A unique collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt Universities is poised to become the nation’s top source of women and Ph.D.s of color in physics and astronomy. The initiative has received a major boost from two grants from the National Science Foundation and one grant from the Department of Education totaling $3.7 million to increase the presence of women and people of color in the sciences.
The Fisk/Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge program was established in 2004. In just five years the program has attracted 31 underrepresented minority students, 60 percent of whom are women, and has become the nation’s top producer of blacks earning master’s degrees in physics. One National Science Foundation grant in the amount of $1.8 million will be used to strengthen the astronomy/astrophysics masters infrastructure at Fisk, a historically black university, as well as increase recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in the programs. Another NSF grant in the amount of $1.2 million will fund the expansion of the program to a second historically black institution, Delaware State University, and expand the program from its current focus on astronomy and astrophysics to include materials science. These funds will be shared by all three institutions enrolled in the Fisk/Vanderbilt program. The third grant from the Department of Education in the amount of $784,000 will provide generous fellowships to support the students participating in the program.
“We are pleased to receive this federal support for Fisk, Vanderbilt and Delaware State students which reflects the quality of our existing programs,” said Fisk’s President Hazel R. O’Leary. “With this funding we will expand our existing successful collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt in astronomy and astrophysics to increase opportunity and build on our consistent reputation for producing both women scientists and scientists of color for over a century.”
Fisk University has awarded about a third of the nation’s African American masters degrees in physics since 2006. Nationally, the 53 institutions that grant these degrees, on average, produce one minority Ph.D. degree every 10 years for. Such small numbers mean that a single program, like the Bridge Program, can have a significant impact.
“Our vision is to enhance the scope and impact of our Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program by expanding it to include all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” said Dr. Arnold Burger, professor of physics at Fisk. “This reinforces Fisk as a pipeline to advanced degrees for extremely talented students.”
“Through this partnership, more students will have the opportunity to develop valuable, marketable skills at the interface of astronomy, materials science, and high-performance computing,” added Keivan Stassun, associate professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt and adjunct professor of physics at Fisk who is one of the program’s architects. “The result will be enhanced research capability at both Fisk and Vanderbilt, as well as a cadre of highly skilled astrophysics Ph.D. students who will significantly enhance the diversity and quality of the nation’s astronomy and astrophysics workforce.”
The largest grant, totaling $1.8 million, is directed to Fisk to support the Graduate Opportunities for Fisk Astronomy and Astrophysics Research (GO-FAAR) project. The funds will be used to strengthen Fisk’s research infrastructure in astronomy and astrophysics. It will also be used to increase recruitment, retention and degree attainment by underrepresented students. Funding for the project comes from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in Astronomy & Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE) program.
The second NSF grant of $1.2 million will fund the expansion of the Bridge Program to include Delaware State University. Students from all three institutions will collaborate in graduate research and instruction and receive full funding support. This grant comes from NSF’s Innovation through Institutional Integration project, which supports initiatives that enable faculty, administrators, and others in institutions to think and act strategically about the creative integration of NSF-funded awards. The grant enables the Bridge program to expand into the field of materials science, which also suffers from extremely low minority representation.
In addition to these grants, the program has received $784,000 from the Department of Education’s Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program. This grant will provide attractive fellowships ($30,000 per year plus tuition) for graduate students in science disciplines deemed essential to the nation’s economic competitiveness. It will support six to seven new graduate students per year, who will be evenly apportioned among those entering the Bridge program at Fisk and those entering into the Vanderbilt Ph.D. program.
“This significant investment by the federal government is a dramatic recognition of the success of the joint Fisk/Vanderbilt program,” said Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty. “The complimentary strengths of Fisk’s master degree and Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. programs have combined in a remarkable fashion that provides minority students with the support, encouragement and the skills that they need to succeed in the physical sciences.”