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 provided 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 the fabled urban college in a bold attempt to graduate Black and Latino graduates 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 Ph.D. 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 rigorous, interdisciplinary field rose as high as 100 percent in recent years, according to Dr. Sheldon Weinbaum, the program’s founder and CUNY distinguished research professor emeritus of biomedical and mechanical engineering.
The Minority Scholars Program is on track to hit its ultimate goal of producing doctoral degrees. Of 36 Black and Latino graduates, 19 entered doctoral programs, and four have persisted, Weinbaum says. If all four receive doctorates starting next year, the rate of one in nine undergraduates reaching that level would match a historical high in all fields at City College, one of the largest producers of Ph.D. students in the country.
Weinbaum, a longtime diversity advocate, says 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 faculty.
Other engineering professors across the country have taken note, a development that Weinbaum hoped would occur.
“We tried this experiment, which really should be tried in many places now,” Weinbaum says, because Blacks and Latinos are progressively more underrepresented up the academic chain 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, after turning down Cornell University, this fall enters a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 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 [my] best decision yet. There aren’t any [other] programs there that look out for minority students,” says Morgan, who is 23.
Jessica Hudson, who is originally from The Bahamas, is another recent Minority Scholars Program graduate. This fall she is headed to a master’s program in biomedical engineering at Florida International University and hopes to pursue a Ph.D. after that.
“I’m taking it one step at a time,” Hudson explains.
Morgan and Hudson cite the systematic mentoring—each student in the program is matched with a Ph.D. student—as the most important aspect of the program. So does Weinbaum. Both graduates say the provided stipend freed them from having to work while taking classes, which was particularly helpful for Hudson, who has a 5-year-old son and an infant daughter. Hudson is interested 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,” says Hudson, 22. “I didn’t have to worry about finding a job while I was going to school.”
When he wrote the NIH grant proposal, Weinbaum says it was obvious to him that the minority students he was seeking to assist needed stipends so they could enroll full-time and concentrate on their studies. The scholars received $5,000 or $6,000 during the school year and $4,000 during summers as juniors and seniors, when they were required to do laboratory research. Weinbaum, who has been at City College since 1967, says that requiring research was obvious, too, 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 foresight on those two issues, 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 GPA. An outside evaluator pinpointed insufficient study skills and poor time management and identified the courses that gave students the most trouble.
The review led Weinbaum to make two changes: Each student in the Minority Scholars Program would get “their own personal Ph.D. mentor,” and tutors who were also teaching assistants would be made available for difficult courses, which included calculus and chemistry.
“The retention in the program had a precipitous jump,” Weinbaum says. Retention averaged 74 percent over the last five years and hit 100 percent more than once.
Dr. Danielle Wu, who completed her Ph.D. in June, was a mentor and then the lead mentor matching undergraduates and doctoral students based on their research interests and personalities. Each mentor met the undergraduate at least once a week for an hour, Wu says, to build “kind of a little big brother-big sister relationship” and track academic progress.
“Most important, I find, is to give them the exposure, to have that conversation about what you can do academically, what is possible for you. I think a lot of them don’t necessarily get that at home,” says Wu. Morgan says she needed that counsel. Her mother is a high school graduate who teaches preschool and her father a car mechanic who attended community college.
“Coming from my background, no one around me understood what [biomedical engineering] was and what I wanted to do,” Morgan says. “So to have a mentor whom I could talk to about my classes and someone who gets it and who’s been there, that’s been really great throughout the program.”
Making a Connection
Weinbaum put Dr. Yuliya Vengrenyuk in charge of the tutors. Vengrenyuk, who is originally from Ukraine, had been his teaching assistant in one of his classes when an unprecedented half of the students received an “A” on an exam.
Vengrenyuk, who received her Ph.D. in 2009, has a simple explanation for why that happened. “I helped all students, not just the ‘A’ students,” she explains.
Weinbaum also discovered that Vengrenyuk spent the most time helping students who were having trouble. “She’s extremely mothering and nurturing,” he says.
When Vengrenyuk started tutoring students in the Minority Scholars Program, female students were quick to take advantage of the academic help.
“The hardest group to [recruit] was the Black males. Whether it was a sense of embarrassment or not feeling comfortable with a White woman, I don’t know,” Weinbaum says. “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, which City College launched in 2002 with excellence and diversity as its top priorities.
“This department functions as a family,” Weinbaum says. “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 Minority Scholars Program is winding down. The last seven students, all seniors, face 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 says. “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.”