News: AAAS News & Notes
24 April 2009
Edited by Edward W. Lempinen
Dramatic Rise in Minority Science Ph.D.'s Detailed in New Report
The number of science and engineering Ph.D. recipients has increased dramatically among underrepresented minorities under a program started a decade ago by the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to a new report released by AAAS.
At 66 of the 79 U.S. universities participating in the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, the annual number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) doctoral degrees awarded to minority students increased by 33.9% from 2001 to 2008. The gains were even more remarkable among the natural sciences and engineering fields, where Ph.D.'s for minorities increased by 50%.
Participants in the AGEP program say its success can be traced to a comprehensive rethinking of the minority graduate experience— from targeted recruiting efforts to employment placement.
The success of the program has been widespread, with schools as diverse as the University of Utah, Howard University, and the University of Florida each surpassing 25 doctoral degrees to underrepresented minorities in 2007–2008.
"We have had low numbers that have been lagging," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. "So, finally, here's some good news about a set of institutions that have set out to increase the participation of minorities within the sciences, and they've done it."
The AGEP program "is making important contributions to the nation's science and engineering workforce," said James H. Wyche, director of the Division of Human Resource Development at NSF.
Since AGEP's inception in 1998, AAAS has received consecutive NSF grants to track the progress of the program and has worked with AGEP universities to help them assess their own performance and identify where improvements can be made. [AAAS's most recent report on the program is available at http://nsfagep.org/ publications.php.]
"What's different about this program is that it is about changing the strategies and the processes that institutions are using to recruit and support underrepresented minorities," said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources.
Some of the changes have been relatively straightforward, such as initiating personal contact with potential students, said Patricia Campbell, president of Campbell-Kibler Associates, who worked with George to analyze the data for the new report. "If you want someone to consider your institution, ask them. That's something that hasn't been in a number of admissions policies and programs."
Berkeley's Edge. Mathematics Ph.D. candidate Ryan Hynd was recruited by the school's AGEP program.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Hynd
The University of California, Berkeley, was the top producer of Ph.D.'s in the AGEP program, graduating 57 students in 2007–2008. Berkeley recruits underrepresented minorities at conferences and institutions such as historically black colleges, said Colette Patt, director of the school's science diversity programs, but AGEP resources "made sure all of those opportunities were covered, that we weren't sporadic, that we went every place and every year."
The school's AGEP program, called Berkeley Edge, offers professional development lunches and a yearly retreat where students can learn skills like networking at a conference, setting up a lab, and hunting down a suitable postdoctoral position. One of the program's major activities, said Patt, is an annual pre-admission conference that has helped the school recruit "from places that are not our typical feeder schools."
Ryan Hynd, a Ph.D. candidate in the school's mathematics department, attended the conference before deciding on Berkeley and now talks with potential new graduate students at the venue. Hynd selected Berkeley based on its stellar academic reputation, but he also appreciates how the Edge has "fostered a sense of community" among the school's minority Ph.D. students.
Patty Garcia, a Ph.D. candidate in Berkeley's molecular and cell biology department, used an AGEP-supported study group to prepare for her doctoral qualifying exams last year. And she singles out the program as "our biggest supporter" when she helped start a chapter of SACNAS, a national society for Latinos and Native Americans in science.
AGEP's participants say that much of the program's strength comes from its dedicated faculty. "Lots of credit needs to be given to the scientists who take time from their actual research to work on the AGEP pieces," said Campbell. "That they're not only willing to do it, but do it year after year—it's just phenomenal."
Science and Society
Expert: Bioethics Council Should Expand Mission
Advances in neuroscience and synthetic life research are outpacing a discussion of the research's ethical implications, making them prime candidates for the agenda of the next national bioethics commission, according to AAAS expert Mark S. Frankel.
At a 12 March meeting of the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics, Frankel said the ethics of doing research in virtual online communities such as Second Life, and in recruiting subjects for personalized medicine, are also emerging topics for a national debate.
Established by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001, the council's work has included reports on stem cell research, human cloning, and genetic screening. While these topics remain relevant, said Frankel, a new commission should expand its purview when President Barack Obama renews its charter in September, as he is expected to do.
The new council should seek more public input, said Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program. He suggested that the council redesign its makeup so that at least 25% of its members represent public groups, and that members "get out of Washington periodically" to learn more about how these ethical issues are perceived outside of government.