Initiative to expand Ph.D. student diversity in STEM graduate programs has lasting positive effects

A study that looked at 10-year outcomes of the Initiative to Maximize Student Development showed that it increased diversity within academic programs and prepared underrepresented students for successful careers in STEM.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For more than a decade, leaders of the Initiative to Maximize Student Development at Brown University have worked not only to expand diversity among doctoral students in the University’s science, technology, engineering and math programs, but also to propel the career success of underrepresented students over the long term — in effect, increasing diversity in STEM on a much larger scale.

A new study in the Journal for STEM Education Research shows that the program is doing exactly that.

The report details the 10-year outcomes of implementing practices that support success of underrepresented students in STEM graduate programs at Brown through the IMSD. The results show sustained improvement in compositional diversity, retention and degree attainment of students in the program relative to their peers. They also show the success of participants in publishing studies, securing national fellowships and finding job placements in the biomedical, behavioral and physical sciences.

IMSD leaders say the study offers empirical evidence of the initiative’s positive effect over time, a key factor for the sustainability of both IMSD and for initiatives to diversify the sciences in general, said Andrew G. Campbell, dean of Brown’s Graduate School and the paper’s corresponding author.

“It’s important to note how this study shows quantitative outcomes not just in a moment in time, but over a decade, which is near equivalent to two generations of doctoral students,” said Campbell, who has co-directed the program since its inception.

Campbell said the success of IMSD in building and supporting a more diverse community of scholars is illustrative of the University’s broader commitment through its ambitious Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and diversity and inclusion initiatives at the Graduate School.

As the study notes: “The outcomes described result from long-term commitments to building a culture that includes the development of relationships that serve underrepresented students, the provision of a personalized education program of support and skills-based learning that supplements discipline-based research and coursework, and investments in processes that build a culture that values and benefits from diversity.”

Diversifying STEM Ph.D. programs

The launch of IMSD in 2008 was initiated by work that Campbell and Nancy Thompson, a professor emerita who was then the associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies, piloted in the Division of Biology and Medicine to increase diversity across graduate programs. It was based on the success of diversity initiatives in the pathobiology program, which Campbell directed.

Because racial and ethnic minorities comprise the least-represented groups in STEM fields, the pair designed IMSD programming to address potential gaps in background preparation as well as practices to increase participants’ sense of belonging.

“We had an initial goal to double the matriculation of underrepresented Ph.D. students, particularly racial and ethnic minorities among the doctoral programs in the Division of Biology and Medicine,” said Thompson, co-author of the new study. “To do that, we had to reach out to partner institutions from which we might draw students, and we needed to put in place a really good support system for advising and creating a sense of community among the students.”

Inequities are what lead to underrepresentation in STEM, and they begin with unequal and differential access to educational resources, support and opportunities. When inequities are eliminated, as through the work we’ve been doing with Brown IMSD, the success of underrepresented students becomes indistinguishable from the success of their peers.

Andrew G. Campbell Co-director of the Initiative to Maximize Student Development
Andrew G. Campbell

They developed a strategy that included creating partnerships with undergraduate institutions with high enrollments among students historically underrepresented in higher education and involved fellow Graduate School faculty members in managing partnerships and training and mentoring admitted students. IMSD participants, or “trainees,” receive financial support from the program as well as a unique advising plan. They take training modules, or mini-courses, that build the skills needed for success in doctoral studies, such as designing and delivering scientific presentations and analyzing statistical data.

After the 2008-09 academic year, the first year of the program, the percent of underrepresented students in Brown’s biology and medicine Ph.D. programs, including the public health disciplines, climbed to 19% from a 2005-06 rate of 12%.

That early approach and program success still serves as the basis of the program, funded through 2020 by a grant from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences. In 2017, the scope of the program expanded to serve all science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate programs at Brown.

IMSD trainees are students from underrepresented groups who have been determined by graduate program leaders to benefit from participation in IMSD activities. Although the majority of trainees are from racial and ethnic minority groups, students from other NIH-defined underrepresented groups have been represented in the program. Participants are identified from incoming and early-stage Ph.D. cohorts now spanning 24 graduate programs across the University. From 2008 to 2018, 31 students were supported by IMSD with 28 receiving a Ph.D. degree and three earning a master's degree.

For data collection purposes in the new study, the IMSD program directors matched enrolled trainees to 122 non-IMSD trainees by year of entry and Ph.D. program at Brown. Only 13% (four of 31) IMSD trainees received their undergraduate degrees from major research institutions, compared to 40% (48 of 122) of the matched cohort.

Measurable results

An earlier evaluation of IMSD, published in 2013 in CBE-Life Sciences Education, showed how the program significantly improved enrollment and performance of underrepresented students in twelve life sciences doctoral programs at Brown over four years.

What this new study captures, Campbell said, is the successes of 31 participants who have completed their graduate programs and have achieved academic performance relative to their matched peers.

The study shows that from 2008 to 2018, overall student diversity in Brown’s STEM graduate programs increased from 19% (35 of 179 students in the programs were from historically underrepresented groups) to 26% (58 of 223 students). The proportion of Ph.D. degrees awarded to students from historically underrepresented groups in biomedical programs over that same period also increased, from 4% (one student out of 25 total) to 14% (six students out of 44), which is well above the national average of 8%.

Compared to biomedical students not enrolled in the program (the matched cohort), IMSD trainees earned their Ph.D. degrees and garnered national fellowships at similar rates. They also published the same number of manuscripts: an average of 2.9 publications per student for both trainees and members of the matched cohort.

By demonstrating commitment and support to students, we hope to bolster confidence in their own ability to succeed in the sciences so that they have the time, energy and focus to do the things they need to do to achieve their Ph.D., conduct their research and launch their career.

Elizabeth Harrington Co-director of the Initiative to Maximize Student Development
Elizabeth Harrington

IMSD provides “supportive scaffolding” to help students achieve their academic goals, Campbell said.

“The data show that when given adequate time and support, all students, regardless of entry credentials like GRE scores or undergraduate university affiliation, can reach that potential,” he said.

Campbell said IMSD was inspired by his own experiences as a researcher and educator in the sciences.

“Much of my thinking about the program is based on lifelong observations and personal experience,” he said. “Inequities are what lead to underrepresentation in STEM, and they begin with unequal and differential access to educational resources, support and opportunities. When inequities are eliminated, as through the work we’ve been doing with Brown IMSD, the success of underrepresented students becomes indistinguishable from the success of their peers.”

After IMSD

Courtni Newsome was a member of the inaugural IMSD class, earning her Brown Ph.D. degree in 2008. One of the things she most appreciated about the IMSD program was that it included education not just about the sciences, but about working as a scientist.

“We were taught soft skills such as public speaking, presenting research, communicating with non-scientists and other things that you don’t usually learn in the classroom,” said Newsome, now a senior principal scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “These are definitely skills I have been able to use in my career as a pharmaceutical researcher.”

Newsome studied chemistry at Tougaloo University, a historically black school with a longstanding partnership with Brown, and then switched her focus to pathobiology while pursuing a Ph.D. at Brown. She said that the combination of coming from a historically underrepresented group and starting fresh in the field of biology resulted in some feelings of impostor syndrome. Those anxieties, on top of the challenges faced by all early-career scientists — things like securing funding, finding a mentor, learning about available resources — could have been a distraction, she said. In IMSD, she found peer connections, faculty support and confidence in her own knowledge, skills and experiences.

“Having the support of the IMSD program made me feel like I had the necessary skills to move forward in my career,” she said. “It really did make me feel like I could do what I sent my mind to.”

That is part of the mission of IMSD, said Elizabeth Harrington, who has co-directed the program with Campbell since 2012 and is a co-author on the new study.

“By demonstrating commitment and support to students, we hope to bolster confidence in their own ability to succeed in the sciences so that they have the time, energy and focus to do the things they need to do to achieve their Ph.D., conduct their research and launch their career,” said Harrington, associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in the Division of Biology and Medicine.

Harrington said the study results offer quantitative proof of what she has witnessed while working with current and past IMSD trainees. She says that seeing students submitting high-impact research papers, presenting at scientific meetings and conferences, offering seminars and interacting with the scientific community are all signs of the program’s long-term effectiveness. The period during which students are financially supported by the IMSD grant is relatively short, Harrington pointed out. “But the community they create with others in the program, fellow trainees as well as faculty — that lasts beyond their time here.”

Teresa Ramírez, another member of the first class of IMSD graduates, cites the program’s community of scholars as one of the most impactful benefits of the program. Ramírez, who earned her doctorate in molecular pharmacology and physiology from Brown, is now the manager of member communities for the American Physiological Society. She says she’s still in touch with some peers, fellow trainees and faculty from IMSD. Ramírez grew up in Compton, California, where she attended public school. She said that she felt like she belonged at Brown even before she started, thanks to outreach efforts by Campbell and others that included a one-day "Super Monday" campus visit specifically designed for graduate students from underrepresented groups.

“Some of us in the program had similar experiences, like being the first in our families to go to college, and it helps to be a part of a community that can relate to where you’re from and the challenges you might be facing,” Ramírez said.

Ramírez also valued how IMSD provided trainees the opportunity to serve as leaders — for example, to mentor other students and present courses on key IMSD topics like, Demystifying the Ph.D. Experience.

“That course was really important for me to take as a student, and then, a year later, to lead with another peer,” Ramírez said.

Alumni records show that after graduating with a Ph.D. from Brown, other ISMD trainees have continued to work in the sciences: 9% of graduates are biostatisticians, 14% work in the biomedical industry, 57% secured postdoctoral fellowships and 10% became tenure-track assistant professors. All IMSD program alumni are employed in fields using their degrees in their area of training, according to the study authors.

Campbell said that the results can be viewed almost as a midpoint of the program: “We’ve previously seen the impact of IMSD on enrollment and attainment, and now we have examples of performance over time,” he said.

He also believes that some the practices of the IMSD program may yield similar outcomes and success for students when applied in other advanced degree training programs at Brown, as well as at other institutions.

“These results show sustainability, they show that this kind of support of historically underrepresented students is becoming institutionalized and is continuing after the students enroll at the University,” he said. “I see the results as a step in the right direction.”

The NIGMS grant supporting IMSD is R25GM083270.