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Fisk-Vanderbilt Program Set to Become Top Producer of Minority Scientists

Ebonee Walker, a doctoral student in material sciences at Vanderbilt University, is spending the summer as an intern at the Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Huntsville, Ala. She’s not allowed to go into detail about her assignment but says she gets to work with nanotechnology and aviation and missile systems.

A graduate of Fisk University, Walker gets free tuition to attend one of the world’s leading universities, a book allowance, a generous stipend, opportunities to work with and be mentored by great academic minds, and a chance to intern with a leading government laboratory.

Walker is part of the 6-year-old Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, a collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt universities that is poised to become the nation’s leading producer of minority doctoral graduates in astronomy, physics and material sciences, according to Dr. Arnold Burger, a professor of physics and vice provost for academic initiatives at Fisk, the nation’s largest producer of African-Americans with master’s degrees in physics.

The program produced its first Ph.D. last fall, and about two dozen more underrepresented minorities and women are in the doctoral program at Vanderbilt. Another dozen are working on their requisite master’s at Fisk.

The program also provides a window into how minority-serving and traditionally White institutions do and can use federal funding to boost minority participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields — with funds set aside for MSIs and through partnerships.

The Bridge program, which boasts a 97 percent retention rate, has attracted 42 students since it was founded in 2004. Of those, 38 have been from underrepresented minority groups and 59 percent have been women, according to Dr. Keivan Stassun, an associate professor of physics at Vanderbilt and co-director of the program.

The program, officials say, provides a useful service to the nation in recruiting and graduating future scientists who will contribute to the body of knowledge either by working at universities or large national labs — and ultimately help the United States remain competitive.

“We as a nation now train more foreign Ph.D.s in science and engineering than we train domestic students,” says Stassun. “We grossly underutilize much of our domestic talent pool. If we want to maintain our competitive edge globally, we cannot do it if we do not take advantage of our domestic talent pool. It is specifically underrepresented groups that we fail to utilize.”

Indeed, according to the American Physical Society, only two African-Americans and three Hispanics received doctoral degrees in physics in 2006, the last year for which the society collected data.

Immediate Impact

Despite the program’s youth, officials say they are already seeing an impact in the scientific research community and predict the program will serve as a pipeline to faculty positions. Burger says one of the outcomes of this program that he’s proudest of is its collaboration with national labs.

“We have placed one of the Bridge students at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Another student in the Bridge program finished her master’s and all her experiments were done at NASA, where she is developing space instrumentation. These opportunities are another feature in the Bridge program. Students are getting employment even before they complete the Ph.D.,” says Burger, noting Walker’s appointment at the Army research center and other graduate student placements at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

Dr. Richard McCarty, Vanderbilt’s provost, says the program “addresses the pipeline issue, which is to diversify faculty in sciences and engineering. I think this program could be a major contributor in diversifying faculty. We are excited about this. Our faculty are highly motivated, and I think we’re off to a great start.”

To get into the Bridge program, students must be accepted into the master’s program in physics, chemistry or biology at Fisk, although they are not guaranteed admission into the doctoral program at Vanderbilt.

During their time at Fisk, the students work with professors at Fisk and Vanderbilt and get access to resources at both schools. Students in the program get benefits that include a monthly stipend of $1,800, a book allowance and health insurance.

Approximately 35 percent of the $1 million annual program cost, Stassun says, comes from both universities, another one-third comes from the National Science Foundation and the rest of the money comes from federal agencies such as NASA and the U.S. Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Defense and Education. Burger says the NSF funds come from a combination of grants, including the set-aside STEM money that the Obama administration had planned to reallocate into the partnership program.

Although most students end up pursuing their doctoral degrees at Vanderbilt, some have gone on to programs at Yale University, the University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University.

“I believe it is an excellent program,” says the first doctoral graduate, Dr. Stephen Babalola, a native of Nigeria who now works as a research professor at Alabama A&M University. “The program boosts your chances of getting into (Vanderbilt) and also succeeding. I know of quite a number of (minority) students that went into the (Ph.D. program without the benefit of Bridge) program before me and for one reason or the other had to pull out. The program helps boost students’ confidence and helps you in succeeding academically.”

The highly selective program’s criteria might amaze applicants. While grades and GRE scores hold weight, evidence of the ability to survive the rigors of a difficult academic program is more important, says Stassun.

“We try to look deeply into students’ overall character and makeup,” he says. “We want to see evidence that the student has demonstrated that they can persist through a difficult course of study. (We) also look at letters of recommendation from students’ undergraduate mentors, how they face up to adversity. Finally, we conduct in-depth one-on-one interviews with all of the candidates. We ask them to describe to us a situation in college where they felt they were really in over their heads and really struggling. We want to know how they got through that and what resources they leaned on because they’re going to go through some tough spots.”

Several of the students reported that mentoring from professors and peers helped them get through the program.

“The mentoring was both formal and informal,” says Babalola. “It was formal in the sense that they offer a lot of academic advising, including deciding on what courses to take, prerequisites and making sure exams like GRE are taken at the (right) time. It was informal in the sense that they organize lots of meetings where they bring students together to discuss issues academic or nonacademic that have the potential of affecting students’ performance academically.”

“If it wasn’t for the support and positive pressure I’ve been getting I would have left this program a long time ago,” says Thompson LeBlanc, a doctoral student in astronomy who turned to his teachers and other students when he became discouraged. LeBlanc, a native of Puerto Rico, says the peer mentoring has been particularly helpful to him.

“The program been very instrumental in helping us interact with one another,” says Walker, the Army aviation intern. “Keivan and Dr. Burger have been very good in making sure everything is lined up so we don’t have to worry about a lot of administrative stuff.  The program has been great professionally, academically and socially.”

Because mentoring is so essential to students’ success, the program has no plans of increasing its enrollment as it moves into its seventh year.

“I think that by now, with about 40-something students, we have reached full capacity,” says Burger. “With 40-something students, it seems mentoring is important right now. We don’t want to dilute time mentoring students. Every time a student graduates, the student will be replaced by another one.”


Burger says the program has expanded its academic offerings to include biology and chemistry. Program officials want to continue to fine tune the program to maintain the high retention rate and to retain the quality.

The program is expanding to include collaborative relationships with other universities like Delaware State and Boston universities. Burger says program officials are also working with Columbia University Law School on a study that examines how the program operates and how to enhance its best practices.

In the meantime, the program continues to attract attention around the country.

“I think it’s a very interesting idea about how to partner an HBCU and an R1 (Research 1 university),” says Dr. Marcel Agueros, an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia and former associate director of a 2-year-old, non-degree-granting Bridge program there.

“I think it is a terrific program. I think that it does a few things that are very important. It’s very proactive in seeking out students who may not have been traditionally successful. A lot of the work is in identifying good matches for the program. It takes the attitude that the major thing you can do is really mentor these students, that mentoring is in fact productive work, that, if you bring in hungry students who maybe are not as qualified as they should be, you can turn them into productive scientists. That sounds like a simple thing, but there is a lot of skepticism among people. Many believe science is innate; either you have it or you don’t.”

Burger has a different take on why the collaboration is effective and why it could have served as a showcase for the Obama administration’s proposal.

“You know why it’s good?” he asks. “We’re not thinking of the benefits to institutions. We’re thinking of the beneficiaries — all the minority students.”

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