Long-time UNCP chemistry professor establishes $425,000 Endowment Scholarship at UNC Pembroke


Len Holmes cringed as he recalled being engulfed in a thick blanket of humidity after he stepped off the airplane at the Fayetteville Regional Airport in the summer of 1990. 

“I was coming from the cold, dry Wasatch Mountains of Logan, Utah,” Holmes said. “As soon as they opened the door to the plane, I said, ‘holy cow!’ It was hot and humid.” 

“It was a different world.” 

Holmes moved to North Carolina to teach chemistry at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He fell in love with the university and the local community, particularly the American Indian community. 

“The Lumbee people have been good to me,” he said. “I love them. After 26 years, I can relate to their culture.” 

Living in Robeson County for more than two decades, Holmes also recognized the need for medical professionals in this area. 

“There just aren’t enough doctors here,” he said. “We all have a go-to mechanic. We need a go-to doctor or nurse, or someone in any aspect of medical science.” 

To help fill this void, he established the Leonard and Hickory Holmes Medical Career Endowed Scholarship at UNC Pembroke. 

The $425,000 scholarship will fund four scholarships per academic year for American Indian students studying either chemistry, physics or nursing. To be eligible, the student must maintain a 3.7 QPA, be a graduate of a Robeson County high school and reside in North Carolina. The scholarship honors Holmes’ son, Hickory, an Oregon farmer. 

“For me, it makes common sense,” Holmes said. “I love UNC Pembroke. I love the community. I’m not from this state, but this state accepted me and took me in and gave me a chance to make a living so I feel indebted to North Carolina, in general, and UNCP, in particular. 

“I’ve been working at a Native American school for 26 years … it’s time to give something back.” 

Dr. Holmes said his foresees scholarship recipients opening or joining local practices, thus advancing the medical profession sector in the county and throughout the region. 

Wendy Lowery, vice chancellor of Advancement, expressed her gratitude while noting that Holmes’ gift is in line with the university’s mission. 

“His passion for the greater good is apparent in the way he teaches, talks and lives,” Lowery said. “A gift of this magnitude from a member of our faculty speaks volumes about the type of family we are at UNC Pembroke.”

Adds Lowery, “Len’s philanthropic gift will provide support to scholarly students choosing a highly valued profession in our region for years to come. His gift embodies the spirit of UNCP’s mission — changing lives through education.” 

In addition to teaching chemistry, Dr. Holmes is director of the Biotechnology Research and Training Center, a position he has held since it opened in COMtech in 2009. 

Holmes, along with his students and lab assistant, Devang Upadhyay, are currently conducting research in the field of fermentation technology and microbial growth. 

“We are characterizing, measuring and using bacteria or micro-organisms for biotechnology purposes,” Holmes said. “We call it bioprocessing. Our students stay busy at the training center, engaged in meaningful research and searching for solutions.” 

“There is no member of our faculty who better embodies the UNCP Pembroke spirit than Dr. Holmes,” said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings. “Although not from here, Dr. Holmes embraced this community as his own and has given selflessly to make it a better place. He contributes so much through his teaching, research and service. By generously endowing this scholarship, Dr. Holmes will impact generations of students and patients, alike.” 

Dr. Siva Mandjiny, a fellow UNCP chemistry professor and department chair, said his colleague’s generous donation comes as no surprise. He has worked alongside Holmes for two decades. 

“This guy has a really good heart for educating students in the sciences and especially in research,” Mandjiny said. “I think this is great.” 

Mandjiny has spent the past 20 years mentoring local students in chemistry and guiding them into medical professions. This gift, Mandjiny said, provides a much needed incentive during future talks with potential students. 

“Financial assistance, a lot of times, can hinder our local students from following their dreams,” Mandjiny said. “This endowment will allow those students to remain on a path to a bright career in either nursing, chemistry or physics.”

Pembroke physician Dr. Chamaine Brooks-Locklear was ecstatic to hear of Holmes’ contribution. Brooks said the impact the endowment will make on the local community will be substantial. 

“That’s awesome,” Brooks said. “This will be an excellent opportunity for our talented youth who are studying the sciences or nursing field. 

“We need more of our local students to enter into the sciences, math and nursing,” she said. “So anything we can get to help our students financially is vital. “College tuition and fees are a barrier for so many students. To have a scholarship designed specifically for science majors is wonderful.” 

A native of western Massachusetts, Holmes holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Westfield State University. He completed his PhD in biochemistry from Utah State University. He remained at Utah State University for eight years as an adjunct professor in the chemistry department. 

An advertisement in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, led Holmes to Pembroke. 

“It was a huge transition environmentally,” Holmes said recalling his early days at what was then Pembroke State University. 

“The transition socially and culturally was much more subtle and took a lot longer for me to fully grow an appreciation of the people and the culture and the region here in southeastern North Carolina.” 

“I love the university. I love our county, and the greater community outside the university, especially Pembroke, is where the tie is for me. I live in Pembroke, so I can go most anywhere in this town and someone will say ‘Hey Dr. Holmes, how are you and how are things going?”

“I really enjoy that.” 

Aside from teaching and researching, Holmes serves as an ambassador for UNC Pembroke. He has traveled overseas many times, including trips to India and multiple trips to Siberia and China. In October, he will travel to Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, to present research conducted at UNCP. 

UNC Pembroke is a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina system. For more information, contact Jodi Phelps, executive director of University Communications and Marketing, via email (jodi.phelps@uncp.edu) or by phone (910.521.6863). Connect with UNC Pembroke on social media or online at uncp.edu to learn how the university is changing lives through education.