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Jocelyn Spragg, at 70; scientist boosted careers of many at Harvard

Jocelyn Spragg with Bradley Carthon, who participated in a program for students from groups underrepresented in the sciences and received his medical degree from Harvard in 2005. Jocelyn Spragg with Bradley Carthon, who participated in a program for students from groups underrepresented in the sciences and received his medical degree from Harvard in 2005. (Liza Green/Courtesy of Harvard Medical School)
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2011

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Jocelyn Spragg, a scientist on the Harvard Medical School faculty for almost 30 years, helped scores of minority undergraduates from around the country pursue careers in research science and medicine.

“She was very much an altruistic person, and I don’t think you find that a lot. That’s what made her so special,’’ said Stephen Azariah Allsop, who grew up in Trinidad and is in his first year at Harvard Medical School.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Spragg developed the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program at Harvard, known as SHURP, a 10-week program designed to give students from groups underrepresented in the sciences a chance to work in top research facilities. Almost 500 students are SHURP alumni.

Dr. Spragg, who was faculty director of diversity programs at Harvard Medical School, died Nov. 2 at her home in Jamaica Plain at age 70, of breast cancer. Former students and friends plan to gather at Harvard today to celebrate her life. She battled cancer for a decade, her family said.

“She was totally devoted to students but also vowed tough love,’’ said Joel D. Oppenheim, senior associate dean for biomedical sciences at New York University and a longtime friend of Dr. Spragg. “She was not a pushover, or a bleeding heart. . . . She had very strict standards and demanded her students meet those standards. If they didn’t, if they went off track once, they heard about it.’’

Dr. Spragg combed small colleges for science talent. So did Oppenheim, and sometimes they joined forces. He recalled giving a workshop in the mid-1990s with Dr. Spragg at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where fewer than 900 students are enrolled.

“We looked for students from schools that a lot of people didn’t look at,’’ he said. “She viewed it the same way I did. . . . There are so many students out there who are really quite good who people don’t give a second look.’’

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Dr. Spragg was a gifted student who in the 1950s graduated as valedictorian of Monroe High School in Rochester, which her family described as a tough inner-city school. Her father had a doctorate in psychology from Yale and chaired the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester.

“She was very intelligent, very curious, and interested in trying lots of different things academically and personally,’’ said her brother, Roger, an internist and professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Dr. Spragg earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and moved to Boston in 1962 to study at Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in pharmacology and a doctorate in bacteriology and immunology.

She joined the Harvard faculty in 1972 and spent the first part of her career making discoveries about the system of the body involved in blood pressure control and inflammation, the kinin-kallikrein system.

“She started out as a hard-core bench research scientist and had a midcareer change,’’ her brother said.

Dr. Spragg was first tempted to leave the lab and work with budding scientists in the 1980s. She accepted an invitation from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to develop summer science programs for young women in high school.

In 1991, she went to work for Diversity Programs and Special Academic Resources at Harvard Medical School, and earned a master’s degree in counseling from Boston University in 1992. She became faculty director of the diversity programs at the medical school in 1998.

In 2009, Dr. Spragg was awarded Harvard Medical School’s Harold Amos Faculty Diversity Award. Amos, a microbiologist and the first African-American to chair a department at the school, was a longtime mentor and friend to Dr. Spragg. He died in 2003 at age 84.

Though Dr. Spragg was unmarried, some of her students nicknamed her Momma Spragg. She helped them navigate their careers, while never sugar-coating the realities of academic life.

“She was always realistic. She never blew smoke,’’ said Allsop, who earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina Central University and met Dr. Spragg through SHURP in 2008.

She encouraged him to apply to Harvard but warned that acceptance was no sure thing. “She told me, ‘Though you’re a great student, you may not get in,’ ’’ he said. After Allsop was accepted at several top medical schools, Dr. Spragg persuaded him to choose Harvard.

“She helped to build my sense of confidence in my own abilities,’’ he said.

Jason Sello, a SHURP alumnus who is an assistant chemistry professor at Brown University, said Dr. Spragg saw her work as her “life’s calling’’ and helped her students outside the lab. He recalled how she helped him find housing when he first came to Cambridge.

“There are a lot of stories that probably won’t be told of things she did to help people,’’ said Sello, who earned his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard in 2002.

Dr. Spragg also was a serious horticulturist who loved growing daylilies at her home in Jamaica Plain, where she lived for three decades. She served as treasurer of the New England Daylily Society for more than 15 years. A club member developed a new flower and named the lily after her; “Jocelyn’s Oddity’’ has creamy white petals and a lime-colored throat.

In addition to her brother, Dr. Spragg leaves her nephews David of Clarksville, Md., and Adam of Carlsbad, Calif.; a grandnephew; and two grandnieces.

The memorial celebration will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Burial was private.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.