Boosting Science with Diversity

Roy Llewellyn’s path to becoming a materials scientist was anything but typical. A first-generation American-born son of Jamaican immigrants, Roy made it through high school in Fontana, California, with a dream of becoming an engineer. His grades, though, couldn’t get him into California’s flagship system, and all four colleges that accepted him were hundreds or thousands of miles away, most on the East Coast.

His final choice ended up a fortunate one. “For my acceptance into Morehouse, I was originally supposed to be a part of the marching band,” Llewellyn says, which came with a partial scholarship. So he accepted and traveled thousands of miles to the Historically-Black all-male college in Atlanta, where he intended to pursue an education in one of the STEM fields, which is shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and math.

African-American college graduate.
Students of color face many trials on their way to a career in STEM.

But during his freshman year, he discovered that the band scholarship wasn’t enough, so he cast about for more support, eventually finding it in a scholarship program designed to guide Black men into graduate study in STEM. After he improved his GPA, he was granted acceptance into the program.

However, tragedy struck not long after his acceptance. In February 2009, Roy was diagnosed with Stage III intermediate testicular cancer. He was forced to take a lengthy leave of absence from college study to endure five grueling months of chemotherapy and treatment. The cancer went into remission later that year, but his unpaid tuition bills quickly stacked up, and re-entering school proved daunting.

Bridging the Gap

Llewellyn’s story is an extreme version of the trials that many young scientists of color face. The struggle begins in elementary school, where Blacks, Latinos, and other children of color often face substantial science achievement gaps that widen throughout high school. College students of color, especially those who may have been born in school districts that are short on resources, are often left to bridge these gaps on their own. On top of that, students of color must also navigate social pressures, financial struggles, and bouts of isolation that are, on average, greater than those of their white counterparts, according to research by Deborah Faye Carter, an associate professor of education at Claremont Graduate University.

In STEM, the problems are magnified. Colleges and universities struggle to retain students of any background who were initially interested in STEM. Students who start out in STEM programs have substantially lower graduation rates than their peers in other fields, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Five-year graduation rates among all racial and ethnic groups are up to 20% lower for STEM majors. Furthermore, a study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that half of all students who initially declared a STEM major left the field before graduation by either changing majors or dropping out.

There are a variety of barriers in higher education that contribute to long graduation times and lower retention in STEM for all students, including the difficulty of math classes, lack of mentoring and advisement, lack of preparedness, narrowness of studies, and the “easy money” attraction of some other majors.

If the challenges in STEM are acute among all students, they affect underrepresented students the most. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, among students who finish their STEM majors, white and Asian students had five-year graduation rates of 33% and 42%, respectively, as compared with 22%, 18%, and 19% for Latino, Black, and Native American students. Attrition rates are much higher for students of color than for whites, and even among those who do graduate in STEM, they are much less likely to end up in STEM fields, especially for women of color.

Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., a cancer prevention fellow at the National Cancer Institute, is a researcher and policy expert in STEM diversity and a graduate of the Meyerhoff Scholars undergraduate diversity program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He stresses that diversity can be promoted by building a high-functioning system across all of STEM that encourages involvement.

“We aren’t yet to the place where we have—broadly—a culture of supporting talent from all backgrounds,” Gibbs says. For him, the approach goes beyond broadening pipelines for talent by addressing systemic shortcomings that make science less desirable for everyone, as these gaps are often compounded for scientists of color. “The diversity challenges as we think of them are probably the byproducts of deeper, more systemic issues,” he says.

Diversity training programs in STEM can help fill those gaps. The one that Llewellyn participated in, the Dr. John H. Hopps Defense Research Scholars, is one such example, and it provides dozens of students every year with a broad support package. (I was also a Hopps Scholar during my time at Morehouse.) However, Hopps is but a small slice of the diversity training landscape. Other programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars created a template by using financial aid, study groups, dedicated research mentors, and summer research to prepare participants for graduate study. Together, they can help students overcome many of the barriers that make STEM undergraduate studies so challenging, and they have achieved results—almost 90% of the program’s 800 graduates have gone on to graduate study, and a quarter of which have PhDs.

Over the years, similar programs have popped up. The Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is modeled after Meyerhoff, as is the Millennium Scholars at Penn State. These programs both employ the Meyerhoff cohort model and are relatively new, with both in their third cohorts. They both provide long-term mentors and research experiences for the entirety of the cohort’s time in college.

Other programs funded by the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal organizations provide additional support for these initiatives and their students. The NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program is limited to summer research experiences, but it often provides critical opportunities, including for students participating in other programs like Meyerhoff.

Diverse Teams

In the increasingly interdisciplinary landscape of STEM, research suggests that diverse teams of scientists may have the competitive edge over more homogenous groups. Research on diversity in STEM is still developing, but data collected by Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan and author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, supports the idea that a diversity of ideas and backgrounds benefits the entire field.

“Collective knowledge productivity depends on people knowing different things and seeing things different ways,” Page says. According to his research, the questions that scientists ask and the tools they use are a product of their background and personality. In his studies, diversity improves scientific productivity, discovery, and fairness of results. “When looking at a hard problem, diversity is ability,” Page says. He also stresses that measuring diversity should go beyond a simple headcount to more fully understanding how underrepresented scientists engage with their work and how their life experiences shape both their questions and their solutions. Without taking these more nuanced measures into account, he says, STEM disciplines won’t necessarily gain new perspectives from diversity. “It would be strange if the field looked the same once it became more diverse.”

Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agrees. “Page makes the point in his book that diversity makes a big difference in the way groups interact and the way they come to solutions,” she says. “I don’t think that you solve complex problems without diverse inputs.”

As a graduate of an undergraduate STEM diversity program, Gibbs says that “for everybody, majority or minority, diversity is critical to excellence. If we can target climate change, if we can target cancer, if we can target disease, those are benefits to everyone, so scientific breakthroughs have benefits for everyone.”

Deepening the Pool

As the demographics of the country—and student bodies—change, Malcom stresses that encouraging racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is the only way to keep people moving into careers that rely heavily on science, technology, engineering, and math. “Can you afford to kick two-thirds of the people in college to the curb just because you haven’t used them in the past?” Malcom says. “We haven’t really thought about diversity from a basic talent development perspective.”

Training diverse scientists creates a larger pool of mentors and support for future generations of scientists, so each dollar invested in diversity programs has a long-term cyclical impact.

Roy Llewellyn would agree. The financial assistance and mentoring provided by the Hopps Scholars helped him overcome the obstacles he faced after recovering from cancer. “If it weren’t for Hopps, I wouldn’t be able to make it through college,” Llewellyn says. “They helped with the tuition from the lost semester and were like a family to me.” Today, Llewellyn is a PhD candidate in applied physics and nanotechnology at the University of Michigan. There, he’s studying materials science, biosense, and biomimetics, and he sees his future as something more than a typical scientist.

“I need to make sure I pay it forward. I need to make sure I help other people,” Llewellyn says. “It’s a very good opportunity to be a mentor, especially for students of color. I want to help others make it to where I’ve made it.”