Despite the best of intentions, many programs designed to prepare minority undergraduates for advanced scientific training have had uneven results. Some have been unclear about whether their goal is to produce scientists or just to help minority students graduate. Others have been inadequately funded or lacked institutional commitment; many have never been evaluated rigorously.
Some programs do succeed in helping minority students graduate and pursue scientific careers. Examples include programs at Xavier University of Louisiana, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Although different in important respects, these programs share key features, such as clearly articulated objectives, strong institutional commitment, effective mentors and an emphasis on building community among participants.
All are being carried out in a legal environment that has become increasingly complex. The University of California, for example, now operates under a state law that forbids using state funds for special programs for minority students. In other states, court cases have led colleges and universities to redesign or even drop such programs. HHMI has assisted thousands of minority students through its undergraduate biological sciences education program by awarding more than $476 million to 232 colleges and universities. In 1998, it began requiring its grantees to certify that they are complying with all relevant laws in the conduct of these programs.
Eugene Cota-Robles, cochair of the task force that commissioned the College Board report, says colleges and universities must do more to help minority
students become scientific leaders. "Up to now, everyone working on the pipeline approach has been thinking that bringing more students into college would solve the problem," he says. Cota-Robles, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, calls for more effort to help minority students move beyond the bachelor's degree.
Corey Goodman, codirector of the Biology Scholars Program at UC Berkeley, says the emphasis should be on "taking great students and helping them succeed." At large universities such as UC Berkeley, even well-qualified minority students may lose their confidence amid impersonal introductory courses in crowded lecture rooms during their first and second years. "The best thing we can do," says Goodman, a neuroscientist and HHMI investigator, "is to give these students mentoring and professional advice to help them see where they are headed and then offer them an environment in which they can identify themselves as biologists."
Programs such as UC Berkeley's and UMBC's are models for others to "learn from and promulgate," Cota-Robles
suggests. Campuses differ in their goals, however, such as whether to focus on the minority students most likely to succeed, even if they come disproportionately from affluent families, or to reach out to a broader group that includes students whose paths may be rockier.
Jacob Varkey, who heads a program at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, argues for the latter strategy. "There are talented individuals who, because of circumstances beyond their control, have never had a chance to showcase their abilities," he argues. "Everyone should have an opportunity to realize their potential."
Merna Villarejo, who runs a program at the University of California, Davis, agrees, saying that a more inclusive approach opens the door for students such as Brandon Willis, whose weak math skills initially barred him from the UC Davis program. Today, after Villarejo took a chance on Willis, he is a Ph.D. candidate studying protein regulation at the University of Washington. His goal is to teach at a small college where he can mentor students. "Minority students fall through the cracks all the time, and professors don't often look at them and say, 'You might need an opportunity,'" Willis says. "That can make all the difference in the world."
Increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science is a
"seemingly intractable task"but it can be accomplished, says Peter MacLeish, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and director of the Neuroscience Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. The "necessary precursors to any solution," he says, are "sound academic advice, rewarding extracurricular experiences and solid foundations in mathematics, reasoning and writing."
On the following pages, the Bulletin examines what three universitiesin Alabama, California and Marylandare doing to help minority undergraduates succeed and profiles a Chicago program that seeks to interest inner-city students in science long before they even finish high school.
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
May 2001, pages 28-33.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute