Bridging the Opportunity Divide

This Program Shares Its Wisdom About Producing Minority Ph.D. Science Students

May 29, 2014
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This Program Shares Its Wisdom About Producing Minority Ph.D. Science Students
Didier Ruef/Redux
Penn State and the University of North Carolina hope to be as successful as UMBC.

It goes without saying that the folks at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) know a thing or two about supporting and encouraging minority and low-income undergraduate students in continuing their studies and earning science Ph.D.s.

Impressively, over the past two decades, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC has produced 900 graduates who have gone on to rack up 423 advanced science degrees and 107 medical degrees.

Compare that to Penn State, which was recently named one of the top 40 schools for educating black students who eventually earned advanced science degrees. Despite the recognition, the public university earned that status by producing just four (!) degrees earned by black science students out of about 3,000 STEM students total.

“The data is shocking,” Penn State Chemistry professor Mary Beth Williams told Jeffrey Mervis of Science Insider. “Clearly we have to do a better job.”

So the people behind UMBC’s successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program will mentor faculty and staff at Penn State and the University of North Carolina in an attempt to increase the number of minority students enrolled in science Ph.D. programs. Over five years, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will dedicate $7.75 million to the effort.

Clearly, UMBC has figured out a formula that keeps minority and low-income students on track to become scientists: Close monitoring of academic progress, a summer program for incoming freshmen, scholarships, research opportunities, and a close cohort of talented students who foster a sense of teamwork with each other. Its current four-year class of Meyerhoff Scholars includes 300 students, 60 percent of which are underrepresented minorities.

Williams said she plans to study these lessons carefully in the program’s implementation at Penn State. “My goal is to clone it as much as possible. It’s been successful for 25 years, so why mess with it? The more you change, the more you’re inviting failure.”

The president of UMBC, Freeman Hrabowski, is proud of how the scholars program has grown from its initial class of 19 African-American male science students in 1989. “What Meyerhoff has done is get us to think about our responsibility to students who say they want a STEM degree,” he told Mervis. “And what helps underrepresented minorities will also help the rest of our students.”

MORE: When People Said Minorities Weren’t Interested in Science, This Guy Proved Them Wrong

Correction: June 5, 2014

A previous version of this post misstated the funding for this program. It is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, not the UMBC.

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