Creating the Next Generation of Black Physicists

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), African-Americans earn only 1 percent of Ph.D.’s in physics. Given the changing and future demographics of our country and our nation’s need to be innovative and creative, this is a problem. We have an intellectual resource that we are ignoring.

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending an NSF workshop focused on collaboration in the sciences with the express purpose of increasing the participation of under represented minorities in the STEM fields. The workshop showcased some successful examples of collaboration and partnerships that currently exist with the hope of generating more partnerships among those invited to participate in the day’s events.

One of the most successful partnerships highlighted was the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. This program is a partnership between Fisk University, a historically black university, and Vanderbilt University, a majority institution. Currently, the Fisk-Vanderbilt program leads the country in the production of black master’s degrees in physics. Vanderbilt is also one of the top 10 producers of black Ph.D.’s in astronomy, physics, and material science.

According to Keivan Stassun, a professor in the program at Vanderbilt, the partnership is focused on aiding the transition of black students from the master’s to the Ph.D., and both institutions have a goal of dramatically increasing the number of minority students in the STEM areas.

Knowing the track record of historically black colleges and universities for producing graduates in the STEM areas, Vanderbilt thought it would be essential to partner with nearby Fisk University. In addition, Stassun pointed to data that show 50% of minorities earn a master’s degree before a Ph.D in STEM. To him and the faculty at both Fisk and Vanderbilt, starting black students out with a master’s degree and moving them systematically to the Ph.D. seemed like an effective way to keep students from falling through the cracks and to ensure that they meet their career goals.

The Fisk-Vanderbilt partnership draws upon the strengths of both institutions. Vanderbilt has the infrastructure of a large research institution and offers the Ph.D, whereas Fisk has a long legacy of successfully educating blacks and also offers a terminal master’s degree. The two-year master’s program at Fisk provides students with the opportunity to take classes at Vanderbilt and gives them access to faculty at both institutions. In Stassun’s words, “The program gives students the opportunity to audition for the Ph.D. program and also gives them the rehearsal space to prepare for the Ph.D.”

As I sat in the NSF workshop listening to Stassun discuss the Fisk-Vanderbilt partnership all I could think about is why aren’t there more programs like it. We know empirically that HBCU’s are incubators for African-American talent in the STEM fields, so why aren’t more majority research institutions partnering with them? Yes there are examples, such as the Spelman-Georgia Tech engineering partnership, but not many. If we as a nation are serious about maintaining a competitive edge in the sciences and ensuring that citizens of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have the ability to pursue their dreams, we need to establish, support, and fund partnerships like the one at Fisk and Vanderbilt. I urge other institutions to study the program and replicate it and its success.

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