‘You don’t look like a math major’

Building community for underrepresented minorities may be the key to US competitiveness in the sciences

Miguel Twahirwa, right, and Ellen Weburg, second from left, present their work at the annual MIT Summer Research Program poster session.
Justin Knight Photography

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On the blackboard in this MIT classroom, a list of positives and negatives are represented not with pluses and minuses but with pluses and deltas.  The Greek letter here stands for “change,” as it does in myriad formulas familiar to these undergraduate students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  

The distinction in symbols comes from a spirit that favors momentum to inertia, because here — where the ultimate goal is innovation — an outcome that isn’t positive needn’t be final or permanent.

The two graduate students who serve as advisers to this group of 11, POD 2, are leading them through a call-out session where everyone must share something good and something that needs to be changed from their past week as summer research interns.  A young woman records the running tally.

The students are almost entirely women and minorities severely underrepresented in the STEM fields — African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans — the target demographic of the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).

Every year, the MSRP brings approximately 50 undergraduate students from different universities and colleges to MIT for nine weeks, hoping that by the time they return to their home campuses for the new school year, they will have decided to pursue a graduate degree in STEM.  

The program began in 1986 and focused then simply on exposing underrepresented minorities (URMs) and women to what research and graduate school is like. In 2004, realizing the pool of talent that was coming to its doorstep, MIT began recruiting students for its own advanced programs. Since its inception, more than 700 students have participated in the MSRP; 112 have been accepted to MIT graduate programs, while approximately 90 percent of all MSRP students have been accepted to graduate programs in general.

At their home institutions, these undergraduates are often among a small handful of women or underrepresented minorities in their STEM classes.

URMs, who make up 30 percent of the U.S. population — including the fastest-growing demographic, Hispanics — account for only about 7 percent of Ph.D.s awarded in STEM (African-Americans, 3.02 percent; Hispanics, 3.33 percent; Native Americans, 0.33 percent) in the last 10 years, while women (50 percent of the U.S. population) receive 29 percent of Ph.D.s.  

‘You are so much more aware of yourself when you are the only one in the room.’

Mareena Robinson

MSRP alumna

Mareena Robinson, an African-American MSRP alumna and current Ph.D. candidate in nuclear engineering at MIT, rattles off what used to come to mind when she envisioned MIT. "I thought it was all people for whom hygiene was not a No. 1 concern, who were introverted and never said a word. Where everyone was "A Beautiful Mind" and borderline autistic."

Gregarious, extroverted and social herself, she says, "I didn’t think I fit into what that meant."

Her MSRP experience changed her mind. But she still felt shock when she returned to MIT as a graduate student.  Having received her bachelor’s from Florida A&M, a historically black college, Robinson experienced for the first time at MIT what it was like being the only woman or African-American in a lecture hall or lab.

"You are so much more aware of yourself when you are the only one in the room," she says. "Anything negative said, I took the wrong way; I was so affected by it, as if I were representing the whole race. The pressure I was putting on myself, I became so hypersensitive the first weeks."

The image of a scientist in the American imagination rarely is a woman or an underrepresented minority. Think "Big Bang Theory": The main cohort is all male and, with the exception of one South Asian character, white.  

This lack of community is often cited as a reason talented women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans don’t pursue advanced STEM degrees and instead choose other high-aptitude fields like medicine or law, where the underrepresentation is less acute. 

But by bringing these students together in a structured program with mentors and advisers who have tread similar paths themselves, MSRP hopes to mitigate the distractions of racial or gender isolation so that they can focus on the experience of MIT-level research and consider applying for an advanced degree, whether at MIT or elsewhere.

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Kristin Dettmers, a member of POD 2 who is a rising senior at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona and the first in her family to go to college, has often been told, "You don’t look like a math major." She says, "Pluses and deltas puts your anxieties in perspective. You might think you are the only one not doing well or struggling, but hearing that everyone else is going through the same thing, you don’t feel as alone."

On the board, the pluses include "I got my results and graphed them," "I'm done with my lab equipment training" and "Karaoke night was fun." They are accompanied by deltas such as “I need to work on my time management," "My two supervisors miscommunicate with each other" and "My supervisor is nice, but she doesn’t know how to assist me; she's never had a student before."

Their two graduate advisers, Ehimwenma "Ehi" Nosakhare and Kenton Williams, both MSRP alumni, try to comfort them but also give them straight talk.

Kenton, an African-American who just received his master's from MIT in mechanical engineering, cautions them to distinguish the sort of interpersonal maladroitness that one can often encounter in labs from a potential slight.

Andrew Mendez, a rising junior in computer science at the University of Central Florida, says his father prepared him for the possibility of prejudice. "He told me that there were people who might have preconceptions about me before even getting to know me because of my ethnicity."

But without discounting the ways racism and sexism seep into his advisees' lives, Kenton tells them it’s not always personal. "Sometimes a smart person is just not the best at communicating and teaching," he says. "They're not good at stepping out of their smart bubble." 

The students giggle and exchange knowing looks. Even though MIT celebrates its nerd pride — the slogan is on much of the memorabilia at the university bookstore — STEM students have all encountered the more socially awkward aspects of research culture.

"Being around folks and seeing their day-to-day lives makes this more realistic, tangible. It’s doable," says Chanell Boyd, an African-American in POD 2 who is a rising junior in chemistry at Howard University and loves neon colors.

"If it were impossible, no one would have ever done it before."

The image of a scientist in the American imagination rarely is a woman or an underrepresented minority. Think ‘Big Bang Theory’: The main cohort is all male and, with the exception of one South Asian character, white.

Many have identified the STEM fields as a fundamental part of the solution to the U.S.’s current economic woes.  That includes President Barack Obama, who in the first year of his first term came to MIT to make the point that winning the international race to develop alternative and clean energy would bring Americans new jobs and allow the country to lead the global economy.

The Department of Commerce estimates that STEM occupations will grow 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations between 2008 and 2018. But concerns have been raised about the preparedness of America’s students and workforce in STEM and how this poses a threat to America’s economic future. Currently, the nation’s undergraduates prefer to pursue non-STEM majors at increasing rates.

Even with unemployment levels at 7.40 percent, STEM jobs in the U.S. go unfilled, forcing employers to instead recruit qualified individuals from abroad. According to USCIS data, roughly 80 percent of H-1B visas (issued to non-Americans to come work in the U.S. because they have skills not found in the American population) required high STEM knowledge.

The Obama administration has made increasing American STEM graduates by 1 million in the next decade  a cross-agency priority.  Otherwise, workforce needs in the coming years will far outpace the expected number of graduates.

But those on the front lines of STEM, like MIT, have long understood that success in STEM cannot be achieved without drawing on a key part of the U.S. population: URMs and women. 

For these academic and industry leaders, diversity is not just about economic salvation. Rather, they contend, increasing the presence of women and underrepresented minorities and tapping into their talent is key to innovation — the essence of STEM.

"Without diversity, it's going to be hard to solve problems, to innovate. When you bring different people into the room, you get a different answer to the question being asked," says Monica Maria Orta, who oversees MSRP for the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education. "Any institution is doing itself a disservice if it’s not digging deeper to find brilliant individuals."

Communities, regardless of how they are defined, are not homogenous; for example, certain diseases affect certain ethnicities greatly and others not at all. Diversity in research means that the needs of more communities are being addressed and helped, bringing the gains of STEM advancements to even more people. 

Angelica Gonzalez, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Yale University, cites, for example, how it was a woman engineer who improved neo-natal breathing tubes to allow for breast-feeding. Before, the device, while addressing newborns' respiratory issues, made breast-feeding impossible, depriving them of another need.

"It took a woman to come up with that design," she says.

‘We are on a trajectory where the U.S. will be training the next generation of leaders in STEM for the rest of the world.’

Keivan Stassun

professor, Vanderbilt University

In pursuit of more such potential advancements, MIT has for years sought to recruit and engage students from all ages and backgrounds at all levels, including K–12 students in the Boston area, and indeed many organizations and schools across the U.S. are working to improve American STEM competency from the beginning of children's education.

But the gains of such efforts at the K–12 stage are still at least a generation away. That's in part why at programs like MSRP, the focus is on the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies — a drop-off point in the pipeline when it comes to women and underrepresented minorities — which could yield results sooner. 

"That's where our greatest opportunity lies to make a difference," says Edmund Bertschinger, who headed MIT’s physics department until he became the institute community and equity officer this summer.  "If we can increase URMs with graduate degrees in the STEM fields, we can make a significant impact on our economy, on innovation, and of course on the success of URM populations in the U.S., because the STEM fields offer some of the highest-paying jobs."

One such impact is in helping to ensure that talent cultivated in the U.S. stays in the U.S. The number of Americans and permanent residents pursuing Ph.D.s in STEM, who form the pool of future STEM leaders, has been in decline. In the last 10 years, nearly 40 percent of Ph.D.s awarded from U.S. institutions have gone to international students (a generally upward trend).  While in the past the most lucrative opportunities for these international students were in the U.S., assuring that the investment made in them by American institutions would be reaped by American academia, industry and society, the world has since changed; many now choose to return to their countries of origin and contribute their American-gained skills and training there.

"We very quickly are on a trajectory where the U.S. will be training the next generation of leaders in STEM for the rest of the world, while we continue to fail to tap into a very large segment of our own domestic talent pool — fully one-third of our population," says Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is also a co-director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt masters-to-Ph.D. bridge program, which like MIT's MSRP, is geared toward cultivating these groups in STEM at the advanced level.

Additionally, say proponents of programs that focus on graduate degree recruitment, having underrepresented minorities and women at the top is important to countering STEM-derived inequities that can affect all of society — for example, in terms of research priorities that are set. Similarly, their being on faculty and in graduate programs works to normalizes their presence, countering the stereotypes and helping to free individuals from being seen or feeling as if they have to represent their entire race or gender. 

Both to enter and to continue in the pipeline, explains DiOnetta Jones, dean of MIT’s office of minority education, underrepresented minorities and women need to see people that are like them in terms of race/ethnicity or gender at the end of the pipeline, whether in graduate school, on faculty or in industry.

"It's important for students to have existence proof," she says. 

‘People still think you can’t have excellence and diversity.’

DiOnetta Jones

dean, office of minority education, MIT

For those working on increasing these groups' presence in STEM, the reasons for their absence have less to do with aptitude and more with a failure of STEM pedagogy to adapt or add measures that address or at least mitigate the root problems of underrepresentation. Some of these underlying causes also contribute to the U.S.’s overall STEM retention problem. Indeed, across demographics, 38% of  students in the U.S. who start with a STEM major freshman year do not graduate with one.

Watching the loss of students who have arrived at college with an interest in STEM only to be dissuaded at the undergraduate stage frustrates Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of academic affairs at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington; this fall she will lead a new “Redshirt” program (modeled on a similar initiative at the University of Colorado) aimed at retaining low-income students from underserved high schools in Washington State, which tend to have higher percentages of URMs, by giving them an extra semester or year at the beginning to close any gaps in their skills.

"We see how someone performs at 18 in one or two quarters and then draw a line through them for 40 years," she says. "Does that make the best sense?"

Initiatives targeting underrepresented minorities, like MSRP, are having success, and their architects think that what they've learned in terms of what works could also improve the retention of all U.S. students in STEM. 

Currently, many college and universities approach their freshman introductory STEM classes specifically with a "weed out" mentality, which is part of the problem, explains Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County and co-founder of its highly lauded and successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Though it was originally founded specifically to prepare African American men for the STEM fields, it soon expanded to include women and URMs, and today is open to all. 

Instead of making those introductory courses a sort of sieve, at Meyerhoff, staff focused instead on building community; having faculty that are interested in the students; setting high expectations; getting students involved in research as early as possible; and making sure they do well the first year, emphasizing group work and collaboration.

These practices track closely with those the National Science Foundation has identified as promising practices for improving American STEM undergraduate education in general.

But putting measures in place to address the concerns of underrepresentation can mean treading on the hyper-emotional territory associated with debates around affirmative action, meaning that the contributions to the conversation about STEM education in general get lost in the noise. 

"There's been a serious recognition on behalf of industry and universities that we can't afford to miss out on any student who could do great work on STEM," says Jones. "But people still think you can’t have excellence and diversity."

‘I had to defend why I belonged at MIT.’

Irene Blat

MSRP alumna

In February 2012, during MIT’s 150th year, a white male senior in management and political science penned a full-page guest column in the university’s weekly paper, The Tech, titled "After 150 years, MIT is heading in the wrong direction with affirmative action."

In it, he argued that the "agenda actively pursued … to dramatically increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in the student and faculty body at MIT, and thereby to attempt to increase nationwide participation by the same in STEM fields is … eroding not only the meritocracy at MIT, but the quality of experience that these same females, minority students and faculty experience here."

The article set off a storm of response in the paper and social media and on campus. The university sponsored forums for people to further the discussion.

Irene Blat, a Latina and MSRP alumna who received her Ph.D. in genetics from MIT this year, still bristles at the column’s assertion that it was the diversity efforts that were negatively impacting the experience of women and underrepresented minorities at MIT, rather than the comments like those the author himself had made.

"It seemed that as soon as he said it he made everyone think that, even if they had not before. A lot of people asked me what I thought. I had to defend why I belonged at MIT for a few days, which detracted from my work and certainly took up a lot of extra time," she says.

The effects of this kind of stereotyping have been studied by social psychologists and have been determined to affect performance. 

"Having to be in that position where you feel you have to prove over and over that you don’t fit the stereotype takes resources away from doing well or answering that question in the classroom," explains Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington whose work focuses on stereotyping in STEM. "When you enter a situation where you think everyone is doubting you, it is harder."

For those trying to increase URM and female participation in STEM, it also aggravates their task. According to Cheryan, "Are you welcomed?" can be just as, if not more, important than "Can you hack it?" in deciding to pursue a field.

"Some say the real tragedy is we are training these smart students who have worked so hard and could change the world, but get to a point where they can’t do it anymore," says Cheryan.  "So if we are not fixing this at the top level, what is the point?"

‘MSRP helped me get myself out of my shell.’

Andrew Mendez

MSRP participant

Nine weeks after they first arrived at MIT, having spent the summer inside research labs, the MSRP summer interns get to show off: It's poster session day. Each student has created a three-by-four-foot poster that communicates in pictures, graphs, texts and formulas the work they've accomplished. Members of the MIT and Boston STEM communities will spend the next two hours weaving through the maze of stands of posters, meeting the interns and engaging them about their work.

In the bathroom and hallways outside the Marriott ballroom where the event will take place, MSRP interns, dressed up and looking more than nine weeks older, are giving themselves pep talks and rehearsing answers to the inquiries they anticipate receiving. One practices relaxation breathing, as the word comes that it’s time.

"They're feeling a mix of emotions," says Ehi Nosakhare, one of the graduate advisers from POD 2 and a MS/Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer science.  "They want someone to talk to them, but they're also nervous — can they answer all the questions?"

One of her advisees, Chanell Boyd, is busy with visitors, explaining her research on thermal stability.  She is somberly dressed in black slacks, white shirt and pearls. But true to her personal style, she's painted her nails lavender. Her research group has already invited her back for next summer, and she has decided she will not apply to medical school and will pursue graduate school in STEM instead. Her experience at MSRP convinced her.

"Interacting with those who do it changed my mind. I thought that it would be hard, and that I can’t hang out with friends, but people in academia have a life; my research group would grab a beer after work," she says, making sure to add that because she's underage, she didn't join them.

On the other side of the room, Andrew Mendez, also from POD 2, is giving a demo of his project, creating a shared 3D virtual workspace for remote collaborative review.  "It’s been a tough, hard journey," he says, "but a lot of good pressure. I can really discourage myself because of past experiences I’ve had; MSRP helped me get myself out of my shell."  He too says he will apply to graduate school and hopes to come back to MIT.

Many of the interns and alumni credit the mentorship and personalized attention they received at MSRP for the success of the program.

Kristen Dettmers's summer research was about numerical solutions to an equation that models the motion of walking droplets. Her time at MSRP convinced her she wants to pursue a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, even though when she first arrived, she says, she was intimidated. But now, going back to a class-based environment and not being in the lab every day will be strange.

"Here, I wasn't going to lab because I was trying to earn a grade," she says. "I was trying to discover something."

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