UMass Amherst Forms Institute to Strengthen Diversity in Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math

AMHERST, Mass. – Building on its success in attracting and retaining women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) over the past decade, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has formed a new STEM Diversity Institute (SDI) to serve as a campus-wide umbrella to coordinate diversity efforts, particularly those funded by federal grants. 
Sandra Petersen (photo), professor of veterinary and animal sciences, is executive director, Patricia Lehouillier the financial director and Jennifer MacDonald is managing director of the institute, which is overseen by Provost James Staros. Petersen says, “We’ll bring together the various projects we already have on campus that focus on diversifying academia, and facilitate participation by all in the science workforce. We want to encourage women, people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and those with disabilities to enter disciplines such as physics, chemistry, engineering and math, and help them stay through their entire careers.”
One impetus to form the institute is the success of the NSF’s Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and Professoriate (NEAGAP) program on campus over the past 14 years, she adds. It has grown from 25 students enrolled in STEM areas to 70 current doctoral candidates and 12 interns. “We expect NEAGAP to graduate at least 13 students in 2012-2013, our largest class ever at UMass Amherst and a dramatic change since before NEAGEP, when we averaged one to three each year,” she adds.
Staros and Petersen point out that racial and ethnic minorities make up more than 29 percent of the U.S. population, and that is expected to grow to 50 percent by 2050. Yet, they currently make up less than 10 percent of the scientific workforce. Similarly, women are more than 50 percent of the population, but less than 30 percent of the scientific workforce.
Also, this year the campus won a new, five-year $2.7 million Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) grant from the National Institute of Health to be directed by Heyda Martinez of the Graduate School. Petersen says, “The goal of this project is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who obtain Ph.D. degrees in biomedical and behavioral sciences. The project funds novel recruitment strategies as well as stage-specific mentoring and professional development activities. We partner with Bennett College, Jackson State University, Lincoln University, Medgar Evers College and the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez in this project.”
Staros and Petersen point out that the lack of appropriate role models and mentors in academia, among other things, hinders progress in diversifying the STEM workforce. To better understand these issues, they will facilitate forums in which STEM faculty meet with their counterparts in social and behavioral sciences and other disciplines to share strategies, discuss common roadblocks, identify best practices and plan campus events focused on diversifying the STEM workforce at UMass Amherst and beyond.
Petersen says, “Success entails identifying talented students from underrepresented groups and providing a community for them and helping them navigate around obstacles they encounter in their academic careers. For all, it’s a major cultural adjustment. But through experience we’ve found we can help by providing professional development activities, advising and coaching on job interview skills, mentoring and providing a place where they can go to ask questions to find personal and professional support. But most importantly, we organize social events for our family of scholars to provide opportunities for ‘de-stressing.’”
“Graduate school is stressful, particularly when you’re the only person from your racial or ethnic group in your department. Underrepresented students easily feel inadequate when in fact they may be at the top of their classes. We know that students who feel supported personally and professionally are more likely to stay in school. Their confidence level rises. We’re trying to create the same kind of support system students from other groups have naturally because of their larger numbers. We’re getting rid of obstacles for students who are highly motivated and very talented. They run into crises of confidence just as any students do, but may have fewer support nets. Our job is to remind them who they are when they start to forget.”