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Consortium aims to boost minority faculty in STEM fields

NSF-funded California Alliance includes Stanford, UC Berkeley, Caltech and UCLA

Gretchen Kell
February 13, 2014
Jeremy Brown and Rebecca Hernandez
Stanford Earth Sciences PhD candidates Jeremy Brown (Geophysics) and Rebecca Hernandez (Environmental Earth System Science).

An unprecedented alliance formed among four leading West Coast universities aims to remedy a seemingly intractable nationwide problem: Too few underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering are advancing to postdoctoral and faculty ranks at top-tier research universities.  

The new consortium – the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate –  is being led by the University of California, Berkeley, and includes Stanford, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology. The group launched a new project with a $2.2 million grant, which the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided to increase diversity in these targeted STEM fields a universities and national labs.  Participants at Stanford include the schools of Earth Sciences, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences. 

Together, the four schools are creating a new, cross-institutional community of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members in the targeted fields; faculty training to better recognize and help these students thrive and advance; and research that includes annual surveys of Ph.D. students about what factors impact their attitudes, experiences and preparation for the future. 

Mark Leddy, the NSF’s program director, said the Alliance “draws on the strength of the institutions involved and is developing a model for moving the needle in this area.” 

The four schools in the California Alliance produce almost 10 percent of the nation’s underrepresented minority PhDs in the science and engineering fields that the Alliance is targeting. With Stanford and UC Berkeley in the north, and Caltech and UCLA in the south, they span the nation’s most populous and ethnically diverse state, are each other’s closest peer institutions and are similarly ranked. 

“As the United States becomes increasing diverse it is imperative that our institutions of higher education reflect this diversity in their student bodies and faculties,” said Page Chamberlain, professor of environmental Earth system science who serves as Stanford’s primary investigator on the grant.  “Given the importance of faculty in mentoring graduate students one critical piece for increasing the needed diversity will be to train and promote talented STEM students in science and engineering to move into the professoriate.  The California Alliance is an exciting new model on how this might be implemented.”

Individually, Stanford and each of the alliance institutions has explicit policies and commitments to increase diversity, and model diversity programs to recruit, retain and advance underrepresented minority students – African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders – in these STEM fields. But while the share of Ph.D. students from these groups has been increasing very gradually for decades, California Alliance data show that “there continues to be significant fall-off at each level of the pipeline – 10 percent for new Ph.D.s, 9 percent for continuing Ph.D.s, 8 percent for conferred Ph.D.s, 6 percent for postdocs and 4 percent for faculty,” said Jerry Harris, the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green professor of geophysics and associate dean for multicultural affairs in the School of Earth Sciences. 

“Not everyone is made to go into these academic careers,” said Rebecca Hernandez, a Stanford Ph.D. student in environmental earth system science who is the first in her family to attend college and aspires to a tenure-track position at a top research university. “But if we want to change the demographics, we have to have underrepresented minorities applying for faculty positions. So what is it that’s making people feel discouraged? It’s a multi-factor problem.” 

Among the California Alliance schools, in 2011, the year for which the most current data exist, 845 new Ph.D. students in the targeted STEM fields began their doctoral programs – 81 of them were from underrepresented minority groups. Of the 753 doctoral degrees awarded in these fields, 59 of them were to underrepresented minority students. Of the 1,050 postdocs in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering, 58 were from underrepresented minority groups. Fifty-one of the 1,189 faculty members employed on all four campuses in the targeted fields were from underrepresented minorities.

Jeremy Brown, a Ph.D. student in geophysics, said Stanford makes him feel welcome and aggressively seeks to help its minority students. But of the 82 students in his program, there are only two underrepresented minority students – Brown and a Hispanic woman. Among the program’s 18 professors, there is one underrepresented minority faculty member; he is African American. 

Brown is eyeing a career in the private sector doing energy exploration, but acknowledged that, “it would have made a big difference if I’d had professors who were minorities, and if I’d had a mentor as an undergrad, or even in high school, to point me toward an academic profession, and that I’d seen someone in that profession who was a minority.”

Hernandez, the only Latina among her department’s 51 Ph.D. students, said she wishes for female mentors who are in her STEM field and also from an underrepresented minority group to talk with and reassure her about many issues, including whether she could have a healthy work-life balance as a professor, and be able to afford high living costs. “These issues divert my attention from my research,” she said, “and make me feel like I have to have a back-up plan.”

New plans the California Alliance is launching include creating a “community of practice” that brings together through select activities underrepresented doctoral students from all four universities who share educational backgrounds, ambitions and similar types of Ph.D. preparation in closely-related disciplines. 

Planned activities include an annual retreat – the first one will be April 4-5 at Stanford – where students will attend sessions and workshops to build networking, communication, project management and other skills. It also will be a venue for schools and national labs seeking postdoctoral fellows and new faculty to meet students looking for jobs.

The Alliance will nurture social-professional networks of Ph.D. students, faculty and research scientists. For example, students will be funded to travel to other Alliance institutions to visit, give a talk or meet another research group or a potential mentor to increase the likelihood that they will land a prestigious postdoctoral or faculty position. 

Other California Alliance strategies include a competition for funding for Alliance postdoctoral positions and an online searchable database of Alliance participants and their research interests to help the four schools, national labs and other institutions identify and recruit future postdoctoral scholars and faculty.

In addition to Chamberlain and Harris, co-principal investigators for Stanford are electrical engineering professor Brad Osgood  (Engineering) and Todd Martinez (H&S), the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin professor in chemistry and professor of photon science. Diversity officers participating are Tenea Nelson (Earth Sciences), Noe Lozano (Engineering), Joseph Brown (H&S).


Rebecca Hernandez: “What I see can be me”

Rebecca HernandezRebecca Hernandez, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in environmental earth system science at Stanford University, said she believes strongly that “what I see can be me. If you find a role model you can identify with, it’s easier to become the person you want to be.” A first-generation college student who has long mentored younger students, the 31-year-old is devoted to instilling in others a sense of confidence and personal growth so they can realize their full potential.

But it’s been difficult for Hernandez to find a mentor for herself. Of the 18 faculty members in her department, there is only one underrepresented minority professor. There are 51 Ph.D. students, and of those, just three – Hernandez, a Hispanic student and an African-American student – are from underrepresented minority groups.

During her first year at Stanford, in 2010, Hernandez used MentorNet, an online organization that matches STEM students with professionals nationwide, and was paired with a cancer biologist who is a professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “That’s not my major, and she is not a Latina,” said Hernandez, “but knowing she is there for me, even if that school isn’t my home institution, has been quite valuable.”

A doctoral fellow in Stanford’s DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) program, which prepares underrepresented minority graduate students and women for the academic profession through fellowships, faculty mentors and seminars, Hernandez said she has found tremendous “inspiration and support,” yet no Latinas in her specific STEM field.

It would be “magic,” said Hernandez, if someone with her demographics who went through the career trajectory she wants to take – perhaps a professor in the California Alliance’s new cross-institutional community – could say, “If you do this, this and this, you might get there. Then, with that morale boost, I could focus without distractions on my research and feel a little more security.”

“The applicant pool is so competitive for academic tenure track positions, and it can be a greater challenge for women and minorities in STEM fields,” she said. “We need more women, more people of color, and a diverse body of intellectuals and academics in our faculty demographics to bring up the next generation.”

Jeremy Brown: Mentors make a difference 

Jeremy BrownAs a fifth-year Ph.D. student in geophysics at Stanford University, Jeremy Brown is pretty convinced of his career path. It’s likely not academia, he said, but the private sector, likely an oil and gas company where could do energy exploration.

“I’ve been really happy doing the Ph.D., it’s good to develop a research base, to tackle problems for a long period of time,” the 26-year-old Colorado native said.

He added that his research adviser has been helpful by sharing with Brown his experiences in both academia and the private sector. “Nobody has dissuaded me from entering academia,” said Brown. “It is just my personal preference.”

Of the 82 Ph.D. students in the Department of Geophysics, Brown is the only African American and one of two underrepresented minority students. There are 18 faculty members in the department; one is from an underrepresented minority group.

Brown is a fourth-generation college student whose great-grandfather, born in 1900, went to Tuskegee University in Alabama. For his undergraduate degree, Brown went to the Colorado School of Mines, where he said he pursued science and “energy-heavy research” as a way of “finding the answers to many questions I had growing up, like how things got the way they are, and why things work the way they do.”

Despite deciding to follow in the footsteps of Stanford alums working in the oil industry, Brown said that, if in the past he’d had more minority teachers and mentors “to give me direction as an undergrad, or even as a high school student, to point me toward becoming a professor, or if I’d seen someone in the academic profession earlier in life, it would have made a big difference.”

A young, underrepresented minority professor, “in his 30s,” Brown suggested, also could have helped him at a younger age to “wrap my head around the long-term academic commitment of a Ph.D. program, which can last five to six years. That’s half a decade in school. Preparing myself for that with someone’s help would have lessened my anxiety; things wouldn’t have been so tense for me” as a doctoral student.

Brown said he feels encouraged by efforts at the School of Earth Science, which is home to his department, and by his university’s participation in the California Alliance, to focus on the need for more underrepresented minority Ph.D. students and faculty members. “It’s definitely a big problem,” he said, “but I can see changes starting to occur.”

Gretchen Kell is Director of Special Projects and Outreach in the UC Berkeley Office of Media Relations.