Stacyann Morgan got into biomedical engineering through a simple Google search.
She got through an undergraduate program in the emerging field thanks to a federally-funded program that provides multi-layered support to black and Latino students at City College of New York.
Starting in 2001, the National Institutes of Health funded the Minority Scholars program at City College in an attempt to graduate blacks and Latinos who would pursue Ph.D.s, particularly in biomedical engineering, which combines mechanical engineering and medicine to create innovations in diagnosing and treating diseases.
Back-to-back NIH grants paid the tuition of participating students and provided stipends, summer research slots and, in the last five years, mentors and tutors who were doctoral candidates in biomedical engineering.
The stipends of $9,000 to $10,000 a year allowed the students to attend City College full-time without having to work. To stay in the program, students had to maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
Annual student retention in the tough, interdisciplinary field rose as high as 100 percent in recent years, according to Sheldon Weinbaum, the program’s founder and a distinguished research professor emeritus of biomedical and mechanical engineering.
The Minority Scholars program is on track to hit its ultimate goal of producing Ph.Ds. Of 36 black and Latino graduates, 19 entered doctoral programs and are still working on their degrees, Weinbaum says.
Weinbaum, a longtime diversity advocate, said the 10-year experiment was designed to show that “if we level the playing field and give minority students what I felt was a much fairer opportunity to perform at a high level, we could basically produce Ph.D. students” who may become professors.
“We tried this experiment, which really should be tried in many places now,” Weinbaum said, because blacks and Latinos are progressively more underrepresented up the academic ladder in engineering schools.
Morgan, who figured out what kind of engineer she wanted to be by doing a Google search in high school, is an example of what a concerted institutional effort can achieve.
The Jamaican immigrant graduated in June and is entering a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. She intends to specialize in bone biomechanics, researching ways to heal the bones of arthritis and osteoporosis sufferers.
“The program has opened me up to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about. It has been the best decision yet. There aren’t any (other) programs there that look out for minority students,” said Morgan, 23.
Jessica Hudson, who emigrated from the Bahamas, is another Minority Scholar who just graduated. She is headed to a master’s program in biomedical engineering at Florida International University and hopes to pursue a doctorate after that.
“I’m taking it one step at a time,” Hudson explained.
Morgan and Hudson cite the systematic mentoring as the most important aspect of the program. So does Weinbaum.
Both graduates say the stipend freed them from having to work, particularly Hudson, who has a five-year-old son and an infant daughter. Hudson’s academic interest is in cardiovascular biomechanics, specifically arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.
“The financial support helped me out a great deal, especially since I had my son,” said Hudson, 22. “I didn’t have to worry about finding a job while I was going to school.”
When he wrote the grant proposal, Weinbaum said it was obvious that minority students needed stipends so they could enroll full-time and concentrate on their studies.
Weinbaum said requiring research was key because “you can’t get students to go on to a Ph.D. if you don’t really give them a feeling for what research is.”
Despite his foresight, the results after the first five years were disappointing.
“We didn’t [do] so great after the first grant. Our retention was not what I had hoped,” Weinbaum concedes. He recalls an average of 54 percent of students had stuck with the program each year.
Many students could not maintain a 3.0. Was the bar set too high? An outside evaluator pinpointed insufficient study skills, poor time management and difficult courses that gave students trouble.
The review led Weinbaum to make two changes: Each of the Minority Scholars would get “their own personal PhD mentor,” and tutors who were also teaching assistants would be available for difficult courses, which included calculus and chemistry.
“The retention in the program had a precipitous jump,” Weinbaum noted. Retention averaged 74 percent over the last five years and hit 100 percent more than once.
Weinbaum put Yuliya Vengrenyuk in charge of the tutors. The immigrant from the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union had been his teaching assistant in one of his classes when an unprecedented half of the students got an A on an exam.
Vengrenyuk had a simple explanation for why that happened: “I helped all students, not just the A students.”
At first, not all minority students were eager to seek her help.
“The hardest group to come was the black males. Whether it was a sense of embarrassment or not feeling comfortable with a white woman, I don’t know,” Weinbaum said. “But she called each one up personally and insisted that they come, and they came. By halfway through the semester, everybody was seeing Yuliya.”
A personal touch pervades the Biomedical Engineering Department at City College, launched in 2002, with excellence and diversity as its top priorities.
“This department functions as a family,” Weinbaum said. “In a family, you look after the students or graduate students, it doesn’t matter, who need the most help. That’s what a family is.”
The second NIH grant has expired, and the program is winding down. The last seven students, all seniors, are starting their final year without paid tuition and stipends. So far City College’s efforts to find alternative funding have not succeeded.
“I think it’s really sad. It would have been great for others to have the opportunity that I had,” Hudson said. “It was a great help and the main reason why I was able to graduate. It would be wonderful if they can renew their grant or find additional funding.”