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The Art & Science of Diversity

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The Art & Science of Diversity
UMass Amherst attracts and retains science-minded minority students

—Eric Goldscheider

Leah Kay Aggison
Grad student Leah Kay Aggison is researching the part of the brain that controls ovulation and how it is affected by exposure to dioxin. Aggison has come back to school thanks to support from a National Science Foundation program aimed at increasing the number of minorities pursuing advanced degrees in math and science. photo by Ben Barnhart
EARLIER THIS YEAR LEAH KAY Aggison spent a full month sectioning rat brains into 12-micrometer-thick samples and mounting them on slides in a Morrill Science Center laboratory. A freezer, kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius, next to the Leica CM3000 microtome Aggison uses to perform this task, has more than 2,000 specimens thanks, in part, to her patient, meticulous effort. Her work also put her at the center of biology professor Sandra Petersen’s research aimed at understanding development of the brain region that controls ovulation, in particular how it is affected by exposure to dioxin.

If not for a fortuitous conversation with her sister-in-law last summer, Aggison would be selling discount clothing at a T. J. Maxx near her hometown of Romulus, Michigan. She had just been promoted to assistant manager and was preparing to buy a house, when her brother and his wife, both scientists, were home visiting. They told Aggison that Petersen was aggressively recruiting African Americans to do graduate work in the sciences. Aggison called Petersen, they spoke for about 45 minutes, and two weeks later she was in Amherst with an internship and a stipend. The house would have to wait.

Aggison, 31, had earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stillman College in Alabama in 1998. She had thought about medical school but decided that she didn’t “have the stomach for having a living, breathing person’s life in my hands,” she says. After college she strayed from academics, first tutoring third-graders to boost their standardized test scores, then embarking on a career track with T. J. Maxx.

Now, in addition to shadowing graduate students in Petersen’s lab, Aggison takes classes to relearn her college biology, participates in graduate seminars, and is applying to start a PhD program in the fall.

Her path to post-graduate education, while not typical, is emblematic of efforts at UMass Amherst and other universities around the country to address a problem that has been confounding educators for years. That is how to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders constitute only eight percent of the workforce in the sciences even though they make up a quarter of the general population, according to Petersen.

Besides teaching and conducting research, Petersen directs the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP), which is one of 28 such alliances around the country supported by the federal National Science Foundation (NSF).

A parallel national initiative called the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) is aimed at undergraduates. Susan Bronstein, who runs the Learning Resource Center in the library, is program director for the undergraduate alliance that UMass Amherst and four other universities established five years ago.

Bronstein currently works with a dozen students on campus in this program. Over the years she has seen many competent students of color opt out of the hard sciences. It’s a national problem, she says, but she hopes that through vigilance and ongoing support she can help more UMass Amherst students persist.

“It’s all about giving kids opportunities and keeping them in science,” says Bronstein; by funding undergraduate research and sending students to conferences “we give them a leg up when they apply to graduate school.”

At both undergraduate and graduate levels the mission is to proactively attract more members of underrepresented populations to the sciences and then keep them through what can be arduous programs. As in Aggison’s case, recruiting often happens one student at a time. Professor Petersen says, “the message is we need you for the benefit of the country.” Keeping them borders on an art: it involves mentor programs, social networks, and reality checks along the way.

Lack of diversity is bad for science, according to Petersen. Scientists don’t just probe and explore esoteric bits of knowledge. They also help decide what problems need to be addressed and what questions need to be asked. Without the participation of large swaths of society, critical issues get ignored, she says.

NSF’s Roosevelt Johnson, is a microbiologist by training who administers Alliance funds to bring more underrepresented minorities into graduate programs in the sciences. He says UMass Amherst is a recognized leader in fostering a campus-wide culture conducive to recruiting and retaining members of target populations. UMass Amherst is the lead institution in the Northeast Alliance of 10 schools at the graduate level that include Boston University, Penn State, Rutgers, and all the land grant universities in New England.

The Alliance is at the outset of a five-year, $8.5 million grant that covers such things as stipends, linking to undergraduate institutions to identify promising candidates, creating on-campus social networks, supporting travel to professional conferences, and organizing intercampus peer mentoring opportunities.

UMass Amherst is a model for how to promote the success of a large alliance, says Johnson. “It has a tremendous potential for having a major impact, especially in the northeast region.” The work itself is long term, one of the goals being to increase the number of minority faculty members who will bring new perspectives to their fields and then in turn become role models to the next generation of scholars.

Johnson stresses that the value of this work goes beyond opening doors to individuals who may otherwise not have thought of themselves as researchers and future professors, important as that is. The United States is facing a “leadership crisis” in the sciences, says Johnson. “We are no longer the absolute best at everything,” he says, citing the fact that interest among all high school students in the sciences has decreased from about 30 percent in the 1970s to 17 percent today.

Underrepresented minorities are an untapped pool of talent, and they are poised to bring new points of view to solving scientific problems. “Industry has been way ahead of academia in recognizing that a diverse group of researchers comes up with more and better solutions,” says Johnson. One of his aims, he says, “is to get the concept of diversity engrained in the whole fabric of the university.”

One part of the strategy, according to Petersen, is to reach out to applicants who self-identify as belonging to underrepresented groups. She helped create what she calls a “rapid response system” to contact those applicants. Once they arrive she links new students with “near-peer” mentors who are further along in their studies.

The Alliance gathers participants for potlucks and dinners where students socialize and support each other. “What we do involves a lot of food,” remarks Petersen, “it’s like a family, and that’s part of its success.” She estimates a 90 percent retention rate among the 46 graduate students involved with the group during the past five years.

But perhaps the most important attraction for students of color is also the least tangible: A campus-wide consciousness that diversity is an important and worthy goal. “Our success really depends on the faculty and the community,” says Petersen.

Andrew Effrat, the Associate Provost for Faculty Recruitment and Retention, recognizes the importance of getting more people from underrepresented groups—all the way from kindergarten through graduate school—to believe that they can make it in the sciences. Part of his job is to ensure that when departments hire new faculty they actively seek qualified people of color. “We want to make sure that they reach out beyond the traditional networks that tend to reproduce themselves,” says Effrat.

“We are blessed with a leadership who really cares about this,” says Effrat. Associate Chancellor Esther Terry, who also chairs the Department of Afro-American Studies, is an ex-officio member of the Commission on Campus Diversity. The challenge, says Terry, is “to make diversity a core value” all through the learning community. The benefits accrue not just to the individuals from underrepresented populations who are brought into academia, but to everyone. “People from different places and different perspectives learn from each other,” says Terry. “We’re saying to every program on campus that they need to examine whether they are hostile or welcoming to minorities.”

She and Effrat agree that this entails focusing on every part of the academic community. Increasing diversity among faculty is widely recognized as important to providing undergraduate students with role models that will help them to choose a career in the sciences.

Initiatives such as NEAGEP and LSAMP add a practical dimension to achieving overarching goals by providing concrete financial and emotional support to students from underrepresented groups for overcoming the inevitable hurdles of academic life.

A Path Less Traveled
This alumna took a winding road to a PhD in industrial engineering


Alabama native Rosa DeRamus ’05G, one of 17 children, didn’t have many role models for a life in academia or research. She did well in school and held a series of stimulating jobs. But along the way a few key mentors steered her toward a higher degree.

After DeRamus received a premed bachelor’s from American International College in Springfield in 1977, she earned a master’s from Howard University in systems engineering. She then landed a job with the Navy helping to retire missiles and developing helicopter hangars.

She started taking courses at George Washington University “so I could be better at what I was doing,” she says. A professor there told her about a Boeing fellowship for people like her willing to study for a doctorate. She gave up her job and her military security clearance for student life. Two years into the program, she had a baby. A single mom, she decided she needed to focus her energies on her son. She moved in with her sister in New Hampshire and found a job doing time-motion studies for the MBTA in Boston that she held for seven years.

Again, wanting to learn more, she took courses, this time at MIT, where she studied planning and scheduling. During a conference she met UMass Amherst mathematics professor Floyd Williams. “I told him my story, and I thought I was never going to see him again,” she says. But the next thing she knew, Williams had set up interviews and identified a fellowship for which she qualified.

“He told me that I didn’t have a choice, and that it was important for African Americans to get PhDs in the sciences,” recalls DeRamus. “I didn’t see how I would have the time, but he kept telling me to come to Amherst and that I could do it.”

That was in 1993. Now Dr. DeRamus, a title she received last year at the age of 49, is teaching courses at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and is in the job market for a professorship.

Along the way DeRamus’ son Jen-Pierre Frost graduated from high school and is now a third-year student at Northeastern University. “My little boy would always tell me some kind of story about why I had to finish,” recalls DeRamus about the times she almost gave up. She also had professors who encouraged her. And the social networks through which she found funding sources and camaraderie were instrumental in seeing her through.

Making the Grade
Sometimes perseverance is more important than a perfect transcript


When Carlos Benitez ’06 started studying chemical engineering, he was eyeing an entry-level position in industry. In 2004, a summer research internship in bioprocess engineering at Colorado State University had a profound influence on him. “I got excited about interacting with professors and graduate students on a new level. I developed a passion for scientific research,” says Benitez, a Waterbury, Connecticut, native. Now his sights are set on graduate school after he graduates this spring.

Benitez wasn’t a shoo-in for pursuing an advanced degree. When the research bug first bit, his overall grades were solid but not stellar. Some of his professors said they didn’t have room for him in their labs; one advised him to not apply to top-tier graduate schools.
So he went outside of the engineering department to chemistry where professor Scott Aurbach invited him to join his research into aspects of microwave heating. Aurbach also introduced Benitez to Susan Bronstein, the campus liaison for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).

Benitez counts his mother as one of his major inspirations; she raised him and his brother single-handedly on a meager income. When she had a kidney removed, the distraction took a toll on his academic performance. He was just bouncing back when he met Bronstein. “Susan believes in students like myself,” said Benitez. She helped him to think creatively about ways to build up his résumé.

Through the campus chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Bronstein came up with the money to send him to a conference in Dallas. There he met the director of the MIT Summer Research Program. “He encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted for the summer of 2005,” recalls Benitez.

This sparked Benitez’s current interest in biomedical engineering. “That program provided me with firsthand knowledge of what it means to be a researcher,” he says.

It also positioned him to work in the labs of professors in his department who had turned him down a year earlier, which taught him a valuable lesson. “If you don’t get what you want immediately, there are always other ways of overcoming adversity and of attacking a problem,” says Benitez. “Each opportunity built on the previous one in ways that eventually took me where I wanted to go, not necessarily in a straight path.”

The Long Haul
Grad school taught an academic star about the highs and lows of being it in for the long run


Destinee L. Chambers was a star student at her predominantly white high school in Long Island, New York. Then she was a star biology major at Lincoln University, a traditionally black institution in Pennsylvania. “I was president of the Honors Society, president of the biology club, and secretary of this and that,” she says.

Recruited by the NASA Scholar Program, Chambers received a fellowship that provided financial support her third and fourth years of college and put her on the track to an advanced science degree. Two years ago, she entered the Neuroscience and Behavior Program at UMass Amherst as a graduate student of cognitive neuroscience. For the first time in her life, she struggled academically. “I had no idea how graduate school worked at the time,” Chambers recalls. “I almost quit every two weeks.”

“I knew I was a good student,” she said, “but I felt I had to prove that the school I came from was sufficient.” One of her first assignments earned her a “B”; afraid to ask for help, she spent more time beating herself up than preparing for the next assignment. That sent her on a downward spiral, resulting in a lower than expected grade for the course. What pulled her back up was the moral support and encouragement she got from key mentors, in particular, biology professor Sandra Petersen.

“Sandy kind of kept bugging me until I opened up to her,” said Chambers. Through getting to know other graduate students on campus, Chambers also came to realize that her struggle was not unique.

Now Chambers participates on panels dealing with minority recruitment and retention in the sciences. She has some theories on why bringing up the numbers of underrepresented groups has been so hard. For one thing, she believes that many minority students don’t know that there is funding available to support them in spending several years mastering very specialized areas of knowledge. Many also may not grasp the long-term benefits of doing so.

Even her family, says Chambers, though they are proud of her, sometimes tease her about her dedication to neuroscience, referring to her as “the professor,” or “the genius,” or “the brain.”

She has also seen that once they get to college, many people from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to go in one of two directions. Some focus on areas of study that will enable them to serve their communities as soon as they graduate. Others are looking for a faster, more structured route to a high-paying career. “If they can make a good salary out of college,” she says, “they prefer doing that to applying to grad school and having no idea when you will graduate!”

As for Chambers, she’s in for the long haul—she expects to graduate in 2008 with a PhD. “Getting to know students in and out of my program as well as getting more comfortable with speaking to faculty about my concerns,” she says, has given her the confidence she’ll need for the challenging years ahead.

Brains Matter
Finding other scientists of color was key to this neuroscientist’s success


It never occurred to professor UnJa L. Hayes to become a scientist. Back home in Chicago, her Korean-American mother is a sales clerk, and her African-American father sorts mail for the United States Postal Service. They took their daughters to museums and made sure to have interesting books in the house, but no one in her family had ever studied science.
Hayes was a good student and thought about becoming a doctor someday. As a Dartmouth College freshman she took a psychology course where she learned about neuroscience—essentially the study of the brain—and “fell in love” with the discipline in which she now makes her career.

Along the way, through graduate school at the University of Southern California and a post-doctoral appointment at UMass Amherst (she became an assistant professor here last fall), Hayes overcame the obstacles encountered by anyone choosing a demanding and competitive field. The difference is that role models who shared her ethnic or socio-economic background were rare. Along with all the usual hurdles, Hayes says she had to work on “attaining a certain level of comfort, of feeling like I belonged.”

Initiatives designed specifically to bring more minorities into the sciences supported and encouraged her every step of the way. For instance, at USC Hayes received a travel award from the Society for Neuroscience that targeted people from underrepresented groups. “That was pivotal,” says Hayes. Not only could she attend conferences, but the other recipients of the award became a support group. “It was quite a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one,” she says.

Now a tenure-track professor who studies biological factors that prompt some animals to harm their young, Hayes looks forward to being a role model for minority scholars thinking of a career in science. She hopes to see more efforts focused on younger students, even as early as grammar school, to show the wide array of career options in the sciences.

Breaking Bread
Social networks make the difference for many minority students


Every researcher has experienced it, according to Edgardo Ortiz ’07. It’s that impasse where you wonder whether all your work has been for naught, if you are up to the task, whether it might be time to hang it up.

“Dropping out is something that passes through every grad student’s mind,” said Ortiz, who hopes to finish his PhD in physics next year. His wife, Zuleika Medina, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, also knows the feeling. “It’s very hard to see out of the bubble when you are inside the bubble,” they agree.

Overcoming the occasional crisis of confidence, they say, is made easier by having a social network. Learning that your experience is typical, rather than unique, is part of the solution when persistence and patience may be more important than a brilliant insight.
That is one of the reasons they have come to appreciate the camaraderie and mutual support offered by the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP) in which they regularly get together with other graduate students to break bread, share war stories, and exchange encouragement.

Ortiz and Medina, married seven years, met as undergraduates in their native Puerto Rico. Their biggest fear about coming to Massachusetts revolved around the language barrier. The Alliance played an important part in their success. “It’s like a small community of people cheering you up to finish your PhD,” says Ortiz.

Many of the social gatherings the Alliance organizes bring together students who are in different stages of their graduate programs or who are in different disciplines. In the case of the annual NEA Day, students from member institutions gather to present posters on their work.

Another event is a dinner to which students bring their academic mentors, creating bonds that transcend the professional setting. “Scientific ideas are important, but social ideas are important too because you have to have a network to be successful in life,” says Medina.
Regular events include a summer picnic to welcome newcomers and panel discussions where undergraduates from underrepresented populations can hear from and quiz graduate students. “We share experiences from our lives,” says Ortiz. The message he tries to get across is that “you don’t have to be a perfect student” to pursue graduate education. “You need enthusiasm, you need patience, and you need to just do it,” he says. “Many people think of becoming a grad student but they never take the steps to apply.” Medina adds, “It is also important to know that you don’t have to be economically well-off.”

With NEAGEP funding, this spring Medina and Ortiz will tour colleges and universities in Puerto Rico to recruit applicants for graduate programs. “I want to help find someone to replace me because I will be leaving soon,” says Medina, who like Ortiz wants to eventually become a professor in Puerto Rico. “This is my way to give back some of what the university has given to me.”

Truth in Marketing
Underrepresented students need to know what awaits them, both in the job market
and in graduate school


Dr. Miriam Pabón ’01G thinks the key to attracting more science-minded Hispanics to graduate education is aggressive and honest recruitment. Key to retaining them are nurturing social networks.

Pabón earned her PhD in engineering from UMass Amherst and is now dean of the graduate school at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, her second alma mater. Remembering her undergraduate experience, Pabón said the allure of corporate America—companies offering recent grads handsome salaries for entry-level positions—is very great to someone who has just finished a demanding program.

In her current job, which includes teaching and advising, she sees misconceptions among students, sometimes fed by the companies trying to recruit them. One misconception is that an advanced degree will close doors. “Many students think that getting a PhD makes them too specialized,” she says. Many firms do prefer less experienced recruits who will work long hours and, in the process, have their professional interests molded by the company.
Still, engineering graduates shouldn’t take the first offer that comes along, says Pabón; “they are very young and they don’t think in long-term goals.” Pabón tries to communicate that an advanced degree requires sacrifice in the short run but leads to a much wider array of career choices. Having more education “will make you the owner of your time and of your agenda,” she tells students.

Pabón speaks from experience. She worked as an industrial engineer for Mikart, an Atlanta-based pharmaceutical company, while her husband went to Georgia Tech. She went back to school for a master’s degree in engineering management, then shopped around for graduate programs so that she could become a professor.

“I have to tell you that I didn’t want to go to UMass Amherst, not because of the school but because of the weather,” Pabón, 38, says. The person who won her over was engineering professor Donald Fisher, one of the writers of the current NEAGEP grant. He sold her on Amherst and went on to be her advisor. Pabón praises Fisher’s attentiveness to diversity and his willingness to put himself out for new recruits. She also credits Vanessa Rivera, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Engineering, for creating a welcoming atmosphere for students of color. And the winters (milder than she anticipated) were warmed by social gatherings aimed at building a group spirit among the students from underrepresented populations.

Several large North American universities recruit in Puerto Rico, says Pabón. She hopes UMass Amherst can increase its presence, citing as a strength its reputation for giving potential students a realistic awareness of what lies ahead.

Pabón faults some schools for aggressive marketing that is less than honest about available financial support. “They say they have this and that fellowship and then at the end of the line, oops, it isn’t true, they don’t have the money anymore,” says Pabón. UMass Amherst is very good, in her experience, in terms of making sure that money that is promised will actually be there.


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