Vaunted diversity program catches on

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Science  26 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6451, pp. 308-309
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6451.308

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Three decades after it began, the most successful program in the United States for preparing minority students for careers in academic research is beginning to be replicated on a large scale. The next challenge for universities and funders will be to remain true to the program while tailoring it to their own circumstances.

In September, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, will announce a competition to fund as many as six research universities that want to embrace an approach pioneered at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County (UMBC). The 1150-and-counting alumni of its Meyerhoff Scholars Program, 71% of whom are black or Hispanic, have already earned 312 Ph.D.s, 59 joint M.D./Ph.D.s, and 141 M.D.s, and some 40 now hold tenured or tenure-track positions.

Programs to foster diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are common at U.S. universities, where black people and Hispanics each make up only about 4% of all tenured faculty. But they often target students from underrepresented groups who might otherwise struggle to earn an undergraduate degree. And they tend to be limited to one discipline or a single college within a university. Meyerhoff, in contrast, aims to prepare students to become leaders in academic science across all fields.

Six years ago, its enviable record prompted HHMI to give two schools—Pennsylvania State University in State College and the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill—a $7.7 million grant to work with UMBC to create a Meyerhoff-like program on their campuses. This spring, the two schools reported that the first graduates from those programs had done even better than UMBC's initial cohorts in earning undergraduate degrees and starting graduate training (Science, 26 April, p. 335). Now, HHMI hopes to broaden that success as part of a new initiative tentatively called Driving Change that will give institutions up to $2.5 million apiece over 5 years in seed money.

HHMI is not the only funder trying to spread the word about Meyerhoff. In April, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) announced a $6.9 million award to two University of California (UC) schools, Berkeley and San Diego, to work with UMBC to create their own versions. The grant aims to address the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley's hightech workforce—a goal reflecting the roots of CZI, a Redwood City, California, philanthropic company founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife.

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Former Meyerhoff scholar Talmesha Richards (left) talks with Robert Meyerhoff, the program's benefactor (right), at a gala for its 30th anniversary (top).


“Berkeley places more people in Silicon Valley tech companies than any other university in the country,” says neurobiologist Cori Bargmann, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York City and CZI's head of science. “And there is a real shortage of perspectives and viewpoints in that sector. So our goal is to create scientific leaders in industry as well as in medicine and academia.”

Meyerhoff's approach to creating that leadership is to target high-achieving students bent on an academic career. “We didn't just want students who could make it through the program” and earn an undergraduate degree, says Freeman Hrabowski, the longtime UMBC president who launched the Meyerhoff program in 1989. “We wanted them to do so well that they'd be excited about going to graduate school and becoming Ph.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s and M.D.s,” says Hrabowski, a mathematician who notes he was often the only black student in his math classes.

To help others follow its lead, Meyerhoff has distilled its approach into 13 essential elements. They include providing significant financial aid to its hand-picked students, offering tutoring and career counseling and opportunities to do research, building a parents' support network, and instilling an esprit de corps. The 6-week summer bridge program, for example, requires students to wear nametags and introduce themselves before answering in class. To foster teamwork, they study in small groups—and their grade is based on the performance of the lowest scoring group.

David Asai of HHMI says its new initiative will complement a broader existing program that aims to foster institutional changes to make all students feel welcome in pursuing undergraduate degrees in STEM fields. Meyerhoff-style programs “will only be successful within an environment that is inclusive,” Asai says. Some 57 schools participate in the existing initiative, called Inclusive Excellence, and a third competition now underway could add an additional 30 or so institutions.

One reason Meyerhoff has been slow to catch on is the expense. At UMBC, the initiative costs $4.2 million a year, more than many universities are willing to commit. An award-winning diversity program serving life science majors at UC Berkeley since 1992 costs $2000 per student, according to biologist John Matsui, who runs it. The university's new CZI-funded Meyerhoff-influenced program, he estimates, will cost $50,000 per student.

But money isn't the only obstacle. Penn State and UNC officials say they also had to overcome the not-invented-here syndrome, in which a program developed elsewhere is automatically seen to have fatal flaws. Shifting scarce resources into a new diversity effort can also alienate faculty members and staff who run existing programs with similar goals, officials point out. And some faculty continue to believe that students from underrepresented groups cannot excel in science or face too many obstacles to succeed.

Yet fidelity to the Meyerhoff model has been the key to success at Penn State and UNC, says Michael Summers, a UMBC biology professor and longtime adviser to the program. “There have probably been a dozen schools that have gotten funding to do what they say is replicating Meyerhoff, but they really aren't,” says Summers, who is also an HHMI investigator and the corresponding author of the Science paper on replication. “Instead, they have taken bits and pieces that they could afford to do. But nobody has reported the outcomes we have had, until Penn State and UNC.”

Even so, the Meyerhoff model allows for considerable flexibility, believes Gentry Patrick, a black professor of neurobiology who created a diversity program 2 years ago at UC San Diego, called Pathway to STEM, that is the basis for the replication project being funded by CZI. “There's a Venn diagram that includes what philanthropists, what the community, what the university, and what the students can contribute,” Patrick explains. “And I'm looking for where the overlaps are.”

“We need to build on programs like Meyerhoff,” Patrick adds. “But if we had already figured it out, there would be a lot more full professors in neuroscience who are minorities. So there needs to be innovation, too.”

What's most important, Summers says, is that universities abandon the idea that only UMBC can successfully operate a Meyerhoff program because it has the ebullient and forceful Hrabowski as its champion.

“Yes, you need someone who says that [replication] is an institutional priority, to evaluate where the institution is now and what level of commitment is necessary,” Summers says. “Freeman showed us how to do all of that. Now, it's up to other universities to make it happen.”

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