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Eye on Ph.D. production (Part 2): The Fisk-Vanderbilt 'Miracle'

I had heard about the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D.  Bridge Program for quite awhile.  The fourth Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers featured a presentation by Vanderbilt Professor Keivan Stassun, dynamic leader of the program.  He recounted its history, approach, and success to date.  It is a story that should be emulated across the U.S.  Indeed, its guiding principles are instructive for all research universities who "can't find enough" qualified minorities or bemoan the lack of diversity in their graduate student and faculty populations.

The Fisk-Vanderbilt Program has supported 50 graduate students, 88 percent of whom are underrepresented minorities and 55 percent are women.  The participating departments, led by physics and astronomy, but including biology, chemistry, and materials science, fancy themselves as "scouting talent"—finding students with promise and potential.  All of this is done in the context of a leading producer of African Americans Master's graduates (Fisk) and a research university (Vanderbilt) which, in collaboration with this HBCU, has amassed $30 million in research support (2/3 in NSF grants) over the life of the program. 

Strategies include a Fisk-to-Vandy track and a direct-to-Vandy track, faculty "handoffs" based on research partnerships, study groups, role models, and a critical mass of doctoral students that bridge the two institutions and connect its participants to their broader professional communities.  Columbia University is now doing this as well.

As Stassun puts it, the program "goes beyond the usual metrics of talent" and "erects scaffolds that support success" (for details, see Stassun et al.American Journal of Physics, April 2011, Vol. 79, Issue 4, pp. 374).  More important, the program is about building trust between two unlikely institutions, neither of whom could have done this without the other.  Stassun, with the advocacy of his department chair and local colleagues (especially Kelly Holley-Bockelmann), initiated the program while untenured. That's a lesson—miraculous or not—that others need to emulate.

Any college or university can be minority-serving.  Their graduates will become emissaries of how such collaborations bear fruit.  This is the way the composition of STEM faculties will begin to resemble the demographics of our country and attract more students who look like them.  Everybody wins.  Sometimes we need to accentuate the positive. 

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