Increasing Diversity in STEM Faculty

In “A New Model for Increasing Diversity in STEM Faculty” (Issues, Spring 2020), Arri Eisen described many of the attributes and successes of the FIRST program—Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching—at Emory University. As an alumna, I would like to emphasize the importance of FIRST for me because of its unique blend of training, mentorship, and cohort-building, and especially how the values of the program radiated out from me to affect the future of STEM. As a young Latina in a biomedical PhD program, I saw few female and no minority professors. I realized the importance of seeing who you can be long ago. I joined the first cohort of FIRST because I believed in its mission.

I remain involved with FIRST as a teaching mentor and liaison from Morehouse College, a historically black college/university for men, where I have been on the faculty in biology for 17 years. I teach and mentor with empathy and high expectations. I bring research students to conferences to show them who they are, and to show the world of STEM, which might otherwise ignore them, that my students are serious researchers with the talent, skill, and intelligence to make important contributions in exploring the natural world.

I am in a unique situation where I can be a mentor and promote the good work of other minority scientist colleagues and connect them with my students. My success is largely due to FIRST’s cohort-building and invested mentors who gave me the experience and confidence I needed. My mentors saw me for what I could offer and pushed me toward excellence.

To the question of how to increase underrepresented groups and women in the STEM professoriate, Eisen proposes the answer: FIRST. I agree. I have advised and taught approximately 2,500 African American men and several dozen African American women in biology, mentored nearly 50 students in research, and obtained over $4.5 million in scholarship, training, and research funding.

I have carried forward the principles with which I was trained in FIRST by mentoring 11 FIRST fellows, all but one of whom stayed in science. Imagine all the people these students and postdocs in STEM will reach. Now, multiply that by the 18 FIRST alumni who are professors in the Atlanta University Center, or the nearly 200 FIRST alumni across the country. We are making a difference.

Here’s to 20 more years!

Associate Professor of Biology
Morehouse College
(First class of FIRST, 2003)

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the number of doctoral degrees conferred over the past 40 years to African Americans, Hispanics, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Pacific Islanders has increased by at least 115% from 1977 to 2017. But this has not translated to similar increases in tenured or tenure-track academic faculty.This points to the pipeline issue, in which moving from graduate school to postdoctoral fellowship and onto junior faculty appointments at universities describes a “leaky pipeline” that loses minority faculty at each stop.

Because each step in the transition process has both unique and crosscutting challenges, addressing these gaps will require specific solutions. The requisite solutions that can enable underrepresented minorities to cross this chasm are not apparent, thus new modes to increase diversity are needed.

As Arri Eisen describes, the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program has supported several hundred postdoctoral fellows, many of them underrepresented minorities, myself included. In my case, the program helped me transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow and finally to my career path, which has encompassed both government service and now academia. Others have chosen career paths that span the breath of our diverse backgrounds in various sectors (e.g., government, academia, industry, and nontraditional fields).

As Eisen noted, FIRST provides postdoctoral scholars opportunities to explore potential career options as they transition from student to postdoctoral fellow and finally into their career. FIRST communicates that a worthwhile career does not require a person to be an academic, which is a significant yet subtle message of the program.

Still, many underrepresented minorities want to give back to their community and remain in science; this new model provides the avenue to explore these career paths.

The importance of the FIRST program for my career cannot be overstated. The mentorship, access to a community of fellows, support from program staff, and teaching and research experience helped me gain confidence in my own decision-making.

This is critically important, as obtaining confidence as an underrepresented minority in your own decision-making can be developed only in a safe environment, and this element cannot be taught. Having such confidence is necessary to move forward in your career, discern new opportunities and challenges, and ultimately reach a career destination best suited for your circumstances.

This is the “secret” ingredient, in my opinion, that has made FIRST successful. FIRST provides opportunities to explore, and significant support for many fellows such as myself to appreciate that career trajectories are nonlinear, and that it is possible to transition from one career path to another, as my own experience illustrates.

Director, Implementation Science for Global Health
Assistant Professor, Global Health & Social and Behavioral Sciences
New York University

Cite this Article

“Increasing Diversity in STEM Faculty.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 4 (Summer 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Summer 2020