A Success Story: Recruiting & Retaining Underrepresented Minority Doctoral Students in Biomedical Engineering

By Reichert, William M. | Liberal Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Success Story: Recruiting & Retaining Underrepresented Minority Doctoral Students in Biomedical Engineering


Reichert, William M., Liberal Education


IN THE EARLY 1990s, there were only a handful of African American doctoral students in all of the math, science, and engineering graduate programs at Duke University. Prior to 1995, the school of engineering had granted only one PhD to an African American. My own department of biomedical engineering (BME), which has a nationally top-ranked graduate program, had never granted a PhD to an African American in its thirty years of existence. All African American students recruited into the BME doctoral program had either left with a Master's degree or dropped out altogether.

Now, fast-forward. In 2000, the Duke BME program awarded its third PhD to a Hispanic; in 2004, it awarded its first PhD to an African American. By 2005, the underrepresented minority (URM) cohort of thirteen BME doctoral students comprised the highest number of URM doctoral students in all the math, science, and engineering departments at Duke, including the social sciences; more than a quarter of the total URM doctoral students in all of Duke's thirty-two graduate programs in math and natural, physical, biological, and biomedical science; and nearly one-tenth of the total URM students enrolled in all fifty PhD-granting programs at Duke University.

What follows is the story of Duke BME's success in solving one of the most persistent (and touchy) problems in math, science, and engineering graduate education: the recruitment and retention of URM doctoral students.

Change at Duke

In 1996, I took sabbatical leave at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university in Durham, and immersed myself in the study of minority education in math, science, and engineering. I used this experience to develop a game plan for venturing outside of established recruitment norms. Upon my return to Duke, I was selected to direct a biotechnology training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that supports predoctoral fellows during their first years of graduate training. Soon thereafter, I was appointed director of graduate studies in BME. This combination gave me the mandate, the authority, and the resources to make a difference.

The central resource was, of course, the graduate school itself. Each graduate program at Duke, based on its size, receives a budget from the graduate school to support student tuition, stipends, and fees, all of which are supplemented by research funds, fellowships, and training grants. Funds from the graduate school are both substantial and largely discretionary because the BME graduate program is one of the largest at Duke University, the BME faculty is well funded, BME graduate students are highly successful in garnering substantial external fellowships, and BME has two NIH training grants to support graduate students. The graduate school also offers two-year fellowships from the Duke endowment to the most highly qualified URM applicants.

Now, the hard part. Graduate students in the sciences are prime vehicles by which faculty accomplish their research agendas. This has led to a "risk-averse" dependence of faculty on student success that does not exist in medicine, law, or business. Nor does it exist in the humanities, summer research programs, or undergraduate education. This unique student-faculty relationship, when it works, can he a great strength of science education; hut, when it fails, it can he a great barrier to success. For URM, it can impose a highly personal burden that is as much about attitude and culture as it is about talent and resources.

I realized that the faculty and departmental "comfort zone" had to be relaxed so that "URM" was no longer a defining characteristic but, rather, a nuance within a larger context. Although the support from the administration was vital, this cultural transition could not have been accomplished by an administrator or a staff person alone. It had instead to be advocated at the departmental level by a faculty member with (1) successful and productive URM students in his or her own lab, (2) a vigorous research profile, (3) the respect of the other BME faculty, and (4) control over resources for supporting URM students. …

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