Diversity in the Sciences Boosted by NIH Funded Undergraduate Research Programs
By Margaret Chantung
CSUSM study team receives national award for findings in 10-year study.
Diversity—of ideas, perspectives and backgrounds—is essential to good science. Research has shown that highly diverse teams not only generate more innovative ideas than homogeneous teams, but they are more effective problem solvers. Yet, despite some progress over the last few decades, diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields remains a significant challenge.
However, an award-winning research team, led by Dr. Wesley Schultz, Cal State San Marcos dean of Graduate Studies, with Drs. Anna Woodcock of Cal State San Marcos, Mica Estrada of the University of California San Francisco, and Paul Hernandez of West Virginia University, has shown that National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded training programs, such as CSUSM’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) programs, are effective at sustaining undergraduate minority students through graduation in science.
“Science not only needs diversity but people from all backgrounds also need access to a full range of career opportunities,” said Woodcock. “Careers in the sciences can be very rewarding and, in some instances, high paying and prestigious—the thought that certain groups of people should be excluded from these opportunities is egregious.”
For the study, data were collected from over 1,400 undergraduate and graduate students at 50 universities nationwide over 10 years. Comparing underrepresented students who were involved in NIH programs against similarly motivated underrepresented students who were not, the researchers examined undergraduate graduation rates as well as acceptance, enrollment and graduation rates in graduate and doctoral programs.
“Students go in with a strong interest in pursuing scientific research and careers, but what happens over time is that many underrepresented students lose interest or get pulled away,” Schultz said. “What we found is that these NIH training programs sustain that interest and motivation among underrepresented students over time.”
Rising to the Challenge
Both the RISE and MARC programs were created to prepare talented and motivated minority students majoring in the sciences to enter and succeed in doctoral studies. Students work in a research laboratory, attend seminars and scientific meetings to present research, participate in a training program and are mentored by faculty. In return, the students not only garner hands-on research experience but receive a small stipend, the reimbursement of travel expenses and, in the case of the MARC program, partial support for tuition.
Schultz said the programs are successful because they help underrepresented students create identities as scientists.
“These programs create access to science, but underrepresented students have a special burden because they have to reconcile their identity and see themselves as scientists in a society that often doesn’t provide exemplars of their racial group in science,” Shultz said. “Being involved in meaningful research experiences as an undergraduate along with access to a faculty mentor—these two things drive successful outcomes.”
Ivan Hernandez, a first-generation psychology major, is a CSUSM MARC program success story. He took first place at the California State University Statewide Research Competition in April for his project titled, “The Influence of Minority Training Programs on Individuals’ Social Mobility Mindset.”
“I never thought a Ph.D. was possible for me,” Ivan said. “When I started doing undergraduate research I wasn’t confident. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t identify as a scientist. The MARC program is like a family of people with the same interest, mindset and goals—they mentor you to write and present, encourage you to travel to conferences, and coach you on how to be a better candidate for grad school. Now I’m seeing my peers get accepted into graduate programs all over the country and I can see that for me in my future, too.”
Prepared for Success
The research team found that after 10 years, nearly half of all the participating RISE and MARC students went on to a doctoral program compared to only a quarter of similarly motivated underrepresented students who did not have access to the programs. In addition, during the same timeframe, about 35 percent of RISE and MARC students had earned a Ph.D. compared to 14 percent of similarly motivated students without the program.
“Not only do these programs make a big difference, but our research is helping us understand why they are making a difference so that we can generalize the results to students beyond those that are in these special training programs,” Schultz said.
In recognition of their outstanding research contributions, Schultz and his research team were awarded the Adolphus Toliver Award for Outstanding Research at the Understanding Interventions that Broaden Participation in Science Careers Conference in April.