Houston universities team up to boost minorities in academia

NSF grant to Rice, UH, Texas Southern will help future science, engineering professors

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Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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.”

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Rice University, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston have won a National Science Foundation grant to help underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers in engineering and science. The principal investigators are, from left: Reginald DesRoches and Canek Phillips of Rice, Pradeep Sharma and Hanadi Rifai of the University of Houston, Yvette Pearson of Rice and Wei Wayne Li of Texas Southern University. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Texas Southern University (TSU) honors our designation as a special-purpose institution for urban programming and research. TSU is a comprehensive university providing higher education access to the nation’s underserved communities. TSU’s academic and research programs address critical urban issues, and prepares its diverse student population to become a force for positive change in a global society. TSU offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate programs and concentrations – bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degrees – organized into 10 colleges and schools on a 150-acre campus nestled in the heart of Houston’s historic Third Ward. The University’s enrollment has a population of more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate-school academic candidates. Texas Southern has been a distinguished educational pioneer since 1927, and the University has become one of the most diverse and respected institutions in Texas. TSU has positioned itself as a proactive leader in educating underserved students and many who are the first in their family to attend college.

The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning, groundbreaking research and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city and one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse regions in the country, UH is a federally designated Hispanic- and Asian-American-Serving institution with enrollment of more than 46,000 students.

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 4 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

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