The Initiative to Maximize Student Development, which has increased the diversity of doctoral students in the life sciences and supported student achievement, will expand to serve physical sciences, engineering and mathematics.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With a new $3.3 million federal grant, Brown University will extend to its physical sciences, engineering and mathematics departments a program that has significantly increased the diversity of doctoral students in the life sciences and supported enhanced academic achievement among the students it serves.

The new five-year award from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, along with new funding from the Office of the Provost at Brown, will more than double the scope of the University’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD). The program will now support up to 20 doctoral students a year in 21 programs instead of just eight students in the Division of Biology and Medicine and the School of Public Health, said Andrew G. Campbell, who has co-directed IMSD since its inception a decade ago and became dean of the Graduate School last year.

Campbell said that recently it has become clear that IMSD should expand its portfolio to serve all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines at Brown because physicists, chemists, engineers and mathematicians are increasingly making key contributions in biomedical research.

“The scale of Brown’s operation is such that a lot of our programs are collaborative,” Campbell said. “It allows us to be very interdisciplinary. It’s the next most logical step in the maturation of the program.”

Expanding IMSD to cover all STEM fields at Brown is among the specific goals set forth in Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University. Last week the University issued a report of overall progress in the plan’s first year.

Campbell said programs such as IMSD are vital to making the sciences more diverse and inclusive, which in turn will expand the degree to which the nation makes use of its talent in vital areas of knowledge and innovation.

“If you look at U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 29, about 62 percent of those individuals are women and people of color,” he said. “We don’t see that representation in the academy, and we don’t see that representation in the sciences. We are underutilizing that segment of our population.”

The problem is particularly acute among women and underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences.

From the dashboard
A chart from the university's Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan dashboard shows the relative proportions of graduate students from historically undrerepresented groups in various disciplines. Historically underrepresented groups are blacks, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska natives, native Hawaiians or Pacific islanders.

Supporting scientists

IMSD supports doctoral students in many ways, often starting before they even come to Brown. Through the program, Brown faculty members have forged partnerships with counterparts at five minority serving institutions, most recently including Morgan State University, and will add more partners, Campbell said. The relationships allow Brown faculty to identify and reach out to promising undergraduates and also to learn what extra training might optimally prepare students from the colleges, which are not primarily research-focused, for the next level of scholarship.

At Brown, IMSD addresses those gaps by providing students with modules, or mini-classes, that provide training in topics such as laboratory experimental methods, scientific writing and reading the scientific literature. Whenever space is available, the modules are open to any student who could use an introduction or a refresher, not just IMSD students, Campbell noted.

The program also provides enrolled students with financial support, including tuition relief, stipends and travel funding, and with specialized advising. With a portfolio now including physical sciences, IMSD’s faculty leadership is expanding. In addition to co-directors Campbell and Elizabeth Harrington, research professor of medicine and associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in the Division of Biology and Medicine, the IMSD leadership team now also includes Rashid Zia, associate professor of engineering and of physics, and Johnny Guzman, associate professor of applied mathematics, as new associate directors of the program.

For all the support IMSD provides students individually, it also builds a community among doctoral students from historically underrepresented groups, who can sometimes feel isolated, Campbell said.

Robust results

In its first decade, Brown’s IMSD program has succeeded by several measures, Campbell said. In 2013, for example, Campbell and program co-founder Nancy Thompson, professor emerita of medicine, published a paper in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education showing increases in applications, admissions, enrollments, test scores, grades and scientific publications and presentations among underrepresented minority students resulting from IMSD’s implementation.

Good results have continued. More recent but unpublished data, for example, show that IMSD-supported students publish at rates comparable to their non-IMSD peers after their involvement in the program, Campbell said. And according to rankings maintained by the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Brown ranked 11th in the nation in 2015 in life sciences Ph.D.s awarded to black students in the biological sciences.

Meanwhile, he said, several more general statistics indicate that Brown is making progress in diversity in the area of graduate education. Applications to Brown’s doctoral programs by students from historically underrepresented groups are up 33 percent this year compared to last, he said. Brown has made admission offers to 20 percent more of students from these groups than last year.

For March 20, or “Super Monday,” a day when Brown hosts admitted underrepresented graduate students on campus to learn more about Brown, the number of students on the invite list is double what it was last year.

Student experience

Ashleigh LoVette, an IMSD-supported doctoral student in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences in the School of Public Health, came to Brown in 2015 after earning degrees in communication and health at Michigan State University. Many factors contributed to her decision to study here, she said, ranging from the advisers she met during interviews, to the strength of global health research in the school, its interdisciplinary nature and its fast growth as a newly formed school at Brown.

LoVette, whose research looks at resilience among young people living with HIV, said IMSD helps her and fellow students in several ways.

“IMSD creates a community of scholars who may have different research interests, but share a common interest of creating an inclusive graduate learning environment,” she said. “The program also allows scholars like myself to focus on research and professional development early on through structured support.”

It also sends a strong signal about the inclusiveness of the scientific community at Brown, she said.

“The program helps to challenge the stereotypical view of what a scientist may look like or where a scientist may come from,” LoVette said. “The inclusion of public health students in particular is one way of saying that not all scientists wear lab coats. Offering an expanded view of what science and research encompasses provides a range of potential opportunities and career paths for undergraduate students visiting Brown from minority-serving institutions as part of the IMSD program.”

With its new funding (grant number R25GM083270), the program will now expand its benefits and impact to an even broader array of sciences.