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Oct. 4, 2012 Volume 34, No. 7

Professor challenges MU to do more to retain underrepresented minority students


Diversity programs must use scientific data to improve, lecturer says

University of California professor posed tough questions at a lecture Sept. 27 on how to retain underrepresented minority groups in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). 

John Matsui, director and founder of UC Berkeley’s Biology Scholars Program, told about 25 faculty and staff in the Bond Life Sciences Center that achieving racial, socioeconomic and gender diversity within STEM is not a cookie-cutter proposition. 

“It’s not like opening up a new Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Matsui said. “It’s not a chain approach where the secret formula will work here, here and here.”

Since 1992, the Biology Scholars Program at Berkeley has helped underrepresented minorities — mostly African-American and Hispanic students, many of whom were women — develop the tools to be successful in STEM programs. 

In its first five years at Berkeley, 60 percent of underrepresented minorities in the program graduated with a degree in biology (within STEM’s science field) — about the same rate and with equivalent GPAs as Asian and white students, according to statistics provided on the UC Berkeley website. 

The program has since graduated about 2,750 underrepresented minority students.

Nationally, however, after decades of efforts, the pool of underrepresented students remains small. 

“How do we break the cycle?” Matsui asked during the lecture. 

That’s a question that Matsui wrestled with this past year as part of a special advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation.

One of the problems, he said, is that the science community has a rigorous, peer-reviewed approach to conducting research, but it doesn’t apply the same rigor to operating diversity programs, often based on anecdote and conventional wisdom.

“Diversity work should be data-driven,” Matsui said. “We need to look at outcomes. We need to do good science.”

And after 40 years of funding diversity interventions, one thing science groups have is data. “We need to identify, scale and disseminate the practices that work well,” Matsui said.

But Matsui stressed that successful programs can’t be copied outright. Universities need to carefully adapt model programs to their own specific situations. 

Matsui’s lecture comes on the heels of MU’s receiving a five-year $3.1 million grant renewal from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The grant will fund undergraduate research for more than 50 underrepresented students in Mizzou’s Exposure to Research for Science Students (EXPRESS) program.

Linda Blockus, MU director of undergraduate research, said the lecture, sponsored by MU’s Mentor in Residence program, was an opportunity for faculty, administrators and academic advisers to begin a dialogue about student diversity and retention.

“Unless as a country we figure out how to make sure all the unrecognized talent out there is being nurtured, we’re going to fall short in terms of a scientific workforce,” Blockus said. 

“I think that’s the responsibility of a state-funded institution: to make sure all students who want to pursue science have the opportunity and resources to do so.”

— Erik Potter