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STEM Summit

Written by Pam Beer

The fact that Milledgeville will play host to a STEM summit this July where representatives from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and other government agencies will meet with spokespersons from 20 different universities speaks to the possibilities that exist at a redeveloped Central State Hospital campus.

The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and represents the focus of a dream that Darrell Davis has had for years. He was in town last month with his wife Linda, and partners Joy Nelson and Ella Davis while they worked on launching their company Committee for Action Program Services – Analytical Training Laboratories LLC. Davis, a retired DEA laboratory director from Texas, has great plans for one of the grand old buildings on the CSH campus.

“The idea is to have a facility where we are planning to do some analytical training, to have some secondary and post-secondary students and teachers to be able to come to Milledgeville in the summertime over a three to four week period and actually get the ultimate in a laboratory experience and to utilize the instrumentation that is used in the community of science for clinical laboratory work,” Davis said. “We talk about the 21st century workforce, which is a lot of STEM disciplines, but our kids are not getting access to that kind of instrumentation until they get to the college level.”

Davis said that their ideology is to use science fair-type projects and research in order to show students the lure science can have.

“I got into science when I was in junior high school. I was able to go from third period to fourth period, walk right across the hall into fourth period into a laboratory,” Davis said. “All of the stuff I learned in a classroom I could walk across the hall and then see some of that science take place. That was the hook that got me into science.”

In addition to hooking students on STEM discipline, however, Davis and company ultimately would locate their business in a repurposed CSH building of at least 70,000 square feet that where they would not only provide analytical training but also would provide analytical services. He hopes to start having a presence in the Wilkes Building by the end of the year.

“If we have instrumentation there, it would be a shame not to have it being used for analytical services that some of the other federal, state, local and other private laboratories in analytical chemistry would have a need for,” Davis said. “I left DEA with a lot of knowledge about forensics and the needs we will be facing in the coming years. One is the drug trade – it is changing greatly, the criminals are trying to stay one step ahead of drug laws…and we don’t have the type of research to stay up with those trends.”

Davis said he saw this as an opportunity for his laboratory to assist with that by working with law enforcement, particularly the DEA, and working with colleges and universities in doing some of the research, along with some other national laboratories. He would like CAPS-ATL to serve as a sort of project manager, to merge the two entities.

“This is a large-scale problem, so you have to bring a group force of several entities together, so we will manage a project that helps solve these major challenges and initiatives,” Nelson said.

“We can close the gap with some assistance by having outside laboratories with colleges and universities and other entities doing some research to help keep up. And that’s the whole premise. I wanted to bring that forward to DEA,” Davis said. “And also, DEA being a leader in forensics, I also wanted to create a pipeline of young, minority students to get interested in drug forensic chemistry and create a program by which these students can be trained through the CAPS-ATL program and be better suited to going to college and pursuing degrees in analytical science, which would cover forensic science.”

The last part of the project is to do some analytical research in order to stay current on the latest technologies and research so that students will keep coming to this particular facility to keep up to speed on current trends.

“Kids need to understand that it may be challenging, but you can still do it,” Nelson said. “And the earlier they’re exposed, the more comfortable they are, so when they do go off – we can’t guarantee they will become scientists, but to give them the confidence to be able to say or think or know that they can do it is a gift all itself.”

But why Milledgeville?

Dr. Joy Nelson was born in Milledgeville and met Davis when he tried to recruit her to come and work for him at the DEA. Although he was unsuccessful, they kept in contact and he talked to her about his dream. In turn, she told Central State Hospital Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Mike Couch, who invited Davis to come to Milledgeville to talk to the CSHLRA board. Davis had the utmost praise for Couch, CSHRA board advisor David Sinclair and wife Cece, and the rest of the board.

“I didn’t know anything about Milledgeville other than what I saw on Google and what Dr. Nelson told me about. I fell in love with the quaintness, the quiet atmosphere, how it is close to the big city but away from the big city,” Davis said. “Once I found out about the educational background of the city and what it had to offer, for me it was the perfect place to form a laboratory to do that type of training.”

Once Davis arrived in Milledgeville and started doing some demographical research – how many students in Georgia attend college; how many go into STEM fields – he said he realized “Georgia has some room for improvement,” and he took it as a personal challenge.

“There’s a reason I was led to Georgia, being from Texas. The inroads I have made here in Georgia have been phenomenal, and for me to stop and say, ‘That’s good for Georgia, but I want to stay in my home state of Texas,’ well, that’s not where God has led me, and I’m spiritual in that sense, that I want to obedient, and I’m working with people who think the same way,” Davis said. “If God wants me to come here, he’s going to open up some doors; he’s going to make the way.”

“When we talk about Milledgeville, and we share with our counterparts across the country, they’re very interested because first of all, they’ve never heard of Milledgeville, but second, to repurpose Central State and the whole concept is very new to a lot of people. So Milledgeville is unique. We offer so much more than meets the eye, and when people come here, they really like it,” Nelson said. “I think our goal too is to bring something here to centralize an idea, to bring more people to build our tax base. Maybe we can bring in more government entities into the state to help again with the purpose of what we’re trying to do, to build on the momentum of what the Development Authority has here.”