To Michael Summers, boosting diversity in the science community requires creating the right conditions: assembling a group of high-achieving students, insisting they set high goals for themselves, and giving them early research experience and mentoring. “It’s about taking students who we think have the best chances of becoming tomorrow’s leaders, and making sure that they’re not lost in the process,” says Summers, an HHMI investigator and director of the HHMI Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
The Scholars program, which began in 2002, was modeled on UMBC’s successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which has supported hundreds of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences and is cited as a model for boosting minority participation in science and engineering graduate programs. Undergraduates are matched with research labs and provided the support that creates an expectation of achievement. As Summers—a longtime mentor in the Meyerhoff program—likes to point out, Meyerhoff Scholars are five times more likely to enter graduate school and twice as likely to have science careers as those who were offered the scholarships but declined.
The HHMI Scholars Program nurtures students during their vulnerable first and second years and explains science careers to the students’ families. It also requires the students to do research outside of UMBC in the labs of HHMI scientists, with some students participating in HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). And the results have matched those high expectations: 33 of the 35 students who have graduated so far have enrolled in a biomedical graduate or professional program.
With the new HHMI grant, UMBC will increase the number of HHMI Scholars from seven to nine per year. Summers expects to spend even more of his time helping other universities establish similar programs. Many schools have high-achieving students from underrepresented minority groups who want to become scientists but don’t know how to make it happen. “A lot of people are interested in setting up a culture in which students know that excellence is expected of them.”