Adapting the Meyerhoff Model: A Q&A with Clif Poodry

         Clifton Poodry was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian Reservation near Buffalo, NY. As a teen, he worked as a farmhand and busboy, and paid for college by painting houses and cooking in restaurants each summer. With PhD in hand, he became a developmental biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1994, he joined the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to lead its efforts to improve diversity in the biomedical research workforce.

            After retiring from the NIH in 2014, Poodry joined HHMI as a senior fellow for science education. He is helping to lead the Meyerhoff Adaptation Project, a collaboration between HHMI and three institutions—the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Pennsylvania State University. The aim is to bring more underrepresented minorities into the upper ranks of math and science. The five-year effort will evaluate elements of the successful UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program, as well as the effectiveness of new pilot programs at the other schools.

What is the Meyerhoff Adaptation Project?

Diversity is an important foundational problem for the future of biomedical research. It’s also a challenging, complex puzzle that others have struggled with. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC has been quite successful, and you might have expected that people would just duplicate it. But that hasn’t happened. We’d like to understand why and see what we can do about it. What does it take to have this model adapted more broadly? Can we understand some of the dynamics of what motivates institutions to do something like this? Equally importantly, can we learn how the program works and provide that information to others? Those are some of the questions we want to address over the next five years at UMBC, Penn State, and UNC.

What attracted you to HHMI after retiring from the NIH?

The opportunity to come to HHMI to focus on and understand specific approaches to develop talent was a dream come true. Across the country, non-minority students graduate in science and go on to PhDs at roughly twice the rate of minority students. But minority students start out just as interested. That tells us that the problem lies in what we call their persistence to a degree in science, the rate at which they decide to go on to graduate school. Collectively, we want to help develop programs that change that ratio as they have at UMBC, where minority students go into graduate school at the same rate as non-minority students.

How can you help institutions implement programs like the Meyerhoff on their campuses?

There are two questions we have to ask. First, are these institutions interested in starting a program like this? I believe that most schools are, but two things hold them back: they are thinking about cost to benefit and wondering whether the program will generate measurable outcomes.

Second, is it doable? We don’t know. We have to figure out whether this program depends on the singular leadership of the president of UMBC, Freeman Hrabowski—a dynamic figure, he is himself an African American with a background in math and has been in his position for some time. Is it him? Or is it the model, the individual activities, the staff, the region? We need to answer those questions so other institutions can’t use the excuse that they don’t have a Freeman Hrabowski. Part of it is to demonstrate proof of principle beyond just having one magnificent leader.

What’s our starting point? In other words, what do we know now about why the Meyerhoff Program works so well?

The first thing UMBC did was to look at outcomes, but they got a little bit of pushback from people who said, ‘Of course you have good outcomes; you have selected good students.’ So over a period of six or eight years, they did additional measurements to show that, in fact, the program added value: students who turned down the Meyerhoff Program and attended a different prestigious university did not stay in the sciences at the same rate. The UMBC group published several papers describing those results. But for the most part, these studies have been about determining what elements are associated with good outcomes. Associations don’t equal causality.

How closely are the Penn State and UNC programs modeled after Meyerhoff?

In the best of all worlds, Meyerhoff would be replicated exactly. But they are different institutions, with different histories, different faculty, and even different expectations of the students. Part of the Adaptation Project is to ask in what ways the schools deviated from the Meyerhoff method and then evaluate how the results work out. We will start collecting data on that in real time. We can’t wait five years until the cohort graduates to see what worked or didn’t, what elements of the program are influencing students. We want to understand how they are doing as sophomores, based on the first-year activities.

-- Sarah Goforth
HHMI Bulletin, Spring 2014

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