Employment in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (the STEM disciplines) provides economic security and significant opportunities for advancement. Yet while African American, Hispanic and other minority students are pursuing higher education in greater numbers, they are not graduating with STEM majors, attending graduate school in STEM fields or pursuing careers in STEM professions at the same rate as other students.
Encouraging minority students to select a STEM major and enticing them to pursue a career in one of these fields has proven to be difficult. With grant support from the National Science Foundation, the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is reaching out to minority students soon after they arrive on campus and getting them involved in mentored research, training them in research methodology, and providing them with an opportunity to network with others with similar interests. The ultimate goal is to hook them on a STEM major and career.
The LSAMP at IUPUI approach is definitely working. At the 2010 statewide LSAMP research conference, students from the School of Science at IUPUI placed first in the oral competition and took first and second places in the scientific poster presentation.
First place oral presentation winner Kathryn DelaCruz, a pre-dental biology major, investigated the effects of nicotine and cigarette smoke condensate on the cells that form the inner lining of blood vessels, and observed effects on the cardiovascular system. The work was conducted in an oral biology laboratory at the Indiana University School of Dentistry.
"People think about dentistry as just teeth, but it's much more. It's about oral health and health of the whole human body. While I don't plan on going into research, working in the laboratory helped me confirm my interest in oral health and becoming a dentist," she said. DelaCruz is the recipient of IUPUI's prestigious Bepko and Norman Brown Diversity Leadership Program Scholarships. She is definitely on track to dental school and a career in dentistry.
Biology major Tomás Meijome, the first place scientific poster winner, has wanted to be a doctor since he was in high school. His LSAMP experience has expanded his horizons and he now hopes to enter an M.D./Ph.D. program, a seven year commitment that he hopes will enable him to embark on a career bringing scientific advances from the laboratory to the patient. He credits his LSAMP experience with his selection for IUPUI's Diversity Scholars Research Program and IUPUI's Life - Health Sciences Internship Program. Through both programs, he is currently working in an IU School of Medicine lab that is studying the interaction of bone and blood cell systems with the goal of improving the understanding and treatment of metabolic bone disease and fracture healing.
For his LSAMP project he explored the rapidly advancing field of regenerative biology. Meijome compared tissue characteristics in a salamander with the ability to regenerate limbs with those of a frog lacking that ability. "My mentor encouraged me to do much of my work independently, which appealed to me and gave me a bigger sense of achievement. I learned a lot not only about regenerative medicine in her lab, but about myself as well," he said
Second place poster presentation winner Nigam Arora is an interdisciplinary science major, combining chemistry, biology, environmental science and engineering. He is fascinated by the ability of cells in plants and animals to make energy without harming their environment.
His LSAMP research in a School of Science lab focused on evaluating soybeans at the cellular level to determine which varieties hold the most promise as biofuels. Among the areas he explored were potential genetic mutations, achieved either in the lab or through breeding, to amplify the advantageous qualities of certain soybean strains.
"I have seen many potential STEM majors decide to do less demanding majors. That may be because it's hard but it may also be because they haven't had the opportunity to do research," Arora said. "I am very interested in research and plan to go to graduate school in the sciences. After that I want to expand my focus and draw upon both science and business to come up with answers that make sense for the energy problems we face." Arora is a Sam. H. Jones Community Service Scholar at IUPUI.
Each summer seven or eight students from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences are selected to participate in the LSAMP Program at IUPUI. Successful applicants frequently reapply for a second summer and two are selected to take on leadership roles in the program.
"When we first receive these students they have no clue about research. They are curious about science and may be thinking about a science career but they have no experience with independent work. We give them an opportunity to experience research that is unusual for freshmen and sophomores, the stage at which they are selecting their majors. And we can see that our LSAMP approach works. All past IUPUI LSAMP students have graduated and almost all have gone into science and technology, either to graduate programs or directly to jobs," noted Kim Nguyen, Ed.D., of IUPUI and a co-principal investigator on the NSF LSAMP grant since 2003.
The key to keeping minority students in the sciences and seeing them graduate, often with honors, is twofold mentorship in the laboratory and LSAMP stewardship.
Nguyen, who likens herself to a matchmaker, works very hard, in consultation with each student, to find the right mentor and a project that will hold the student's interest and help them grow academically. The eight to 10 weeks in an IUPUI laboratory allows the student time to develop a hypothesis, test it, and present it to his or her mentor, to peers in the lab, to others in the LSAMP Program at IUPUI and at a statewide research conference. On several occasions students have accompanied their mentors to professional research meetings.
"The role of the mentor is critical. After a summer of research LSAMP students do better in school than before the program because they learn what they want to do and they know others are interested in their success. They develop a greater sense of pre-professionalism and they have acquired role models," said Nguyen.
Edward L. F. González, MLS, an associate librarian with the University Library, directs the LSAMP summer program that provides the stewardship needed to get a foothold in research. He meets with the LSAMP students regularly to help them acquire the fundamental tools for scientific literacy and to learn how to be a member of a scientific team. His "how to" sessions convey information on developing a hypothesis, using specialized databases, and preparing scientific presentations. He also takes the students on field trips to a variety of laboratories to observe other scientists and scientific teams in action.
Nationally, an estimated 50 percent of African-American undergraduates who plan to major in STEM disciplines switch to non-STEM majors or drop out of school; two-thirds of Hispanic STEM majors do not complete degrees in these fields.
Students in the LSAMP program at IUPUI are bucking the trend. Approximately 14.5 percent of bachelor degrees awarded to those with STEM majors at IUPUI in 2009-10 were to underrepresented minorities. Nationally that figure is less than 10 percent, according to the most recent (2007) figures from NSF.
Future scientists like DelaCruz, Meijome and Arora of IUPUI's School of Science are embarking on the initial steps of the road to rewarding careers. In the not too distant future they also may serve as mentors and role models for others, further amplifying the momentum of minority participation and retention in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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