NSF funds new alliances to strengthen pathways to the professoriate for underrepresented minorities

By Elizabeth Moses

Approaching scientific problems with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds can accelerate the progress of research. Underrepresented minorities occupy just eight percent of senior faculty positions at U.S. four-year colleges and universities. In an effort to broaden participation in the professoriate, the National Science Foundation has committed $5.9 million to three new Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate that will work to improve underrepresented minority representation in professor positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Three alliances, consisting of 14 partner universities in total, will study, develop, reproduce and implement models to further the careers of underrepresented minorities. Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and Wake Forest University will partner to administer and integrate cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys and group interviews to further understand factors influencing the career decisions of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM. Additionally, these three universities will implement new programs and mentorship opportunities to help transition postdoctoral scholars into faculty positions and further the career development of junior faculty. The program aims to improve the representation of women of color in STEM faculty positions and create mentors for underrepresented minorities also looking to continue in academia.

Two more multi-institution alliances will work to increase interest and promote successful transitions to faculty careers among finishing underrepresented minority graduate students and postdocs. First, ten institutions will work together to create a “networked improvement community”, a collaboration between universities each with a distinct problem-solving focus, in which they will address faculty and postdoc implicit biases in mentoring and advising and provide peer-mentoring to finishing graduate students who are interested in faculty careers. Overall, this program’s goal is to mitigate the unfavorable perception of academic careers among underrepresented minorities and promote interest in faculty positions. Next, the University of California-Berkeley will lead a regional program of other California universities to implement mentoring, professional development and research exchange opportunities in an effort to further understand the important aspects of identity, structure and belonging in the success of underrepresented minorities.

How these models will be implemented is somewhat unclear, but the goal of improving diversity and inclusion in the professoriate is admirable. In conjunction with these NSF awards, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has also announced a new fellowship program that will award 15 recipients from underrepresented minority groups with funding for postdoctoral training and junior faculty research. Improving the transition pathways of underrepresented minorities from STEM training positions to faculty positions will help diversify the available scientific perspectives and improve scientific problem solving. Cultivating talent of all backgrounds is a necessary objective of any academic institution that wishes to produce competitive science.

headshot_2Elizabeth (Liz) Moses is interested in improving science communication and advocacy and increasing public interest in scientific research. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Pathology in the program in Immunology at Boston University School of Medicine and is the communications liaison for BU’s Science and Technology in Public Policy organization. Liz can be reached on Twitter (@emoses91) or by email (emoses@bu.edu).

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