obtain higher education. With her husband, William Taylor, CEO of asset management firm Miravast, they have established The Braxton Endowment Fund to help underrepresented minorities and students with financial need enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

“It is the right thing to do. I have always wanted to move something forward. My grandmother always said, ‘You do not enjoy something unless you bring somebody along with you’,” said Ware, who is also co-director of Lehigh’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Bioscience Program and co-director of the university’s Distance Master’s Degree Program in molecular biology.

The Braxton Endowment Fund will support Lehigh’s Rapidly Accelerated Research Experience (RARE) that is a pre-admission-to-graduation science and engineering immersion program under the university’s Life Sciences Systems Initiative (LSSI). RARE is designed to increase STEM retention and graduation rates among underrepresented and first-generation students. The program was created by Ware and her colleague, Neal Simon, professor of behavioral neuroscience, when they received seed funding from HHMI in 2014. Since the program began, 48 students have participated and have increased the number of underrepresented students in STEM at Lehigh by about 24%.

“I was able to join a professional research lab my freshman year. How this was even possible was a mystery to my friends, but what they didn’t know was that RARE propelled me into research before I even began college,” said Maaz Haleem ’17, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and aspires to be a physician. “Research is a must for gaining experience in a professional setting, as well as building a solid application for medical school. Lehigh’s RARE program made it easy for me to work in several different labs, so that I could discover for myself the enormous breadth of research that occurs in STEM. In addition, it gave me the opportunity to determine what research I found most interesting.”

Ware and Taylor know that tuition fees and seed money alone do not move an institution forward. New growth and opportunities to expand programming and develop opportunities have to be funded from somewhere else. She and her husband have long been supporting educational institutions close to their and their daughter Mira’s hearts. The Braxton Endowment Fund will fill some of the financial gaps that exist, such as providing students the resources to attend a conference or meeting, purchasing books and supplies, supporting program operations, and providing stipends for undergraduate student research. 

“Tuition dollars are great, but it does not allow a university to move into new areas or address certain needs. If it were not for people investing in an institution with extra dollars, we would be static,” she said.

In addition to RARE, Lehigh University was awarded additional HHMI seed grants to create the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute, SEA-Phages, and Bioconnect programs that further comprise LSSI. All four programs prepare students for careers in STEM through research experiences early in their academic career.

“For me, RARE is more than just research,” added Haleem, a Lehigh visiting fellow studying the effects of parental care on the offspring of convict cichlids, a species of fish native to Central America. “It's a program that gave me a community of like-minded individuals who were at the epitome of their classes in fields of science. These individuals have been my support network for the duration of my college career as well as after. They have undoubtedly helped me keep my feet firmly planted in the STEM field. The RARE program is a powerful STEM recruitment and retention tool, not just because it helps students gain interest in science and technology, but because it fosters an environment in which STEM students thrive.”

The Braxton-Ware Road Traveled

The Braxton Endowment Fund was named to honor Ware’s grandparents for their strong belief in education, for their work ethic and fortitude, and for inspiring their daughters to become the professional women they achieved to be. Both high school graduates, Richard and Vassie Braxton were the first in their family lineages to not be born into slavery. Richard’s previous three generations were born into servitude on the Carter Braxton plantation in Virginia. At the turn of the century, two of Richard’s six siblings, who were all born free men and women, earned college degrees.

Even though Ware was the last member of her family to attend a segregated elementary school growing up, it did not occur to her that her mom and aunts earning college degrees in the South during that era might be uncommon.

“I grew up in an environment where my mom was a teacher...her sisters were all college educated, and two of them earned advanced degrees,” she said.

Ware’s mother, Aurelia, taught for more than five decades in both segregated and integrated schools. Because of the Jim Crowe segregation laws enforced in the South, Ware said her mom was not allowed to use the same bathroom as the white students when she taught at the Disputanta Training School in Virginia in the early 1940s.

“My mother was still dedicated to teaching these girls. She wrote in a journal, ‘The respect and desire [of those students] to learn made those times special’,” said Ware.

Both national merit scholars in high school, Ware and Taylor attended Brown University for their undergraduate degrees. Taylor earned his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and, prior to forming Miravast, worked for decades in the insurance industry in investor relations and portfolio management. He is a fellow in the Society of Actuaries. Ware earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology and continued her education at Yale, earning a Ph.D. in biology. Their daughter, Mira, is currently a Lehigh University student majoring in psychology and minoring in health, medicine, and society.

A Lehigh faculty member since 1985, Ware reflected upon her years as a teacher, advisor, and mentor and recalled having to remind a few students who appeared to be squandering their academic opportunity not to take their education for granted.

One of those students came back to her office almost a decade after graduation and said, “Professor Ware, I don’t know if you remember me. I had to come by and tell you that you changed my life.”

Dawn Thren ’21P