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A decade of gains in engineering graduate student diversity

GERS scholars

GERS scholars

Throughout the past decade, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has earned myriad accolades for everything from its status as a global powerhouse for research and education to its efforts in sustainability and its ability to produce corporate CEOs.

On the College of Engineering campus, there’s a more subtle—yet no less meaningful—success story playing out.

It’s the story of the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars, or GERS, a program that since 1999 has increased opportunities for talented minority graduate students to study with world-class UW-Madison engineering faculty and achieve their goals for higher education in science, technology, engineering and math. In January 2011, the program received national attention when U.S. President Barack Obama presented Douglass Henderson, a professor of engineering physics who directs the program, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Since 2000, 45 students in GERS have earned PhD degrees through the College of Engineering. In comparison, fewer than 350 minority students have earned PhDs nationwide in the past decade, according to the American Society for Engineering Education 2009 edition of Engineering by the Numbers.

When GERS began, the graduate student profile of the College of Engineering looked much different, says Henderson. “We had about nine to 11 minority graduate students in the college, with an enrollment of about 1,200 graduate students,” he says. “Among the faculty, we were hearing that there weren’t many minority students to draw from, and one of the obvious questions was why. We’re doing top-rated research, and we’re one of the top-ranked research universities.”

The answer—recruit and retain more minority graduate students—was obvious. Yet the process for achieving that goal is an ongoing effort.

In the College of Engineering, GERS originated based loosely on a model developed by Richard Tapia, an engineering professor at Rice University. At UW-Madison, its aims are to build the campus community of minority graduate students in engineering and to provide a pathway for those students to attain top positions in industry, government and academia. For the latter, a major GERS objective is to produce more faculty of color and create systemic change in overall diversity in engineering.

In 1999, the college hired Kelly Burton as GERS coordinator and she and Henderson began recruiting students into the program in 2000. Each year, the two attend the national conferences of such organizations as the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the National Science Foundation-funded Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program, among others.

Additionally, Burton coordinates the two major GERS recruiting efforts: Opportunities in Engineering, an annual weeklong conference that draws undergrad juniors and seniors to campus to explore graduate education in engineering; and SURE-REU, a nine-week summer undergrad research experience supported by the college, the UW-Madison Graduate School, and the NSF-funded UW-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. The program enables undergraduates to conduct laboratory research in engineering, meet current engineering graduate students, develop a network of supportive peers in GERS, and learn about the graduate application process and outside fellowships. Now, approximately 50 students annually participate in GERS.

Strong personal connections

In 2006, Arrielle Opotowsky was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, pursuing bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy. She spent the summer in Madison participating in the SURE-REU Program. During that summer program, Erwin W. Mueller Professor and Bascom Professor of Surface Science in Materials Science and Engineering Max Lagally was Opotowsky’s advisor. Now, Opotowsky is a GERS scholar pursuing a PhD under Lagally through the Materials Science Program. “I knew he was the best option I could ever hope for in terms of an advisor,” she says, of her decision to attend graduate school at UW-Madison. “And I knew that GERS would be a great support group if I chose to come here.”

That personal connection—which often begins before GERS scholars ever visit the UW-Madison campus—is key to recruiting and retaining the students. “The friends I’ve met through GERS mean a lot to me, given that my whole social network in Madison stems from GERS scholars,” says Shannon Roberts, an industrial and systems engineering PhD student investigating the role of feedback in changing driver behavior under Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor John Lee.

Henderson and Burton recruited Roberts at a National Society of Black Engineers national conference in 2009 and a special GERS welcome weekend. “When I first moved here, GERS scholars were the first to invite me to events and help me navigate campus,” says Roberts. “Without them, I’m sure I wouldn’t be as far along as I am, both in terms of my social life and my academic progress.”

Nationally recognized scholars

Given the university’s rigorous standards, academic progress is of the utmost importance, and GERS participants are top-notch scholars. However, an outstanding academic track record doesn’t automatically guarantee success in graduate school. So, before GERS students set foot on campus, Henderson and Burton work with engineering faculty to ensure the students’ research interests and academic goals are a good fit. The two work with faculty to help secure financial support, including fellowships and research assistantships, for incoming GERS scholars.

Currently, 10 GERS scholars—including Opotowsky and Roberts— also hold National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships. This prestigious award program recognizes outstanding graduate students and provides them three years of support, a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance, access to a powerful supercomputer, and international research and professional development opportunities. “The NSF fellowship not only provides funding for three years of my studies, but provides me with freedom to work on projects I am interested in,” says Ricardo Alamillo, a chemical and biological systems engineering PhD student and GERS scholar working on using heterogeneous catalysis to convert biomass to chemicals and fuels under Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic.

Tam Mayeshiba, a GERS scholar who is studying ways to make more cost-effective solid oxide fuel cells under Materials Science and Engineering Associate Professor Dane Morgan, says the NSF fellowship keeps her grounded in responsibility. “I want to do work worthy of being an NSF fellow,” she says. “I also like being part of a national program that values research in all kinds of different areas.”

She says she feels her participation in GERS strengthened her NSF application because of the GERS focus on increasing the diversity of science, technology, engineering and math fields. “I was also motivated by the idea that I could help the GERS program by securing a fellowship, both because it would be an additional credit to the program and because I could free up funds for other students,” says Mayeshiba, whose career plans include becoming a professor.

In the past two years, 10 of 20 College of Engineering students who received the NSF fellowship were GERS students. That high percentage is a testament to the commitment GERS scholars have made to help each other succeed. Roberts is a 2010 NSF fellowship recipient and since has provided advice to her fellow GERS scholars. “As the reviewers read literally hundreds of essays a day, it’s important that students’ application really stand out from the rest,” she says. “I think it’s important to mentor students during this process because I had a lot of help when I was applying for fellowships and I want to give that same help to other students.”

When NSF announces the fellowships each spring, Roberts is first to notify GERS. “I think she is as excited as the new recipients,” says Burton. “We celebrate with a cake, complete with the NSF logo, at the next GERS meeting.”

An inclusive, supportive campus culture
GERS also provides a network of moral support and attempts to alleviate the isolation many minority students often feel on campus. The program offers biweekly meetings GERS scholars are required to attend. They help plan the meetings and play active roles on committees ranging in focus from social to recruiting. “It’s professional development, but we spend a little bit of time just being in the same room together,” says Burton. “They don’t otherwise see each other.”

But even that’s changing, as the college and UW-Madison continue to invest in efforts that increase the number of minority students—both at the undergraduate and graduate student levels—on campus. Offshoots of the GERS program now exist in seven other schools, colleges or programs at UW-Madison and the climate on campus for diverse students is improving. “We see the culture change,” says Henderson. “The faculty say they see a lot more minority graduate students in the College of Engineering. They see students in the classrooms and performing well—or better than they had perceived or thought before. We see faculty picking up more minority students for research. Now they see other students’ successes and know the GERS program is bringing strong students—and the NSF fellowships reinforce that we’re getting very good students.”

Perhaps the strongest testament to the quality of the GERS scholars is number of graduates who have advanced into high-level science, technology, engineering and math jobs. It’s an area currently lagging in diversity, says Henderson. “We hope there’s a pyramid effect here, that more students will filter in, graduate and get hired into faculty positions, industry and research positions,” he says. “And by increasing the number of people in these positions, hopefully they’ll move up.”

In a decade, nine of 45 GERS PhD graduates have taken full-time, tenure-track faculty positions, eight are postdoctoral students, three are pursuing or have earned MD/PhD degrees, seven work at a national lab, and the remaining GERS graduates have found jobs in industry.

Many of those former students keep in touch with Burton via Facebook and E-mail, and they often drop her notes to share high points in their lives and careers. That connection is among the many reasons Burton is dedicated to keeping GERS going strong. “I’ve always wanted everybody to have equal opportunity to be who they could be,” she says of the scholars. “That’s what motivates me every day. It’s a gift to watch all of them go out and succeed.” 

Renee Meiller
11/22/2011