Assistant Professor of Engineering Rich Blackmon forged a path as a first-generation college student. At Elon, he's ensuring young engineers thrive in a rigorous, diverse, forward-thinking program
Growing up, Rich Blackmon knew the role he was expected to play — and it was about as far from lasers and laboratories as you could get.
The course was established, the dots on the map familiar and safe: finish high school, get a working-class job, settle down. That’s what his parents and the people around him did in the areas of Tennessee and North Carolina he was raised. At home, education wasn’t seen as attainable or important.
Blackmon’s pursuit of higher education required sacrifice. He quit a job, sold his home, and kept only what would fit in his car. It also meant going against his parents, who discouraged his decision to pursue undergraduate and advanced degrees.
“My parents didn’t go to college. They were pushing me into a job and industry. I had to start making money and building a family. That’s the story I was being told,” Blackmon said.
Now an assistant professor of engineering researching the use of lasers to diagnose cancer and other medical conditions, he’s written his own story — and wants to help others write theirs. As Elon’s four-year engineering program grows in numbers and anticipates its future home in the state-of-the-art Innovation Quad, Blackmon is working to create a program where young engineers thrive. He’s passionate about increasing access to higher education for first-generation students and those from underprivileged backgrounds. He’s one of a number faculty in Elon’s STEM departments expanding inclusive teaching and seeking grants to advance diversity and equity in the classroom, labs and campus culture.
Inside McMichael Science Center, Blackmon leads a team of engineering students building and programming a medical imaging system that among other medical uses could be effective in cancer detection and lead to better treatments.
It’s called optical coherence tomography. Using lasers and microscopic gold nanorods, the technology would rapidly scan tissue and recognize the difference between diseased and healthy tissue. It operates like an x-ray just beneath the surface of tissue. Proper coding and algorithms would remove subjectivity and delays in diagnoses. Blackmon also sees potential for therapeutic use of the technology, with lasers blasting away cancerous tissue on the cellular level while OCT monitors the treatment in real-time, ensuring all the diseased tissue has been removed while preserving healthy tissue.
Blackmon calls himself a “laser nerd.” It’s a label he embraces, seeing abundant, still-untapped potential in the technology.
“It’s almost like x-ray vision: We can see the features beneath the surface because we understand the quantum physics behind light.”
His love affair with lasers began precariously. His mother suffered from a chronic illness. As soon as he was able, Blackmon began working jobs to help the family pay bills. Taking care of the family and his younger siblings, he was often late to school or missed class. It was a guidance counselor who encouraged him to drop out and complete his high school diploma at community college.
He went straight to a full-time job at a chemical plant, preparing thousands of gallons of chemicals for transport. After earning his diploma, he took chemistry courses at a community college to advance his career within the company. Instead, his supervisor discouraged him, urged him to quit school, and even threatened to fire him if he missed work for exams.
“I eventually got the picture and prioritized my education,” Blackmon said. He quit his job to become a full-time student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. A math professor at the community college encouraged him to explore engineering.
“It was the first-year engineering design course when I learned what Engineering involved. I was thinking about problems in a way I never had before and using skills from other courses to find solutions to problems,” he said.
He was accepted to the University of North Carolina Charlotte College of Engineering. That’s where lasers first stunned him. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in optical science and engineering.
“I remember my father asking, ‘When are you going to get a real job? When are you going to realize this is a waste of your time? People like us don’t do jobs like that,’” Blackmon recalled.
Going it alone as a first-generation student was confusing and difficult.
Assuming he had to live on campus, he sold his small home and moved into the residence halls. “I didn’t have a home-base like other kids did. I had to learn it as I went along.” He had to find places to live during the summer until he and a roommate found an off-campus apartment.
He worked two jobs and relied on student grants and financial aid to complete his degrees. Even still, he graduated with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
At the same time he was developing his academics, he was grappling with his sexual identity. Growing up in the South, in the anti-LGBT teachings of the Southern Baptist church, and among blatant sexism and homophobia, Blackmon as an adult was struggling to come out.
“It was dizzying, almost. Being at UNC-Charlotte was such a culture shock.”
He first became an ally with the LGBT group on campus, then as a graduate student discovered a group of queer Christians that met to discuss spiritual and religious issues. Able to be out, Blackmon eventually led that group and founded another for graduate students in STEM.
All these experiences ignited a passion for providing underserved populations access to higher education.
“The science is exciting, but I have to admit: The thing that excites me most is developing programs targeting underprivileged and underrepresented kids. Programs like that helped get me through school,” he said.
While completing his doctorate and post-doc research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he began hosting groups of students whose families didn’t have backgrounds that included college, to show them that higher education is within reach. He continued that program after joining Elon’s faculty in 2017.
Blackmon is part of a faculty team advancing inclusion and equity in Elon’s STEM programs. In 2019, Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, received a Faculty Forums grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to advance discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion within STEM programs. He and Associate Professor Sirena Hargrove-Leak received Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning Diversity and Inclusion grants in 2018 and 2019 to assess and advance diversity and inclusion in the engineering program.
“Engineers have an obligation to design solutions that are safe and effective. This makes diversity and inclusion imperative,” Blackmon said. “Unfortunately, progress in Engineering lags behind other disciplines. The reality is that engineers need to be on the frontlines pushing for diversity and inclusion, and should be embedding protocols within the engineering design process to ensure solutions are inclusive. With diversity and inclusion efforts being built into the foundation of our program at Elon, we are positioned to graduate a generation of engineers who are best able to tackle the complex problems we currently face.”
Blackmon is also a co-adviser of Elon’s chapter of oSTEM — Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — founded in 2019. The national organization supports LGBTQIA students and professionals.
Exposing students to different outcomes, different stories they can tell themselves about their future, makes a difference, he says. What if high school students simply need to have informed conversations about the barriers — both real and perceived — to higher education? In the UNC program, a teen once told Blackmon he couldn’t go to college because he didn’t have a car. Blackmon explained why that didn’t have to be a barrier to higher education, initiating a new conversation around college as an attainable goal.
“It boils down to disadvantaged students having different levels of achievement at school. My motivation is to address this in and out of the classroom by developing new initiatives to help those students succeed,” Blackmon says. “I really am interested in these programs that are helping kids see the potential in themselves and see the opportunities that are out there. Showing kids, ‘You can make it there.’”
Pursuing higher education may feel like a risk at the time, but Blackmon knows the rewards. He lives them every day.
“I tell students all the time: You don’t have to have it all figured out. You can even be at the end of your degree and still not have it figured out. Just keep taking opportunities and gaining experience so you can make an informed decision about what it is you want to do,” he said.
“You never know what it is you may find a passion for. I never realized I was going to be a laser nerd until I started playing with lasers and thought, ‘This is totally cool.’”