Elite California Universities Partner to Recruit Minorities in STEM

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by Lydia Lum

University of California, Berkeley doctoral student Sidney Hill is certain that his career lies in science. Hill’s love for science dates back to first grade when, during a presentation, he explained to classmates the differences between a solid, a liquid and gas.

He remains uncertain, however, of whether to pursue job opportunities in academia or industry. Next month, Hill hopes to explore more of the pros and cons of both career options during a Stanford University retreat targeting underrepresented, Ph.D.-seeking minorities in specific STEM fields.

The retreat is the first major event by a new consortium consisting of UC-Berkeley, Stanford, the University of California, Los Angeles and the California Institute of Technology that aims to increase the number of underrepresented minorities entering the postdoctoral and faculty ranks in STEM disciplines at top-tier universities.

Funded by a $2.2 million National Science Foundation grant, the consortium, known as the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, is trying to improve diversity in these disciplines at universities and national labs.

“Some problems are larger than what a single university can tackle on its own,” says Dr. Mark Richards, executive dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science. “We’re accustomed to competing with each other, so the Alliance is an extraordinary effort. It’s a bit like competitors coming together to put a man on the moon.”

The Alliance focuses on underrepresented, minority doctoral and post-doctoral students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering. Richards, who, along with others at UC-Berkeley, reached out to the other three universities about two years ago, says the biological sciences are absent from the Alliance’s mission because the racial disparities aren’t as severe as they are among other STEM fields.

Together, the four universities in the Alliance produce almost 10 percent of the nation’s doctoral degree holders among African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

But troubling data show a significant drop-off at each juncture of the academic pipeline from first-year Ph.D. students to full-time faculty.

Among the Alliance institutions in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, about 10 percent of the 845 new Ph.D. students in these STEM fields were underrepresented minorities. Of the 753 doctorates conferred in these subject areas, about 8 percent went to underrepresented minorities. Of the 1,050 individuals pursuing postdoctoral studies in these disciplines, only 6 percent were underrepresented minorities. Of the 1,189 faculty across the four universities in these disciplines, only 4 percent were underrepresented minorities.

“This is a crisis,” Richards says. “We need to find out why the pipeline is leaking so badly.”

Some of the research by Alliance members will focus on which diversity programs are most effective with these Ph.D. students.

The Alliance has multiple programmatic elements. For instance, an application to a postdoctoral position at any of the four universities in the targeted STEM fields will be reviewed by all four institutions, increasing the likelihood of that student obtaining a spot, Richards says. Furthermore, the four universities will cultivate networks in a matchmaking service of sorts. Students enrolled at one school will be funded to travel to another to give a presentation or meet a research group to improve their chances of securing a postdoctoral or faculty job.

Plans are in the works for Alliance-wide activities that will bring together minority doctoral students from the four universities who share educational backgrounds, ambitions and similar types of Ph.D. preparation in closely-related fields.

The April 4-5 weekend retreat at Stanford is such an example. UC-Berkeley’s Hill and other students will attend sessions and workshops to build networking, communication, project management and other skills.

The retreat will also feature a career fair, where national labs and institutions outside the Alliance seeking postdoctoral fellows and new faculty can recruit students looking for jobs. Alliance leaders intend for the retreat to take place annually, catering to such advanced graduate students as Hill, postdoctoral fellows and faculty.

A chemistry student who expects to earn his doctorate in 2015, Hill, who’s Black, hopes to meet more of his peers at the Stanford retreat. While he enjoys support from within the chemistry department, few people can relate to his background. Of the 403 Ph.D. chemistry students, only five are Black, 19 are Hispanic and two are Native American or Alaska Native.

Since Hill often spends 12 hours a day toiling behind fume hoods, it’s tough finding time to socialize with minority graduate students in other departments. “It was a lot easier my first year, but now that it’s time to compile data to write my dissertation, I’m isolated even though I’d really like to network outside my field,” he says.

Richards, who’s a leader of the entire Alliance, says minorities like Hill typically have matter-of-fact attitudes about being few in number. “They don’t view the institutions as malicious, but the small numbers are, unfortunately, psychological reminders,” Richards says. “I don’t blame them if they wonder if they belong here.”

Richards hopes that Alliance activities will benefit Whites as well as minorities. For instance, a White professor who has only one Black doctoral student in a group of 50 might feel compelled to address that student differently, but the professor may be fearful of offending the student.

“If we can get honest conversations going,” Richards says, “we can lower barriers to create the most welcoming environment possible.”

Hill, who expects to obtain his Ph.D. in 2015, hopes the Stanford retreat will allow him to meet faculty of color from other Alliance universities who can provide insight in terms of career direction.

Although Hill appreciates the mostly-White faculty at UC-Berkeley urging him to pursue postdoctoral fellowships, he’s reluctant to dismiss the possibilities of an industry job. Such a position would better enable him to financially help his family, which lives in a small North Carolina town.

“It’s flattering when the [White] faculty call my work mind-blowing, but they’re a bit disconnected from my background,” he says. “What I really need are more mentors who relate to where I’ve come from and factor that into their advice.

“Ideally, I would love to pursue a postdoc,” adds Hill, “but I’ve got tough choices ahead.”

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