UH Receives $1 Million Grant to Increase Minority Science Ph.D's

By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications

With the help of a major federal grant the University of Houston will implement an innovative new program this fall to recruit and support more minority doctorate students in science and engineering.

The almost $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation – announced in July – enables UH to build on recent success in increasing the number of black and Hispanic undergraduates in its science programs.

A handful of universities nationwide are chosen each year for the Bridge to the Doctorate initiative, part of NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and UH will host the newest such program in Texas.

“As one of the most ethnically diverse universities in America, UH is uniquely positioned to be a leader in producing more minority researchers, scientists and engineers,” said John Bear, dean of UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM).

Under UH’s Bridge to the Doctorate, a dozen new Ph.D. students in NSM and the Cullen College of Engineering will receive a full tuition waiver, stipends for living expenses, extensive faculty mentoring and enrichment workshops. Five of the students will begin this fall and another seven in January.

UH typically graduates only a handful of minority doctorates a year in the science and engineering fields, representative of the nationwide scarcity of blacks and Hispanics pursuing advanced degrees in science.

Having graduate programs that better reflect the diversity of Texas is an essential part of UH reaching tier one status, Bear said. With America’s urgent need for more students pursuing the hard sciences, minority students provide a great untapped pool of potential scientists and engineers.

“By tapping this underdeveloped resource, UH will help Texas stay competitive in a global economy,” Bear said.

Thanks to an LSAMP program at UH targeted at minority undergraduates, the university has increased the number of blacks and Hispanics earning bachelors degrees in science and engineering.

Now, to ensure the faculty better reflects the diversity of the students they teach, Bear added, efforts like Bridge to the Doctorate will broaden the applicant pool and help build-up the pipeline of minority doctorates entering academia.   

Since its debut in 2003, the Bridge to the Doctorate program has helped more than 1,000 minorities nationwide pursuing graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

At UH, the NSF grant will help establish graduate mentoring and retention practices that reach beyond the dozen Bridge to the Doctorate (BD) students. Within five years, UH plans to increase minority representation in STEM programs by 25 percent, and to double or triple the number of STEM doctorates it awards annually to minority students.

In two years UH can apply for another BD grant to fund a dozen more doctorate students. 

The university will waive tuition and fees for BD students and the grant will fund stipends for each totaling $30,000 a year for two years. Although Ph.D. students typically support themselves through research or teaching assistantships, the stipends allow the BD students to focus on their studies as they make the sometimes difficult transition to graduate-level coursework and research.

For the remaining three years of their Ph.D. programs, the students are guaranteed support as a teaching or research assistant.

BD students will participate in an array of enrichment workshops on career development, personal finance, technical writing for peer-reviewed scientific articles and many other topics. The students will also have access to writing specialists to help with drafting fellowship applications, papers and theses.

Each B.D. scholar will also have three faculty mentors. This extra personal attention will be a crucial element ensuring the new doctorate students are successful in graduate school, said Montgomery Pettitt, the Cullen Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and NSM’s associate dean of research.

“We’re there to make sure these folks and their details aren’t overlooked and to get them acclimated to the culture of science and research,” said Pettitt, one of the BD mentors.

Going from an undergraduate routine of attending classes and studying to a doctorate schedule that involves lots of lab hours and research is a major transition. Having a dedicated mentor who can provide guidance as students craft the research problem they will tackle is especially helpful, Pettitt said.

Jose Manuel Lopez, a BD scholar who will begin the Ph.D. program in mathematics this fall, already knows the value of a good mentor. Lopez, who grew up in Mexico and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, was in ESL classes in high school until his knack for math got him transferred to an honors class.

He enrolled at UH as an undergraduate planning to study an applied mathematics field like engineering. But Lopez loved his math classes and jumped at a research opportunity with a mathematics faculty member, who became an invaluable guide and mentor.

“Getting to know and work with my professors has inspired me to want to teach and do research,” Lopez said.

It took Lopez five years to complete his bachelor’s degree because he spent summers working in construction and remodeling to help pay for college, but with the BD stipends he will be able to devote himself fully to his graduate studies. 

The new program – which combines financial assistance with lots of mentoring and enrichment activities – is patterned after the LSAMP program to recruit and retain minority undergraduates in science and engineering.

Bridge to the Doctorate students will be drawn exclusively from participants in LSAMP’s undergraduate programs – both at UH and other universities. 

UH’s Scholar Enrichment Program (SEP), funded by NSF’s LSAMP initiative, has nearly doubled the number of minorities receiving STEM degrees from UH over the past decade.  And about half of SEP graduates go on to graduate or professional school.