Diversity researchers say fix the system in physics, not the students | Science

This story is part of a special package being published this week about the barriers Black physicists face and potential models for change.

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C. Smith/Science

Physicist Mary James was a sophomore at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1974 when a professor encouraged her to apply for a prestigious internship at a world-class laboratory. Such competitive internships are often an essential step to becoming an academic scientist, which was her goal. But for a young Black woman from Chicago, the idea of spending 10 weeks at what is now called the SLAC National Linear Accelerator Laboratory in California seemed far-fetched.

“I had never been west of the Mississippi,” she says. “And the brochure was so intimidating that I thought, ‘This isn’t even worth a stamp,’” James recalls. But her Hampshire professor kept pushing her to apply, and the next year she did—and was accepted. Spending two summers at SLAC set her on the road to earning a Ph.D. from Stanford University and then to Reed College, where she’s been a faculty member for 35 years.

Nearly a half-century later, James can still recall a lunch at SLAC that cemented her future. “A bunch of us students were sitting at the grown-ups’ table,” she says, “eavesdropping on a very lively conversation, when I had an epiphany: ‘They are getting paid to do this.’ I hadn’t realized you could make a living doing physics.”

James also didn’t realize that the internships were making her more acceptable to the white male “priesthood” that sets the discipline’s culture. That culture, which has historically excluded people who look like James, expects students to meet a certain standard. And rather than giving students the help they need, James and other Black physicists say, the priesthood too often decides that those students are unworthy of joining the profession.

That way of thinking is so common in physics that it even has a name. Diversity scholars call it the deficit model, and they say it’s a major reason fewer than 4% of all undergraduate physics degrees awarded by U.S. institutions go to Black men and women. Sadly, that underrepresentation is getting worse: A 2020 report by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found Black people now comprise a smaller slice of those degrees than they did 2 decades ago.

James was co-chair of AIP’s National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP), which wrote the report. It calls on physicists to reject the deficit model and replace it with something that assigns them primary responsibility for diversifying their profession. Black students “have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to obtain physics and astronomy degrees as students of other races and ethnicities,” the report says. “[But] they are choosing majors that are perceived as being more supportive and/or rewarding.”

“Black students don’t need to be fixed,” James says, driving home the point. “We know that there are a robust number of African American students capable of doing physics because they are majoring in other STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields. So instead of trying to change them, let’s talk about why they are turned off by the environment in physics and work to change that.”

The TEAM-UP report recommends several ways to improve that environment. One is for departments to help students develop what it calls a “physics identity”—the ability to see themselves as a future member of the profession. Another is for physics professors to abandon their traditional role as gatekeepers who only let the “best” students advance and instead find ways to attract and retain a more diverse group of students.

Students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) take that kind of nurturing for granted, says Arlisa Richardson, who also served on the TEAM-UP task force. Richardson is a physics professor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and an alumna of Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana. “At Grambling, people were rooting for us and helping us deal with any problems,” says Richardson, who nearly dropped out of physics during graduate school at a predominantly white institution because of what she and a small cohort of other Black students regarded as a hostile learning environment. Richardson has spent the past decade at Chandler trying “to re-create the experience I had at Grambling,” she says, “by providing students with a welcoming environment, hands-on learning, clubs that are student-led, and free tutoring.”

Portrait of Mary James.
Reed College’s Mary James says Black students gravitate to majors they perceive as more supportive than physics.Reed College

Even before the TEAM-UP report, some academic physicists had begun to take similar steps. At Vanderbilt University, astrophysicist Keivan Stassun was moved to act by data showing Black undergraduates are being pushed out of the field they want to study.

“The percentage of incoming freshmen who express interest in astronomy [1%] is not different between majority and minority students,” says Stassun, who identifies as Hispanic and says he has “lived the life” of someone from an underrepresented group in science. “But 2 years later, 60% of all students have fallen away, while the rate is 90% for Black students. It’s a massive disparity from which we never recover.”

Similar attrition is occurring across the country, according to a recent decadal study for astronomy and astrophysics by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), in which Stassun took part. It reports that, among undergraduate students who say they intend to major in physics or astronomy, those from groups underrepresented in science are almost three times less likely to complete the degree than are white students.

Studies have shown research internships like the one James did at SLAC can help keep students engaged in physics. But some students who would benefit most from such an experience can’t participate, argues Sheila Kannappan, an astrophysicist at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. Kannappan identifies as a woman of color—“I’m half-Indian, and I appear vaguely brown.” She is also the department’s associate chair for diversity, and once ran summer research internships at UNC funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). But after several years, she realized NSF’s research experiences for undergraduates (REU) program wasn’t a great fit for her target audience of students from groups underrepresented in science.

“You had to be a superstar to get in,” Kannappan says. But many of the students she wanted to serve “don’t look good on paper—they don’t have 4.0 [grade point averages] and previous research experience. They may also need to work during the summer, or if they are transfer students from a community college, they may need to go to summer school” to catch up on prerequisite courses for their major.

Instead of trying to win another REU grant, Kannappan decided to create a 2-week paid boot camp just for UNC students, including those from marginalized groups. It teaches them computational skills applicable to any area of physics, and is supported by institutional funding and a supplement to her standard NSF research grant. Its short duration, she says, “still allows [students] to go home or take [other] classes.”

In fall of 2021, Kannappan also helped stand up a new peer mentoring program that pairs UNC graduate students in physics with undergraduate students in the department. “We understand that there are other things besides their coursework that affect someone’s ability to succeed in school,” says Zack Hall, who co-directs the program. All of the participants in the inaugural class—six mentees and five mentors—are from groups underrepresented in physics, says Hall, who is on track to become the first Black student to earn a physics Ph.D. from the university.

A professor and three students stand outside a campus building.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, physics professor Sheila Kannappan (second from left) is flanked by graduate student Zack Hall (left), undergraduate Nathnael Kahassai (second from right), and graduate student Derrick Carr. Jon Gardiner/University of North Carolina

The program relies on volunteer mentors, and Hall says he’s careful to make sure the 10 hours or so a week he spends coordinating their activities doesn’t interfere with his work on lattice quantum chromodynamics. But Julieta Gruszko, a white assistant professor of physics at UNC, thinks such mentors should be compensated in order to recognize their value to strengthening the profession. So in 2020, when she negotiated her startup package, she included funding for a graduate student to work with individual students and organize public events to promote diversity.

Kannappan and Hall hope these and other efforts will ultimately help UNC improve its mediocre record of training Black physicists. Black students earned just seven of the 232 undergraduate physics degrees it awarded over the past decade, a rate slightly below the national average.

Similar efforts are still uncommon at other campuses around the United States, according a 2020 AIP survey of 310 physics department chairs. Three out of four chairs identified “low enrollment or retention of historically underrepresented groups” as a major challenge. However, barely half of the department chairs listed “creating an inclusive learning environment”—exactly what the TEAM-UP report says is essential for improving retention rates and increasing diversity—as something they need to address. And fewer than two in five identified improving the department’s “climate” as a priority.

Producing more Black majors at the undergraduate level is only the first step in diversifying the profession. Such efforts will be for naught if they aren’t sustained. Graduate training at predominantly white institutions poses its own set of challenges, because physics departments historically have only recruited from a small and homogeneous group of undergraduate schools and use entrance requirements that often put Black students at a disadvantage.

One increasingly popular alternative is for those departments to partner with institutions that serve large numbers of students from minority groups. Those arrangements, often called bridge programs, come in many flavors. But they share the goal of increasing the number of Black students earning graduate degrees in the natural sciences. Simultaneously, many departments have broadened their definition of a viable candidate.

In 2004, Stassun decided to combine those elements into a bridge program that has become a national model. Students apply to a master’s degree program at Fisk University, an HBCU also located in Nashville, Tennessee, that feeds into a doctoral program at Vanderbilt. It caters to promising students with holes in their undergraduate education that need to be filled before they can begin a research-based doctoral training program.

Simultaneously, Vanderbilt reduced what Stassun calls an “overreliance on standardized test scores,” in particular the graduate record examination (GRE) in physics, to winnow the initial applicant pool. Studies have shown GRE scores are poor predictors of success in graduate school, and many minority students who are otherwise qualified do poorly on the exam, Stassun told a meeting last year of the Roundtable on Black Men and Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine sponsored by NASEM. 

The Fisk-Vanderbilt program puts more weight on factors such as perseverance, the ability to set long-term goals, leadership, and community engagement. Those qualities, Stassun says, don’t penalize students of color and are also seen as better metrics for success.

Using those criteria helped Vanderbilt attract a more diverse pool of students. But that was only the first step toward producing more Black Ph.D.s in the natural sciences, Stassun explains. “The next challenge was building a sense of community.” Vanderbilt’s partnership with Fisk serves that role, he says, by giving minority students “1 to 3 years to capitalize on what Fisk has to offer.” 

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Black students don’t need to be fixed. … So instead of trying to change them, let’s talk about why they are turned off by the environment in physics and work to change that.

And once students began their doctoral work at Vanderbilt, Stassun took on a third challenge: creating a more hospitable environment. That required creating mentoring networks that went beyond the traditional mentoring “dyad” between a graduate student and their adviser, he says.

“I can’t be their only source of support,” Stassun says. He says the broader mentoring networks, which include faculty from other departments and peers, allow students to tap into “all the experiences they will need” to succeed.

The bridge program has made impressive strides in increasing diversity: Some 80% of the 150 students who have earned master’s and doctoral degrees identify as either Black or Hispanic, according to data compiled by the program, and more than half are women. Along the way, says Stassun, who stepped down as director of the program in 2015, Fisk has become the nation’s top producer of Black students with master’s degrees in physics and materials science. “And my lab has awarded more Ph.D.s. in astrophysics to African Americans than any other lab in the country,” he says.

The Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program has shown that pairing a minority-serving and a predominantly white institution can boost the flow of Black students into physics. A half-dozen major research universities have adopted variations of the model, and the American Physical Society is using the concept to build a nationwide network of graduate programs that have pledged to train more minority students. (Hall earned his master’s degree at California State University, Long Beach, under one such program, which he says “really bolstered my confidence.”)

But not every pairing has been successful. For example, the checkered history of the former Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM) based at Boston University shows what can go wrong.

In addition to advancing research in the emerging field of space weather, CISM hoped to alter the field’s overwhelmingly white demographics. So the center partnered with Alabama A&M University (AAMU), an HBCU with a new graduate program in space physics. The plan was to have students earn a master’s degree from AAMU before pursuing doctoral work at that university or elsewhere. The center received 10 years of funding from NSF, which wanted to foster greater diversity in the discipline.

But AAMU’s program only graduated two Black students—Fana Mulu-Moore and Samaiyah Farid—over its decadelong affiliation with the center. And both women say the partnership was little help to their careers. In particular, they viewed themselves as tokens in a program they say only gave lip service to diversity.

“Sometimes it felt that they were just checking a box,” says Mulu-Moore, who spent 10 years trying to find her place in physics after also earning her Ph.D. from AAMU in 2009. “We were doing a lot of outreach to minority schools for CISM. But I don’t know of a single minority student who came through the CISM program and went into the field.”

Farid left the AAMU program after her master’s degree to work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She hoped it would be a springboard into space physics. But she says she was the only Black scientist there and was subject to racial taunts. After leaving that job and enrolling in a doctoral program at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Farid said she experienced a similar sense of isolation and hostility toward her as a Black person. It was a “horrible experience,” she recalls. Although the department was a partner in CISM, Farid felt it offered her no additional support or guidance.

But Farid didn’t give up. After dropping out of UNH and taking a short respite, she resumed her doctoral studies at Vanderbilt under Stassun. Although Farid was too advanced to qualify for a master’s degree through the bridge program, she participated in many of its activities. 

Looking back, Farid thinks her experiences at AAMU, UNH, and Vanderbilt show that a partnership between a predominantly white institution and a minority-serving institution is no panacea. “It definitely stigmatizes the students,” Farid says about the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge. “People assumed I was in the program because I was Black. And if you’re in the program, people also assume that you’re not up to par.”

At the same time, her affiliation with the program has helped advance her career. She is now doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University that is only available to astrophysics students who have gone through bridge programs at Vanderbilt, Columbia, and Ohio State universities.

Mulu-Moore now teaches at Aims Community College in Colorado. Last summer, after several years living a precarious existence as an adjunct, she was hired as the department’s only full-time faculty member. She relishes teaching first-generation college students who remind her of herself when she arrived in the United States 20 years ago from Ethiopia. “It’s a small, nurturing school, and I feel that I’ve found my niche,” she says.

Along with engaging in extensive community outreach to broaden the pool, Mulu-Moore tries to connect her most promising students with the kind of high-quality summer internships that helped launch James’s career. One of those students is Carter Woodson, a biracial student who graduated from a rural West Virginia high school and has spent 10 years trying to acquire a college education, the cost of which is often beyond his means.

Woodson teaches and tutors at a local high school that Aims operates, a job that pays the tuition for his science courses and feeds his long-term ambition of becoming a science and math teacher. When Mulu-Moore told him about a 10-week, paid summer program run by the National Solar Observatory in conjunction with the University of Colorado, Boulder, he jumped at the chance. “I’ve always loved math,” he says, “and this sounds like the chance to do something really interesting.”

Mulu-Moore knows he’ll face stiff competition. “These internship programs are usually looking for students from the top universities,” she says. “But Carter checks all the boxes. He’s very smart, he’s a full-time student, and he’s absolutely determined to get a degree.”

To Mulu-Moore, Woodson is exactly the kind of student the U.S. physics community should be encouraging and welcoming. “He’s just as capable,” she says, “as somebody from an Ivy League school.”