Changing FacesGeorgia Tech program helps minority scholars in science and engineering jump-start their careers in academia By Kendra HamiltonWith the ink barely dry on her diploma from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Chekesha Liddell is heading off to a dream job at Cornell University in New York, one of the top 10 engineering schools in the nation. And she won’t be going empty-handed. She’ll take a going-away present from her alma mater: a $20,000 Career Initiation Grant (CIG) from Georgia Tech’s FACES program. It will help to buy equipment and, combined with the start-up funds that are part of her package from Cornell, perhaps even fund a graduate student.
“People have been willing to invest in me,” Liddell says, “And that really makes you feel like you’re being taken seriously.”
A FACES grant helped Dr. William Robinson settle into his first academic assignment as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. “This is hectic,” he says of his first semester of teaching, “but it feels really good to be on this side of the desk.”
FACES also helped ease Dr. Samuel Graham’s return to academia after a stellar career with Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. The Georgia Tech grad applied for a career grant in his final year of eligibility, and now he’s an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at his alma mater. “The timing was absolutely right,” Graham says.
In the quest to change the face of the science and engineering professoriate — where the numbers of African Americans are “dramatically low,” says Dr. Reginald DesRoches, coordinator of the CIG program — Georgia Tech appears to have taken a great leap forward with FACES.
The acronym stands for Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science, and some of the program’s elements are quite familiar: For example, creating a “pipeline” to funnel promising undergraduates from Tech, Spelman and Morehouse into graduate school, then offering fellowship and enrichment opportunities to get those students through the arduous and often-lonely process. But the notion of offering funds to select students to help them jump-start their research careers seems new — and quite exciting.
“I absolutely wish this had been around for me,” says DesRoches, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tech. And though his tone is jocular, he’s not kidding.
Including the three this year, a total of nine Georgia Tech graduates have received the CIGs. “And they’re all at different kinds of schools: large research institutions, HBCUs, small teaching schools. All are having an impact in their own way,” DesRoches adds.
Of course, the reach of the FACES program greatly exceeds the nine beneficiaries of the career initiation program. There are FACES scholars, undergraduates who receive $1,000 per semester to participate in research projects supervised by faculty. At the graduate level, there are FACES fellows, who receive annual supplements to their departmental support — $2,000 before they pass their comps; $4,000 after.
“We also offer career development workshops for the students to tell them about things like writing an application, handling the interview process, negotiating an offer,” DesRoches adds. “With students from traditional backgrounds, many of them have a parent or a relative who’s a professor and can guide them informally through the process. Our students typically don’t have anyone from their families who can help them in that way — that’s why mentoring from Black faculty at Georgia Tech is such an important part of what we do.”
Indeed, the winners of the Career Initiation Grants appear to have made the most of their opportunities.
Liddell, a FACES fellow who rocketed through her Ph.D. training in just four years, says that the program provided her with a “road map. I knew what my goals were, where the hurdles were, and I was able to plan accordingly.”
People in her program who didn’t have the assistance were often “not as focused. They sometimes even got discouraged,” she recalls. But Liddell was energized through her contact with people like Georgia Tech grad and FACES resource Dr. Ashanti Johnson Pyrtle, a faculty member from the University of South Florida who has been conducting the career workshops for the past two years.
Both the advice and the career grant turned out to be critical during the job search, Liddell adds.
“In my situation a lot of people have postdocs (before attempting a job search). I did not and, in some ways, that makes you more of a risk to a university,” she explains. “The way I handled it was I let them know I had received grant support for my research on my own initiative. That shows you’re a professor who will bring money in to the school.”
Robinson notes that the process of applying for the CIG turned out to be a tremendous help to him in his job search. “I wrote up the application at the same time I was sending out application packets for schools, and it really helped me get organized about putting my ideas down on paper,” he explains.
But when the offer came from Vanderbilt, Robinson chose not to reveal that he’d received the career grant. “The program’s goal is for the ‘faculty coupon’ to be used in the negotiation process, but I wanted to make sure that they didn’t shortchange me just because they knew I already had some level of support,” Robinson says.
“So I negotiated the startup package without disclosing that I had (the FACES grant) in my pocket. Then after we had come to an agreement, it was, ‘Oh, by the way, I have this from my home institution.’
“I think it worked out well,” he adds.
Graham, meanwhile, chose a slightly different path. Though his mentors at Georgia Tech told him they felt he was ready for a faculty position when he graduated with his Ph.D. in 1999, “internally I just felt unsettled about it.” So he took a job instead at the highly regarded Sandia National Laboratories.
“The reason I went to Sandia is that it’s a great national lab with a lot of resources. It works on a variety of things, so I was able to get into new arenas, learn new things, interact with a lot of great scientists and people in the engineering field. And so I think it helped me mature as a researcher much faster than I would have if I had gone straight into academia,” Graham says. “But I always had academia in the back of my mind.”
Graham didn’t use the career grant to negotiate his start-up package. Instead, it provided him with “a little money to step out into some risky areas,” he says, adding, “I’m using some for equipment purchases, and I’m hiring one very good undergraduate to work in my lab to do some feasibility studies.”
Despite all the good work FACES does, its future is up in the air. “FACES is a five-year program” started with funding from the National Science Foundation, and “we’re in the process of trying to get renewed,” DesRoches says.
But there is a clear and crying need for what the program provides. “Nationally, only 2 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty are Black,” DesRoches adds. “We’re determined to do something about that.”
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