Bridge From Bachelor's to Ph.D.

When Keivan Stassun arrived at Vanderbilt University’s department of physics and astronomy in 2003 as an assistant professor, he saw neighboring, historically black Fisk University as an obvious collaborator. The two institutions are two miles apart in Nashville. “Look, we have two good things here and they’re practically touching," he recalls thinking. "There must be something we can do with what we’ve got.”

March 26, 2010

When Keivan Stassun arrived at Vanderbilt University’s department of physics and astronomy in 2003 as an assistant professor, he saw neighboring, historically black Fisk University as an obvious collaborator. The two institutions are two miles apart in Nashville. “Look, we have two good things here and they’re practically touching," he recalls thinking. "There must be something we can do with what we’ve got.”

Fisk had a successful physics program that produced more terminal master’s degrees for black students than any other U.S. institution, and Vanderbilt had good Ph.D. programs in physics, astronomy and materials science that produced very few minority graduates. Stassun’s idea “was very granular and very proximal,” he recalls: “Let’s help those students get from the master’s to the Ph.D.”

In the fall of 2004, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program took in its first five students. Since then, another 30 have enrolled, all from groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. (Just three of the students are white, and all are women.) One student has finished his doctorate; two dozen more have earned their master’s degrees and are working on Ph.D.s. The program is getting attention -- and was discussed at a Congressional hearing this month -- as an example of how minority-serving institutions and top research universities can work together just as many experts worry about the lack of diversity in the science pipeline.

But when the program started, the whole thing seemed like a big risk to many. Among those concerned: Richard McCarty, who was dean of Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science at the time and is now provost. “Keivan Stassun broke all the traditional rules for a junior faculty member,” McCarty says. “Don’t do too much service, don’t do too much to distract from your research and your teaching.”

Not to mention that the students were far from certain to succeed. “These are not students that we poached from some other program,” says Stassun, who co-directs the program with Arnold Burger, vice provost for academic initiatives at Fisk. “They represent a real value added to the national production of Ph.D.s in science. Without this option, they would have pursued another option entirely” and not earned doctorates.

Thus far, however, just three students have dropped out of the program.

And last week, Stassun yet again showed McCarty that the risk had been worth taking, as he testified before the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science and Education. In his testimony, he encouraged the panel to introduce or redefine grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies to reward programs aimed at bringing minority students into STEM fields. It was only after winning a $1 million National Science Foundation grant in 2004 that he was able to launch the bridge program, he says. “Scientists are entrepreneurial and will go where the money is.”

Ansley Abraham, director of the Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholars Program, says he agrees with Stassun’s approach. “The money drives the research and drives the initiatives … but there also has to be some kind of accountability that people are actually doing what they write in their grants.”

“One would have to look pretty hard,” he adds, to find other institution-based programs like the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge.

Giving Students a Chance

The bridge program puts more students in the pipeline and supports them through it. Burger describes it as “a mentoring program for those who need extra preparation, extra mentoring” between college and a Ph.D. program. Without the program, many likely would have chosen to enter the workforce after earning bachelor’s or terminal master’s degrees. Students in the bridge program typically spend two years working toward a master's at Fisk before moving on to a doctoral program at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.

Underrepresented minorities are 50 percent more likely than their peers to earn terminal master’s degrees before getting Ph.D.'s in STEM fields, and Stassun says the reasons have to do with confidence and availability. The leading producers of black and Latino bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields are minority-serving institutions that, Stassun says, “perhaps do not have the full breadth of undergraduate curricular offerings” to prepare students for doctoral programs, so students turn to terminal master’s programs as a way to make themselves more competitive before applying for Ph.D.s. Others see it as “kind of a hedging of your bets,” he says, in case they’re never able to make it to a Ph.D. program.

A second-year master's student in the program, Stacey Lawrence, who graduated from Clark University in 2008, spent the summer before her senior year at the University of New Hampshire through the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate. There, she was advised to consider getting a terminal master’s degree before a Ph.D. so that she could strengthen her foundational knowledge of biology. The Fisk-Vanderbilt program was one of two bridge programs she found.

Terminal master’s degrees have also “been a major growth industry” at many minority-serving institutions, Stassun says, noting that many such programs have nearly doubled in the last decade or so. The number of minority students earning master’s degrees in the physical sciences and engineering from minority-serving institutions rose from 119 in 1987 to 753 in 2006, according to NSF data. But the numbers who go further than the terminal master’s are small. In 2008, American universities awarded Ph.D.s in physics to just 12 black U.S. citizens, out of 905 awarded to U.S. citizens of any race that year.

Erica Morgan, an African-American woman who grew up in Nashville and went to a magnet high school there, majored in physics at Tennessee State University but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do afterward. She was thinking about jobs, or graduate school, or taking time off, but it wasn’t until she met Stassun that she seriously considered the path to a Ph.D.

Stassun, who along with his colleagues attends undergraduate research meetings to find students to recruit, encouraged her to apply to the bridge program and helped her figure out what to study. Morgan needed guidance and support, both of which Stassun could give. “I use the term 'young' because I don’t have another word to describe the naïveté of coming out of undergrad,” she says.

He helped her spend the summer after college graduation working in a Boston University space weather and solar physics lab. “I had a purely physics background and didn’t know anything about astronomy.” Now it’s her passion and her field of study as she works on finishing her master’s thesis at Fisk and waits to hear if she’s been admitted to Vanderbilt’s astronomy Ph.D. program.

After earning her doctorate, she’d like to spend some time working in Washington on science policy before taking a faculty job.

The promise of new minority faculty members in STEM fields excites McCarty, Vanderbilt’s provost, who thinks the program’s graduates will be role models for future generations of minority students. “These are disciplines where it’s been very difficult to affect the diversity of students, but when you have a professor who knows the challenges you face, it can help.” A study released earlier this month by Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute suggests that black college students are more likely to persist in science majors if they have at least one black science instructor.

Stassun -- whose mother emigrated from Mexico -- and many of the Fisk faculty involved in the program are themselves underrepresented minorities, and empathetic to the issues such students face in the classroom and beyond.

The program’s first graduate, Oluseyi Stephen Babalola, a Nigerian immigrant, is now influencing students of his own. After successfully defending his dissertation, "Surface and Bulk Defects in Cadmium Zinc Telluride and Cadmium Manganese Telluride Crystals,” he started work in December as a research professor at Alabama A&M University, a historically black institution. This semester, he’s teaching 27 students in an introductory class on nuclear engineering.

His path to a faculty job was never a sure thing. In the spring of 2004, he was finishing a master’s degree in materials science at Fisk and looking for a job, and though he “liked the idea of a Ph.D.,” it seemed out of reach. He had seen people who were smart and hard-working drop out of their programs and didn’t think he was any more likely to make it through. “Just because of the general opinion about the Ph.D. in science -- it’s tough, you won’t have any other life, you’ll have to work forever – I thought it wasn’t for me.”

His adviser was Burger, a physics professor who was helping Stassun develop the bridge program. “He talked to me about Vanderbilt, said it’s not as hard as you think,” Babalola says. “I kind of reluctantly applied and was accepted due merely to his strong recommendation and the research experiences I had at Fisk.”

The bridge program, Stassun insists, isn’t a way for underqualified students to get into STEM Ph.D. programs at Vanderbilt. “We deliberately decided that we did not want the bridge to be a back door into Vanderbilt. Students have to feel and be seen as having merited being admitted to the Ph.D. program.”

Most of the students who finish Fisk master’s degrees through the program, though, do continue across the bridge to Vanderbilt. As was the case for Babalola, the interconnectedness of the faculties at the two institutions is an asset as admissions committees try to decide between students with similar grade point averages and G.R.E. scores.

Some have gone elsewhere, too, but not because they didn’t get into Vanderbilt. One Fisk graduate is working on her Ph.D. at Yale University and another is at the University of Chicago.


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