Mentors Like Us: Expanding Diversity Research Program Curricula
As a Mexican immigrant, I’m finding a career in science academia to be more and more unlikely and difficult to pursue as I realize that not many who share my ethnic and economic background have made it to full professor status. Thankfully, a continued minority student under-representation in STEM-related graduate programs has led to governmental funding initiatives aimed at increasing the inclusion of individuals from these backgrounds. For example, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) currently funds diversity research programs such as Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). While there are promising measures of success for these undergraduate training grants, some of which have been directly experienced by the recent acceptance of all three members of my UC Berkeley MARC 2014 cohort into STEM graduate programs, there is a common sentiment among those targeted by these initiatives: there are still a few key components missing from the curricula of these programs that have yet to be formally addressed.
In short, students eligible for these funding opportunities include those who, according to the NIH, are:
- Members of racial and ethnic groups nationally underrepresented in health-related sciences, as well as women in some disciplines
- Physically and/or mentally disabled
- From a disadvantaged background, where educational access was inhibited by low family income and a rural or inner city resource impoverished environment
The intent of these programs often comes down to increasing research participation of individuals that fall under these criteria to ultimately address their lack of membership in academia as research faculty. This goal is believed to be achieved by providing students with incentives such as a financial stipend, a network of peers, a research mentor, and a structured program that aids students’ path to graduate school and beyond.
The resources these programs provide are invaluable, yet retention strategies for these students often gets separated from the cultural and ethnic identity of the students. This is a tricky situation for those with the power to change this. The admission that these factors play an integral part in academic career advancement would dispel the popular idea that science is beholden solely to merit. However, while there is an increasing number of STEM Ph.Ds from underrepresented minorities, they are nonetheless a paltry percentage of tenured faculty. For many, race is a significant part of their identity, so an environment where discussions on ethnic identity is inhibited ignores the elephant in the room: institutional discouragement, tokenism, and lack of role models in academia make other career options more attractive beyond a financial standpoint. Diversity research programs already provide a vehicle in which to create an ambiance where these discussions are possible, so why not capitalize?
Strategies to Increase Minority Student Retention in Academia
- Big Siblings: Alumni from diversity research programs should be held accountable to continue efforts on increasing STEM minority representation. If students benefit from these programs, they should be actively encouraged to pay it forward. A Big Siblings component would provide a valuable mentorship experience for both graduate students and undergraduates, providing the basis for a long-term connection that could serve as an outlet for casual, comfortable discussion of barriers impacting underrepresented students’ success in academia. In addition, this would serve as a way of providing undergraduates the details of graduate life that may often go unmentioned in program-organized meetings, such as work-life balance, research mentor selection, and honest conversations about the non-professional pressures of academic careers. Finally, this partnership would connect a pair of students at different stages of their career that come from backgrounds often not found in abundance within graduate research programs, mitigating cultural and ethnic-based perceptions of isolation that may be experienced as they navigate undergraduate and graduate school.
- Inclusive Social Events: Organized social events by these programs would do much to cement the networks they establish. From experience, interactions between students are limited by strictly informative meetings in program curriculums. The auspicious potential created by getting groups of 10+ minority students from different research backgrounds and hectic schedules together for weekly meetings can be misspent by going over dry PowerPoint presentations containing easily Googled information, such as graduate funding opportunities. Why test the attention span of young students by dispersing this information in a classroom setting? Instead, diversity research programs should include social events, such as BBQs, dinners, happy hours, etc., as a way to foster a sense of community outside the academic setting and to promote positive student mental health. The almost inherent introversion of STEM students makes clear why these events should be organized and required by the program; mere exposure within these settings break comfort barriers and boost social skills beneficial to public speaking and future science collaborations. At these early career stages, a majority of students are unaware of the responsibilities involved in being a professor. Therefore, by occasionally inviting faculty into this casual setting, social events can do much to inform and change perceptions about the tenure track.
- Private Access Database of Alumni Network: Protracted, career-long interactions within these diverse groups and their programs can be bolstered by providing a platform that keeps everyone’s updated contact information. The Gates Millennium Scholars web portal includes ways to contact current students, staff, and alumni, with the addition of discussion forums where feedback for graduate school and fellowship applications can be freely given. A directory where current student and alumni email addresses can be filtered by discipline and career stages could be continuously updated by yearly automated e-mail questionnaires.
- Guest Minority Faculty Talks: Strategies to inspire and motivate students from disadvantaged backgrounds into academia could be more effective if enacted by successes who share a disadvantaged background and, most importantly, look like them. The previously mentioned student-faculty interactions can be facilitated through introductory talks during which invited faculty candidly talk about their research and career path, as well as their strategies to remain professionally and emotionally resilient as an ethnic minority in academia. Hearing from those who shared your upbringing and its struggles may alleviate unrealistic concerns about research career success requirements as well as feelings of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. Faculty-student interactions during follow-up Q&A can increase a student’s confidence in making direct contacts with future research advisers and mentors, as well as for initiating conversations with their current primary investigators.
- Well-Being Workshops: With depression being prevalent among graduate students, it would be remiss for programs aimed at getting students into graduate school to do so without introducing them to prevention strategies. If the health-sciences are making efforts to remove the social stigma of mental health treatment, then these research programs should reciprocate and include Well-Being management into their curricula. An invitation to staff from the institution’s psychological counseling services should be extended to lead this workshop, as well as to serve as a future point of contact for students.
These proposed additions may come across to you as being based on common sense. However, program administrators may find themselves dealing with a lot more stringent, logistical limitations than what is evident to a participating student. Nonetheless, from a student’s perspective, these are the discernible barriers impeding these initiatives from being part of the curriculum of diversity research programs.
Money: An alumni database and social events could be exacting on the budget of these programs. Funding is appropriately prioritized to provide multiple staff and facilitator salaries, as well as the student stipend themselves. However, these events may go a long way in creating a strong sense of community that would prove as a worthy venture. Results from a Google Form questionnaire can be exported onto a shared Google Drive Excel sheet as a frugal option for an alumni contact database. A Slack channel can provide a real-time communication outlet for the entire network of students and alumni. Budgets may not have enough room for social events, however, there is little reason to doubt that stipend-funded, of-age undergraduates and graduate students would be shy about getting a pint or some wings over a casual conversation about science and their experiences navigating the academic setting. The hardest part would be getting them to make time in their busy schedule to socialize with the program, hence the previous suggestion that program coordinators willingly set a time and place to congregate, so that one of the already mandatory meetings can take place outside of the discourse-stifling classroom setting. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. The perceived effort by these programs to make students feel welcome and comfortable inside the academic setting, as well as supported by their peers over beers, will undoubtedly affect their future career decisions.
Faculty: Research suggests that faculty of color face unique barriers on their way to academic promotion. It is daunting to try to inspire and convince underrepresented students to stay in a career that lacks role models. This is a cycle that diversity research programs aim to break. It is a tough endeavor, one that requires genuine effort from program staff to not only search for minority faculty speakers and mentors, but also to present to them the case about the necessity of their participation. Nonetheless, their unavailability might not necessarily stem from a lack of interest; research faculty have greater priorities in a competitive academic climate. Faculty from underrepresented backgrounds already have a lot on their plate: in the STEM disciplines, they are less represented than White faculty, with women from these groups having the least representation . With the pressures of academic careers in mind, diversity research programs have to find incentives beyond polite e-mail contact to get faculty invested in a generation of researchers in dire need of mentors, to be willing to have the tough conversations on overcoming racial barriers in academic careers. For longer-term programs, the opportunity to apply to the NIH Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research can be presented to both the student and their eligible faculty mentor, with a commitment from the program to walk the student and the PI through this process. Unfortunately, until the proportion of minority research faculty increases, or better incentives are promoted, mentoring responsibility will fall onto the few gracious enough to get fully involved in these programs.
Beginning to Experiment
The academic experience for ethnically underrepresented students is different from the rest. Research programs with the specific goal of increasing ethnic representation in academia need to make greater effort into looking how this difference plays into students’ career choices. What this article proposes can be applied to both undergraduate and graduate research diversity initiatives, with some of them having the specific intent to address the lack of race discussions in STEM academia. Ultimately, the goal of creating a community within a sub-population of students vulnerable to isolation is shared across all of these curriculum additions. Funding agencies and their diversity research programs have already spent several years tackling the lack of financial and academic resources underrepresented students have on their way to a Ph.D. The time has come to experiment, create open dialogue between these students, humanize and listen attentively to find out what it is exactly that keeps dissuading them from the prospects of a career in academic research.