March / April 2007
Underrepresentation of minorities at MIT has been a recurrent issue. The perception that MIT is not as accessible to, or as supportive and welcoming of minorities is a serious impediment to efforts at increasing minority student enrollment at MIT. The Department of Biology, and the Institute as a whole, have been working hard to address this situation by reaching out to minorities in a more systematic and committed manner.
The current proportion of underrepresented minorities at the undergraduate level at MIT is between 12% and 18%. This is the result of a deep and sustained institutional commitment to increasing the diversity of the undergraduate student body. While 16% of all Bachelor degrees awarded at MIT in 2006 were to underrepresented minorities, only 2% of all Doctoral degrees awarded that same year were to underrepresented minority students.
Our goal is to achieve the same kind of success at the graduate and postgraduate levels as exists for undergraduates. We believe that by increasing the number of interested and qualified applicants from underrepresented and under-served backgrounds it is possible to increase the number of underrepresented minority graduate students at MIT, without compromising fundamental standards of academic excellence. There is no easy or immediate way to reach out to these students. But we have seen that by taking many small steps along the lines that have already found to be successful, persistence will eventually yield large dividends.
MIT has long been at the forefront of science outreach to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The creation of the MITES (Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science) summer program in 1974 for rising high-school seniors and the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in 1986 for undergraduates from other institutions, both designed to encourage students to pursue degrees in the sciences, are just two examples. The MSRP now includes more than 50 students per year who perform research in laboratories across the entire Institute – and is specifically designed to encourage students to apply to graduate school at top tier institutions.
In addition to these programs on campus, MIT has, in the last few years, further increased its efforts to reach out to undergraduates from other institutions. These efforts give talented students nationwide greater access to MIT. As a result, the Institute is attracting applicants who would otherwise not apply to MIT. This, in turn, is increasing graduate student diversity.
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The results are encouraging. In the Biology Department, for example, the number of underrepresented minority students applying to the graduate program has almost doubled in the past three years, reaching an all-time high of 37 during the last application cycle. The number of minority graduate students in the Biology program has doubled in four years from under 5% in 2003 to 10% this past fall, and is expected to continue rising. The Biology PhD program currently has 19 underrepresented minority graduate students. This number is expected to rise to at least 23 by September 2007. There is also an increasing number of Biology graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have attended community colleges and large state schools.
These increases in numbers are the result of sustained efforts by MIT faculty and administrators to promote an accurate image of MIT’s academic, cultural, and social environment, both inside and outside MIT. Institute representatives meet with prospective minority students and faculty on campus, or travel to other institutions and national conferences to give seminars and meet with students and their faculty mentors. Two important points that are communicated to students and faculty at other institutions are:
1) MIT is much more than just an engineering school (which comes as a surprise to many students)
2) The dream of being accepted into a PhD program at MIT can be a reality.
Many outstanding students never apply to MIT because they are intimidated by our reputation, don’t believe they can be accepted, or think of MIT as the exclusive domain of engineers.
Although it is true that MIT is the premier engineering institution in the nation and is ranked number one nationally in six engineering disciplines, many departments outside the School of Engineering have reached similar pinnacles of success. All of MIT’s Science departments are ranked in the top five in the nation and have their share of Nobel laureates (currently four in biology, one in chemistry, four in physics). The Linguistics Department, the Economics Department (with two current Nobel laureates), and the business school (Sloan School of Management) are all ranked in the top three in the country. As a result, MIT is becoming increasingly more attractive to students who are from minority or economically disadvantaged groups who have interests outside of engineering. These students are discovering, to their surprise, that MIT offers a friendly and supportive environment and many more disciplines than they expected.
One example of the type of activities that MIT is pursuing to increase its visibility and appeal to diverse groups of students and their mentors is detailed below.
This past fall, MIT held exhibition booths at three major annual minority conferences (not including the NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers]): at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in Tampa, at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) conference in Detroit, and at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) meeting in Anaheim. MIT has held information booths at these conferences on a regular basis since 2001, but this is the first time MIT sponsored scientific sessions at two of the conferences.
At SACNAS, MIT sponsored two sessions funded by MIT’s Computational and Systems Biology Initiative directed by Professors Paul Matsudaira (Biology Department and Biological Engineering Division) and Bruce Tidor (Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Biological Engineering Division). In addition, Christine Ortiz, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Material Sciences, was an invited speaker at the conference. These events helped increase MIT’s visibility, as the conference had an attendance of over 2500. In total, 13 MIT representatives attended the 2006 SACNAS conference, including faculty, administrators, scientists, and graduate students.
At ABRCMS, with an attendance close to 2800, MIT sponsored a scientific session that was funded jointly by Dean Silbey and Dean Magnanti from the MIT Schools of Science and Engineering, respectively. The session was chaired by Professor Chris Kaiser, chair of the MIT Biology Department, and featured as speaker Professor Kristala Jones Prather ‘94, an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering. The session was extremely well attended and more than 50% of the attendees were African American women.
In addition, nine undergraduate students who spent last summer at MIT in the MSRP program in biology presented posters of their 2006 summer research at these conferences, and three won prizes for their presentations. Hundreds of students and many program directors and mentors stopped at the MIT booths to learn about the graduate program and the summer program, and took advantage of the opportunity to meet MIT faculty and graduate students. The active presence of faculty and graduate students at the MIT booth and at the conference allowed for essential activities: networking with faculty, administrators, and program directors from other institutions, advertising the Institute’s summer and graduate programs, and putting a human face on MIT.
The summer research program has become an extremely important mechanism for graduate recruiting.
This fall, 12 summer students who worked in MIT’s biology-affiliated laboratories between June 2004 and August 2006, applied to MIT graduate programs for the 2007-2008 academic year, and seven of those (including five underrepresented minorities) have been accepted. Most importantly, it is unlikely that these students would have considered applying to MIT had they not experienced first hand the academic and social environment on this campus. The number of applicants to the Biology summer program has risen steadily from 45 in 2004 to over 125 in 2007. The diversity and academic caliber of the applicants has also risen, due to an aggressive advertising campaign by the Biology faculty at meetings such as the ABRCMS and SACNAS conferences, or direct contact with students and faculty at other institutions (some of them alumni of the Biology Department).
Other efforts and programs which are being developed to increase and promote diversity at MIT include CONVERGE, a fall preview weekend funded by the Office of the Provost, a faculty summer sabbatical in the Department of Biology (supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) for faculty from institutions with a significant proportion of underrepresented minorities, a seminar series that focuses on the problem of underrepresentation of minorities in the sciences, and an increase in the number of minority scientists invited to give a research seminar at MIT. Seminar speakers will meet separately with faculty and students. The Biology Department will start by inviting its own minority alumni, now faculty at other institutions, to speak about their current research.
It is these kinds of sustained efforts, and most importantly, the development of strong and lasting ties to faculty at other institutions, that will eventually make a difference. Faculty mentors play a very important role in advising their students about graduate schools, and they need to be confident that in addition to outstanding training, MIT will provide also a supportive academic environment, as well as a good social and cultural environment where their students can grow and develop into successful scientists. It is only then that they will encourage their best students to apply to MIT.
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