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Cottrell Scholar Keivan Stassun Changes the face of U.S. science

Master’s-to-Ph.D. bridge programs encourage more to enter scientific workforce

Keivan Stassun, A Vanderbilt University professor of astrophysics, says his RCSA Cottrell Scholar’s grant was instrumental in the launch of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program. It has triggered a revolution in the way science doctoral programs at research institutions deal with potential candidates. Stassun is the prime architect of the program, now in its eighth year. It has served 51 students (all U.S. citizens), 45 of whom are underrepresented minorities, 55% female, with a retention rate of 92%. The program has now received more than $30 million in support from federal funding agencies and from institutional investments from Vanderbilt and Fisk. He said that as the program was starting up it benefited from the visibility and imprimatur provided by RCSA as a respected national organization for advancing the physical sciences. In addition, the RCSA Cottrell Scholar grant Stassun received provided flexibility of funding. “Most of the direct funding for the students in the program came from other sources,” he said. “But whether a student needed funding to pursue an external internship, or we needed to hire tutors for students struggling in a core graduate course, it was invaluable to have a source of unrestricted funding that provided the agility to rapidly fix problems.” Stassun said he also benefitted from the national network of Cottrell Scholars, which provided helpful contacts with other young science faculty who were leading reform efforts around the country, and it also provided additional visibility for his efforts. This year the Fisk-Vanderbilt program becomes the top at a research university to award doctoral degrees to underrepresented minorities in astronomy, physics, and materials science, It awards more than 10 times the number of underrepresented minority Ph.D.s in these disciplines than peer institutions. Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge students have earned the nation's top graduate fellowships (e.g., NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, NASA Graduate Research Fellowship, and others), and some graduates have transferred to other highly ranked programs, including Yale and the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan has graduated its first crop of Ph.D.s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a program based on Stassun’s pioneering efforts. And the American Physical Society (APS) recently announced it will be promoting the master’s-Ph.D. bridge concept at other research institutions. “The ultimate measure of success, for me, is that what we are doing helps to promote the domestic science talent that we have” Stassun said. “Some of the people who leave our program with Ph.D.s are staying in academia, some of them are going into national labs, and some are going to work for DOD contractors.” His efforts, and those of others who are following his lead, come at a critical time in American science:
  • The Census Bureau has reported there will be no dominant racial majority in the United States in a few years;
  • Concurrently, America will need a million more scientists in the next decade, according to a recent report by a presidential advisory panel;
  • Roughly half of the nation’s science and math Ph.D.s produced each year do not stay in the U.S.;
  • The American Academies of Science and Engineering, as well as other organizations, have been warning for years now that the U.S. must greatly improve its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education system if it hopes to compete in the 21st-century global economy.
Stassun’s work, and the efforts of his imitators, may represent the only current movement in the nation that directly addresses these issues by creating programs that produce science Ph.D.s. “I’m a Mexican-American,” Stassun said. “I grew up in L.A. I was raised to believe that when you find yourself in positions of power and authority, you use that position to make an impact on issues that matter to society.” Stassun began to develop the program when he arrived at Vanderbilt as an assistant professor in 2003. He based it on insights revealed in the seminal work of Sheila Edwards Lang. She is currently vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity at the University of Washington. “She looked at the data in the National Survey of Earned Doctorates and asked the question: ‘Disaggregated by ethnicity, what is the pathway that individuals take starting from the baccalaureate degree and ultimately to the Ph.D.?’ ” Lang found that whites and Asians in science and engineering mostly take the “traditional path.” That is, they earn a bachelor’s degree at Institution A, generally skip the master’s degree, and then earn their Ph.D. from Institution B. “However, Dr. Lang’s research showed that underrepresented minorities are overwhelmingly likely to take a very different path,” Stassun said. They are roughly 50% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree from Institution A, probably a historically black college or some other minority-serving institution; then earn a terminal master’s degree at Institution B; before ultimately earning a Ph.D. at Institution C. “It turns out that minority students for decades have been utilizing a master’s degree as a kind of stepping stone to the Ph.D.” In other words, he said, they’ve been “hedging their bets.” He cites the discouraging odds at work in America’s doctoral science programs as a prime factor in this phenomenon – odds that apply to all Ph.D. candidates, but which, in terms of the overall racial and cultural composition of America’s scientific workforce, appear to hit minorities disproportionately. “If you ask, how often does the average doctoral science program in the United State produce an underrepresented minority Ph.D.? In astronomy the answer is once every 11 years,” Stassun said. But if you’ve set up your Ph.D. program so that 50 percent of the students of all stripes are being eliminated before they earn that degree, well guess what: That one minority student who comes along every 11 years is going to get eliminated.” There is no shortage of underrepresented minorities earning baccalaureate degrees in the sciences. Stassun noted, however, that they are largely to be found matriculating in traditionally minority-serving schools. “Xavier University in Louisiana, just to pick an example, produces on average 12 baccalaureate physics graduates every year.’ That’s more minority physics baccalaureates than the Big 10 schools combined produce, he said. Faculty mentors at minority institutions have long realized the odds are against their science graduates when it comes to doctoral programs, where the intellectual currents are difficult and the traditional attitudes are notoriously “sink-or-swim.” Thus they advise their mentees to “answer the phone call from that energetic, positive recruiter from Proctor & Gamble,” Stassun said. “And most of these students listen to the recruiter who says, ‘Come to P&G. We hire you to keep you; we hire you to promote you. If you come to P&G you will be mentored, you will climb the ladder and you will be successful.’ The average Ph.D. program certainly does not convey that message.” What Stassun has done then is to formalize the cautious approach traditionally found among minority baccalaureates who go on to earn science Ph.D.s. His task was simplified by the close proximity of Fisk, a traditionally black school, and Vanderbilt, a private research university, both in Nashville, Tenn. The two-year program is open to students with undergraduate majors in physics, chemistry, biology or other science disciplines. They begin by working toward a master’s degree in chemistry, physics or biology at Fisk. The curriculum is flexible and individualized to the goals and needs of each student. Courses are selected to address gaps in undergraduate preparation; research experiences allow students to develop their scientific talent and potential. Research performed with Fisk and Vanderbilt faculty lead to the selection of a Vanderbilt Ph.D. advisor, fast-track admission to a participating Vanderbilt Ph.D. program, and full funding. Stassun credits the work of three of his colleagues with building a successful program: Professor Arnold Burger, his program co-director at Fisk; Professor David Ernst, one of the program's senior leaders at Vanderbilt; and Professor Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, a lead faculty mentor at Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, officials are working on a variation of Stassun’s program. The UM Frontiers program differs fundamentally in that Michigan has no equivalent of Fisk nearby. Abigail Stewart said Frontiers currently offers three interdisciplinary master’s programs – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which has already produced its first crop of Ph.D.s; and two courses new this year, Applied and Interdisciplinary Math, and Applied Physics. “We don’t require that students in the program come to Michigan for their Ph.D.s,” she said. “But we do strongly aim for all of them to go on to a Ph.D. program.” Stewart is a UM professor of psychology as well as women's studies. She also directs the university’s ADVANCE Program, a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative to increase participation of women in academic science and engineering careers. She said the two-year Frontiers program begins the summer before school starts, proving intense socialization and impressing on students what will be expected of them. It provides “stigma-free” peer mentors, and whatever courses students require “to walk into a doctoral-level course without missing a beat, without being at the bottom because they have less background than other students.” Frequently, she said, those preparatory courses include mathematics. “Every student in these programs is viewed as an individual, and the individual tailoring is really helpful for these students,” Stewart said. She suggested the master’s-Ph.D. bridge approach Stassun has created also seems well suited to accommodating white students from small, liberal arts colleges where opportunities for research and science instruction are not as extensive as they might be at some well-funded private schools. “This opportunity is needed disproportionately in the minority communities, but it’s absolutely needed by other kinds of students as well,” Stewart said. “And what the national need for scientists tells us is that if we can’t more successfully cultivate the talent in our minority and poor communities, America is going to have a problem.” She recalled first hearing about Stassun’s ideas when he was a post doc about to go to Vanderbilt. “It was about 2002, and he spoke at a Woman in Astronomy meeting that I happened to be at. I thought as I watched Keivan that day 10 years go, this is not just a charismatic young man, this is a really good idea.” Besides UM, Stassun’s bridge program is now being emulated at Columbia University; at MIT and Harvard, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Postdoctoral Bridge Program for Future Faculty Leaders is currently selecting its first cohort. Those first three postdoctoral will start in MIT and Harvard labs this fall. In addition, Fisk University has become one of the top 10 producers of master’s degrees in physics among all U.S. citizens.

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