NIH’s ‘Minority Scholars’ program helps produce Ph.D.s

Kenneth J. Cooper | 8/29/2012, 9:22 a.m.

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.