June 2012

Reaching out to minority science students

The future of science and engineering research in the U.S. is dependent on the quality and depth of the future talent pool. Ethnic minorities comprise an important and growing population in the U.S. (1) that will need to increasingly contribute to the science enterprise. Unfortunately, racial minorities have been historically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (2, 3), a problem that is not due to a lack of early interest (4). In fact, similar percentages of white, Asian-American and underrepresented racial minorities, or URMs, begin higher education with aspirations of pursuing STEM degrees, but the URM students leave STEM fields at rates that significantly exceed those of their white and Asian-American peers (5,6).

There are several ways that research faculty can help plug the holes in the leaky URM STEM pipeline. At scientific conferences, extra effort can be made to visit the research posters or presentations of URM students and postdocs. In the classroom, we can reach out to individuals who are underrepresented, letting them know that they are on our radar and that our expectations of them are just as high as our expectations of the other students in the class. But perhaps the greatest contributions can be made by providing extended research opportunities and serving as mentors to talented and motivated undergraduates.

An approach that has worked well in our laboratory is to recruit matriculated undergraduates into the laboratory the summer after their freshman year (7). Students are required to commit to two sequential summers of full-time research activities (with no summer classes or other summer job distractions) and 10 hours per week of lab activities during the intervening academic year. Although the more common summer-only research opportunities are great for providing exposure to nonmatriculated students, these and other short-term research activities can place a significant burden on the graduate students and postdocs who train the undergraduates (7). Based on our experience, most students will continue to work in the lab until they graduate. This approach has thus far been a win-win for the lab: The undergraduates receive valuable laboratory experiences and mentoring, and the graduate students and postdocs benefit by the long-term commitment of extra hands and the opportunity to strengthen their mentoring skills.

The mentoring, networking, and experiences associated with extended undergraduate research activities could have a significant impact on the URM STEM pipeline and thereby help ensure that the science and engineering enterprise in the U.S. will have the talent pool necessary both to compete and to collaborate at the global level.

REFERENCES
  1. 1. U.S. Interim Projections by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2000 – 2050, The U.S. Census Bureau (2011).
  2. 2. Summers, M.F. & Hrabowski, F.A.I. Science 311, 1870 – 1871 (2006).
  3. 3. Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2009. National Science Foundation (2010).
  4. 4. Schuman, H., Steeh, C., Bobo, L. and Krysan, M. Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations (1997).
  5. 5. Degrees of Success – Bachelor's Degree Completion Rates Among Initial STEM Majors. (2010).
  6. 6. 2005 College-Bound Seniors: College Plans (2006).
  7. 7. Summers, M.F. Protein Sci. 20, 1796 – 1801 (2011).

 

Michael F. SummersMichael F. Summers (summers@hhmi.umbc.edu) is a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.


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