Houston universities team upto boost minorities in academia

Rice University, Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston (UH) have won a multimillion-dollar grant to help increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers in engineering and science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $2.66 million over five years is part of its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, which seeks to “advance knowledge about models to improve pathways to the professoriate and success” for historically underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

The award is specifically for those in data engineering and data science disciplines. It will fund a project to be called AGEP STRIDES (Strengthening Training and Resources for Inclusion in Data Engineering and Sciences).

“Even in this day and age, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in engineering faculty is nowhere near what it can be,” said Hanadi Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean of research and facilities at UH’s Cullen College of Engineering­­.

“I think you will see the picture changing,” Rifai said. “You have to excite people and show them the opportunities available, but then also prepare them to take advantage of those opportunities.”

The universities expect AGEP will enhance tech companies’ bottom lines as newly minted academics develop the diverse workforce of the future.

“We can’t overstate how important and timely this project is,” said the grant’s principal investigator, Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering. “We are at a unique time when the economy is dominated by companies in the computational and data science domain. At the same time, we know these industries remain among the least diverse.”

DesRoches noted Rice’s development of The Ion innovation and technology district gives Houston, one of the nation’s most diverse cities, a unique conduit toward diversification in burgeoning high-tech fields. “Although the grant is focused on getting more underrepresented minority Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellows into academia, this will have a direct impact on diverse undergraduates pursuing degrees in the data engineering and data science fields,” he said.

“This project award arrives at the right time, with the nation addressing a STEM achievement gap between underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM undergraduate and graduate students, and with our universities and colleges struggling to recruit, retain and promote URM STEM faculty,” said Wei Wayne Li, a professor of computer science and director of the TSU-based NSF Center for Research on Complex Networks.

“We know diversity matters, so my collaborators and I are focusing on how to make academic ranks in engineering more diverse,” said Pradeep Sharma, the M.D. Anderson professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department at UH. “The questions we are trying to answer are: How can we best support people from underrepresented groups to enter and thrive in academia? What tools and resources can we provide for them to make the most of their own potential and the opportunities out there?”

“What’s most exciting is that our efforts will extend far beyond scholar development,” said Yvette Pearson, associate dean for accreditation, assessment and strategic initiatives at the Brown School and co-investigator with Rifai, Li, Sharma and Rice postdoctoral researcher Canek Phillips. “Will we equip scholars with the tools they’ll need to succeed in academia? Absolutely! Beyond that, our primary focus is learning about systemic barriers that impede their success and developing, implementing, studying and propagating solutions to overcome those barriers.”

Pearson said the project will create opportunities for researchers to engage with each other across campuses, provide existing faculty with guidance on mentoring inclusive research teams and hold quarterly training programs to prepare future faculty members to lead research teams and centers and to further the impacts of their research through entrepreneurship.

“We are also going to provide future faculty members with affinity mentors who can advise them about their careers and also about life,” Rifai said. “Because there’s more to life than just the career, and we want them to have all the support they need to succeed.”

A major component of the project is a research investigation to identify factors that help and hinder underrepresented minorities as they apply for faculty positions.

“Research conducted by the Kapor Center shows tech companies’ hiring practices are biased towards candidates from ‘top-ranking universities’ and against ‘candidates with ethnic-sounding names,'” Pearson said. “We believe this holds true for many STEM faculty hires as well. We will investigate this along with other systemic barriers and inequities. Ultimately, we want to see the results of our research put into practice to help remove those barriers.”

The project will work in tandem with another AGEP grant to Rice, Georgia Tech, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and the University of Colorado focused on advancing underrepresented minority postdoctoral researchers into faculty positions.

“We have a sizeable team of committed people at our institutions and at others nationwide who are working to make this project a success,” Pearson said. “Some get the sense that diversity, equity and inclusion are the responsibility of certain subsets of people.

“And that is not true,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility. I want this to become business as usual, and this AGEP award will enable us to make great strides in that direction.”