The Just Project: The Legacy of a Pioneering Partnership with HBCUs

The Just Project: The Legacy of a Pioneering Partnership with HBCUs

Thermo Fisher Scientific's commitment to address health equity gaps drives long-lasting impact

By Terri Somers
Senior Public Relations Manager, StoryLab

On a chilly, gray spring morning in 2020, as people across the United States huddled in the safety of their homes listening incessantly to the news about the novel and deadly virus for which there was no cure and no vaccine, Geoffrey Jackson put on his Thermo Fisher Scientific jacket and a pair of gloves, masked-up, and headed out of his New York City home to work.

Jackson trekked through empty Times Square, and then stood alone on the subway platform before he boarded an empty train car. Laboratories up and down the East Coast, valued Thermo Fisher customers, were overwhelmed with the demand for the company’s new COVID-19 PCR test kit, which had early emergency use authorization. Jackson’s job as a regional applications specialist is to help these customers in their time of need, no matter what.

Photo credit: FAMU Office of Communications


“Customers needed us the most during COVID,” said Jackson, who before joining Thermo Fisher consulted with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Bioterrorism Response and Advanced Techniques Team. “One of the times when I felt most proud of what I do was when I was on the New York City subway by myself, no one else in any car, coming across the Manhattan bridge. No one was there, but Thermo Fisher was.”


Quotation marks
“Now that we have broader representation, I can be a mirror, showing students at HBCUs that they have more options, they can have a career in STEM.”

Art Moore
Senior Sales Representative
Thermo Fisher Scientific

That experience and mindset is why Fred Lowery, senior vice president and president of the customer channels segment at Thermo Fisher, called Jackson weeks later with a big ask: Could he be the lead boots-on-the-ground person to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) set up COVID-19 testing centers? At the height of the pandemic, Thermo Fisher had developed a plan to partner with the HBCUs to implement protocols that would allow the schools to reopen by providing COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff.


Making that three-year plan a reality would ultimately take a commitment of more than $30 million from Thermo Fisher consisting of instruments, kits, supplies and technical expertise needed to help build a robust and sustainable testing infrastructure within the HBCUs. It would be known as the Just Project, named after pioneering Black biologist Ernest Everett Just, Ph.D., and would embody Thermo Fisher’s four values: Integrity, Intensity, Innovation and Involvement.


As that initial three-year time frame ended, key figures in the Just Project’s implementation, and some of its beneficiaries, reflected on its origin, and how it became a successful model of corporate responsibility and pandemic preparedness that supports health equity.

Quotation marks
"The work that we do, and our customers do, is making a true difference in our world.”

Stan Nelson
Senior Director, Channel Management
Thermo Fisher Scientific

How Can We Help?

During the early days of the pandemic, Lowery spoke regularly with Candia Brown, a molecular biologist by training who was then senior director of market development for the genetic sciences business at Thermo Fisher, as the company worked on COVID-19 initiatives with the federal government.


As spring wore on, data showed the virus was having a disproportionate impact on Black, Brown and American Indian communities in onset, severity and mortality rates.1 And while the pandemic caused financial distress for all institutes of higher learning, it was especially bad for the HBCUs, which are generally smaller than non-HBCUs and comparatively under-funded, making them more fiscally reliant on tuition and room and board revenue.2 While Brown noted efforts at Harvard, the University of California, the University of Michigan and other big schools to establish protocols that would enable students and faculty return to campus, she heard of no similar efforts at the HBCUs, a crucial pipeline of talent.


Many of the nation’s HBCUs were founded during the Civil War era, and after the passage of the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which required states that allowed school segregation to fund public institutions for Black students. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation, many Black students have continued to opt for an HBCU education, allowing the 107 institutions to continue a now-long history of graduating many of the nation’s trailblazers and leaders in the communities they serve.


“As a mother, a scientist of color, and a Black woman who has family members who have gone to HBCUs, I knew with that kind of triangulation that I was in a position to do something,” said Brown, who is now vice president of marketing, strategy and product management for Thermo Fisher’s analytical instruments segment.


She and Lowery brainstormed ideas. Thermo Fisher’s Applied Biosystems TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit had early government authorization. The company already showed how it could stand-up multiple labs for 38 states during the pandemic. It could do something similar for the HBCUs, they thought, allowing the institutions to open while also reducing the COVID-19 infection and death rates. But how could the HBCUs afford the tests? Where would the tests be processed? And how should the HBCUs be approached about the company’s plan?


“Mark Stevenson (then Thermo Fisher’s Chief Operating Officer) suggested we give them the test kits and whoosh! That totally blew the blinders off my brain,” Lowery recalled. “I started thinking about how we could also give them the equipment they’d need (to process the tests) and everything else so that they could create dedicated testing centers.”


Lowery and Brown formulated a plan based-on a hub and spoke model under which HBCUs that had medical, veterinary or pharmacy schools, and therefore probably Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certified labs to process the tests, would be the hubs that accept the tests collected at spoke HBCUs in their region.


Their plan also included a commitment from Thermo Fisher to help HBCU students and graduates jumpstart their careers by creating tailored talent acquisition programs to promote access and visibility for them.


“We wanted to not only bring early career candidates, but also start tapping into other networks, such as alumni associations, fraternities and sororities to access seasoned executives,” Brown said.


Quotation marks
"Thermo Fisher is a place where you yourself in a way that allows you to grow how you grow best.”

Geoffrey Jackson
Regional Field Application Scientist
Thermo Fisher Scientific

The Pitch

Lowery sent the plan to Thermo Fisher’s CEO Marc Casper and followed up with a telephone call, seeking feedback. The CEO had only one question.


“Can we really do this?”


Lowery confirmed the company undoubtedly could.


Brown and Lowery quickly began recruiting help across the company.


“It was like launching a business,” Lowery said.


“We did it all from scratch, putting 12 different workstreams in place, from quality, to regulatory affairs, to university engagement, legal, recruiting, training and more,” said Stan Nelson, senior director of channel management for the laboratory products business, one of the first colleagues Lowery and Brown brought onboard. He now manages the HBCU relationships.


“You could feel the support of the entire company behind it,” Brown said.


Finding Partners

James E.K. Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D., the president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., was the first HBCU Lowery presented with the Just Project proposal.


In March 2020, it had become clear to Dr. Hildreth that “Meharry’s patient base would not have the means or resources to get tested, or to later get vaccines, so we were setting up the infrastructure we’d need. But we couldn’t get (PCR) tests,” he said. Meanwhile, the city of Nashville called and asked if the college could help with all it had planned to do, including running its three COVID-19 testing centers.


It was significant, Hildreth thought, that the Nashville Mayor’s Office called Meharry, recognition that the school has been a trusted organization within the Black and Brown communities for 148 years. But where would Meharry find the needed resources?


That’s about the time Lowery called to pitch the Just Project.


“I thought the Just Project was a brilliant idea and I was happy to bring in other HBCUs,” Hildreth said. He knew other HBCUs were experiencing the same resource shortages as Meharry. “I was well aware the undergraduate HBCUs didn’t have the means or resources to do this, so the hub model Thermo Fisher leaders had in mind was perfect and I was happy to be a part of it.”

Hildreth first presented the Just Project proposal to colleagues at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Howard University in Washington D.C., and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, the nation’s three other HBCU Academic Health Science Centers, which he thought could serve as envisioned hubs. Hildreth and these leaders then hosted town halls to inform the public and build its confidence in the Just Project.

Meanwhile, Lowery presented the Just Project proposal to the Boulé, the oldest, continually existing Greek, post-graduate fraternity founded by and for eminent Black professional men. Brown enlisted Thermo Fisher colleagues to the Just Project team who are active in Black fraternities and sororities that are members of Divine Nine, an umbrella council of the top nine Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs).

Meharry Medical College President and CEO James E.K. Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D.

High Demand, Limited Resources


Like Meharry, other HBCUs have provided crucial support to their communities for generations. In the spring and summer of 2020, Howard University, located in the predominantly African American Shaw neighborhood in northwest Washington D.C., heeded a dire need to provide testing in its surrounding community because 77.8 percent of the COVID-19 deaths reported in D.C. were people who identified as Black/African American, compared to 8.81 percent of deaths being people who identified as white.3


Florida A&M University (FAMU), in Tallahassee, renowned for its school of public health, set up a COVID-19 sample collection site in its football stadium in partnership with local health officials. It was the only collection site that did not require a doctor’s referral or insurance, and quickly became the busiest collection site, collecting up to 4,500 samples on its busiest day and serving first responders and Tallahassee’s predominantly African American southern neighborhoods, said President Larry Robinson, Ph.D.


The Howard University and FAMU sites, like all eight HBCUs that would become hub schools, had to send the samples they collected to external labs for PCR testing. That service came at a cost. Results took up to 72 hours, too slow for contact tracing that would be essential to reopen the campuses.


The Just Project would enable the HBCUs to overcome numerous hurdles to creating the labs and testing services the hubs needed to ensure they could provide testing and receive results at rates that would allow effective contact tracing and the safe opening of campus.

Quotation marks
"I'm very proud of the Just Project. When I'm recruiting for the company, I often tell folks that this is the best-kept secret."

Lennitt Bligen
Director, M&A and Business Development
Thermo Fisher Scientific

Boots on the Ground

Soon after, Geoff Jackson went from servicing customers on the East Coast to visiting HBCUs across the country. And he was ecstatic to help get their testing programs started.


“Here I was, someone who looked like the students and faculty, an HBCU graduate myself, going in to help and bringing a team and the resources of Thermo Fisher,” Jackson said.


What he found at the HBCUs was not what he was expecting.


None of them was CLIA certified, which means they have regulatory approval to process patient samples. Many lacked the infrastructure, such as centrifuges and -20-degree freezers, needed for the COVID-19 testing workflow. Laboratories had to be created from scratch once space was found to house them. It was a daunting challenge that took Herculean efforts for all to overcome.


“If you don’t have the infrastructure, you can’t apply for grants, so that was the first hurdle we had to get over,” said Jackson, who traveled around the county to help the HBCUs, visiting some repeatedly. “Once we got over that, it was a beautiful thing to watch the HBCU laboratories and testing centers materialize.”


Once labs were operational, there would be a need for staff. Thermo Fisher’s reputation and network proved helpful. Lowery mentioned the HBCUs’ need to a friend from his hometown, who works for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She made crucial introductions that allowed Thermo Fisher’s team and HBCU leaders to present the Just Project. Shortly thereafter, the Gates Foundation contributed $15 million to the HBCU hub schools, enabling recruitment, hiring and staffing of the labs.4


The Legacy


The Just Project almost immediately strengthened preventive health strategies at all the participating HBCUs by increasing the rate and frequency of testing on campus. Once on-campus labs were equipped and staffed, test reporting times improved from a 72-hour turnaround at external labs, to less than 24 hours, enabling better contact tracing.


“It was transformative to be quite honest,” said Hugh Mighty, M.D., senior vice president of Health at Howard University “Look back at the hundreds of thousands of tests run that wouldn’t have been possible without the Just Project. That is the greatest measure of impact.”


The laboratory equipment installed for the Just Project, the training received on it, as well as the successful response plans and collaborations among HBCUs and public health officials are ready when the next global, novel virus rears its head, Mighty said.


“For FAMU it has created an opportunity for more scholarship and research on infectious diseases,” said President Larry Robinson. FAMU’s School of Public Health and the School of Allied Health have received grants to conduct research on vaccine hesitancy as well as on testing.

The Just Project’s legacy also includes showing students there are many more options and pathways to working in science, medicine and healthcare than just going to medical school, Robinson said.

“Meharry plans to keep its CLIA lab running and to add wide-ranging testing, which will impact our clinical enterprise and our bottom line,” Hildreth said. “And I think the same is true for other HBCUs."

“Another long-lasting outcome of the Just Project was to demonstrate to the whole country that HBCU organizations, particularly the academic health science centers, given adequate resources, have the capacity to do this important work,” Hildreth said.

Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson, Ph.D.

While the HBCUs needed the added “oompf” that Thermo Fisher brought to the equation, the trusting relationship between the HBCUs and the community was key to testing acceptance and vaccine uptake, Mighty said. And it will be the essential bridge companies will need to improve health equity by improving the participation of communities of color in medical research and new therapies that are developed a result, he said.

“For a long time, the idea of a company the size of Thermo Fisher partnering with a small institution like ours, especially an HBCU, was not something you read about every day,” Hildreth said. “But I believe our work together on [COVID-19] testing led to (other) large gifts,” including donations from Chan Zuckerberg, Bank of America and a $25 million, unsolicited grant from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

It has also helped create pathways with biopharma that promises to make great strides in health equity. Last October, Meharry launched Together for Change, a 10-year initiative with biopharma companies to create the first genomics database of 500,000 volunteers of African ancestry to enable more equitable medical research and ultimately better treatments for Black populations worldwide.

Howard University Senior Vice President of Health Hugh Mighty, M.D.

Currently only 1.2 percent of sequenced genomes are of people of African ancestry, although they have more variations in their genome than any population group, said Hildreth, a member of President Biden’s task force on health equity.


“Our partnership with Thermo Fisher helped us have the confidence to move forward with something historic like this,” Hildreth said.


The Next Generation


There’s early evidence that the Just Project has positively impacted the workforce.


Lowery received a call last spring from Wayne A.I. Frederick, M.D, who has since retired as President of Howard University. “He said, ‘I’m about to walk down to the nursing school commencement. This class graduating, they are the class most impacted by COVID. They were freshmen and sophomores when COVID was at its height. And I’m going to tell them that companies are filled with people who do great things. If Thermo Fisher hadn’t come to us with a solution, we wouldn’t have opened the campus and many of you wouldn’t be graduating today.’”


Closer to home, hundreds of HBCU graduates were hired by Thermo Fisher as a result of the Just Project. The company has integrated the best practices developed during its close work with the HBCUs into its long-term diversity, recruitment and retention efforts.


Art Moore, a 2015 marketing graduate of Morehouse College, is one of those new Thermo Fisher colleagues. He knew nothing about the company until the fall of 2020, when his work brought him to Tuskegee University, where Thermo Fisher was sponsoring COVID-19 testing. Shortly thereafter, Moore had a conversation about Thermo Fisher with a family friend, who is a colleague. He was struck by Thermo Fisher’s Mission to enable its customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer. That ethos is how he’d like to approach his life’s work.

“Mother Morehouse instills in us the idea that we should be a light in our communities,” Moore said. “And here is a company helping to find and develop cures for so many people suffering from disease. And they were doing something about an immediate problem–helping small HBCUs to be safer places during COVID.”


Growing up in the small town of Springfield, IL, the son of a pastor, Moore said a career in STEM wasn’t something he thought about. And no one presented it as an option. In 2022, he joined Thermo Fisher as an account manager. He believes the Just Project will have a multiplier effect.


“Now that we have broader representation, I can be a mirror, showing students at HBCUs that they have more options, they can have a career in STEM.” Post-COVID, Moore has noticed changes in his community with an increased awareness, acceptance, trust and interest in STEM, advances in science and health care, he said. 



Blayre Marley, an HBCU graduate and a lawyer, learned about the Just Project from her mother, a nurse at an HBCU. She left her job as a corporate lawyer with one of the world’s largest privately held employers to join Thermo Fisher in 2022, “because I wanted to be part of an organization that saw the benefit of giving back to communities that historically have not been given great opportunities,” said Marley, senior manager, corporate counsel within the life sciences segment at Thermo Fisher. 

She now provides legal oversight to the Just Project and works for the company’s human identification business, which helps law enforcement catch criminals and exonerate the innocent. “As a Black person and a lawyer, that is very important work,” she said.


Lowery said the Just Project was an effective and transformative step, but a beginning.


“The Just Project is a perfect test case showing why there is a need for diversity and inclusion, and also why representation and inclusion matters, because at this moment, because of the experience and perspectives of a few colleagues, Thermo Fisher became a really great partner for a big population of people.”


Its HBCU partners agree.


“The Just Project was a small investment for a huge company like Thermo Fisher but the impact it had on communities around the country was very significant,” Hildreth said. “So, folks there have every right to be proud about the work they did with us. None of it would have been possible without Thermo Fisher.”


1Tai DBG, Sia IG, Doubeni CA, Wieland ML. Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups in the United States: a 2021 Update. J Racial Ethn Health Disparities. 2022;9(6):2334-2339. doi:10.1007/s40615-021-01170-w

2 Public-and-Private-Investments-and-Divestments-in-HBCUs.pdf (


4HBCUs | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation