Michigan’s surprising recipe for improving diversity in graduate physics | 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

Roy Clarke missed the freewheeling atmosphere of the legendary Bell Telephone Laboratories after he left Bell to join the physics faculty at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, in 1979. He realized that UM’s graduate physics program, as is the case at most universities, operated within tight disciplinary silos that prescribed what students should learn and whom they studied with. “It limited the scope of the research you could do, and its impact,” he says about an educational philosophy that he compares to the master-apprentice model of a medieval guild.

Rather than trying to change age-old practices, Clarke won approval for a new graduate program in applied physics (AP). And in making graduate physics training far more collaborative and interdisciplinary, Clarke unwittingly also found a formula to improve its racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. “We found that our approach attracted a lot of interest from students of color,” he says.

That’s a typical understatement by the white, Australian-born Clarke. Within a few decades of its 1987 debut, UM’s AP program was producing roughly 10% of all Black students earning U.S. physics Ph.D.s each year, according to a 2017 study by Julie Posselt, an education researcher at the University of Southern California, who is white, and colleagues at UM. Black, Latino, and Native American students made up as much as one-third of the program’s typical entering cohort compared with 5% nationally. And women comprised one-third of a typical graduating class, twice the national average.

One factor behind those numbers, says Clarke, who stepped down as director in 2002 but maintains ties to the program, is that “we don’t engage in the hand-to-hand combat” so common among graduate programs. Instead of winnowing out any student who is struggling, he says, “we make it clear that we expect people who come here to succeed.”

What Clarke and his successors have done, the study notes, is discard the traditional playbook for graduate training in physics “that had implicitly created barriers to access and inclusion for underrepresented students.” The new approach removes those barriers, Posselt explains, by “reconceptualizing the vision of the ideal student, empowering administrative staff to serve as cultural translators across racial and faculty-student boundaries, and creating a familylike climate.” Meeting the needs of students needs to be a priority, she adds, not an afterthought.

Science spoke with eight alumni of UM’s AP program to learn how those principles were implemented. One is Kim Lewis, now a professor of physics and associate research dean at Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C.

In 1997, Lewis was a physics major at Dillard University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) in her hometown of New Orleans, when she first heard about UM’s program. It checked most of her boxes for graduate school.

“I really still wanted to be an engineer,” Lewis recalls, “so an applied physics program was very appealing. I also knew that I wanted to be an academic, and nobody would question my qualifications if I had graduated from Michigan.”

But Lewis also wanted to go someplace where she felt comfortable—and Ann Arbor wasn’t at the top of her list. “It would be the first time I had been in a school setting where the people did not look like me,” says Lewis, who attended an all-Black high school. “It also meant being away from home.”

It helped that four of the eight students in her class were Black, and that many had attended HBCUs. And Lewis says she was grateful to Clarke for setting up meetings that might lead to a lasting relationship. “‘You’re about to be best friends,’” Clarke told Lewis when he introduced her to Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, who entered the program a year later. “And he was right.”

After graduating with their Ph.D.s in 2004, both women have more than achieved the AP program’s goal of preparing its students for success. Lewis spent 11 years on the faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before moving to Howard in 2018. Stiff-Roberts immediately joined the faculty at Duke University, where she is now a professor of computer and electrical engineering.

In addition to supporting students traditionally underrepresented in physics, Lewis says, the UM program has shattered the myth that a graduate physics program must sacrifice quality to achieve diversity. And she gives Clarke a huge amount of credit for that.

“He’s a scholar, one of the best condensed matter physicists in the country,” says Lewis, who works in the same field. “He has great compassion for his students, but he’s never watered down the program.”

The university’s sterling reputation also attracted Mitaire Ojaruega. He entered the AP program in 2003 and soon benefited from another tenet of Clarke’s philosophy: ensuring staff and faculty work together to provide students with the help they need. 

The 11th of 17 children, Ojaruega was born in the United States and spent much of his childhood in Nigeria. But he attended high school in Washington, D.C., and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). “It was a very safe environment, and the professors were very supportive, but it gives you a narrow view of the world,” he says about UDC, an HBCU that focuses on undergraduate teaching and has a tiny research budget. Summer internships at Northwestern University and UM “were my first exposure to the big leagues,” Ojaruega recalls, and he chose UM over other top-tier graduate physics programs after a professor promised “to make sure you graduate.”

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Michigan was hard as hell. They didn’t babysit you. But they also were invested in your success.

  • Mitaire Ojaruega
  • Department of Defense

Ojaruega benefited from that supportive environment, which he calls his “circle of trust,” after he initially failed his qualifying exams. That circle included Brad Orr, a white physicist who succeeded Clarke as director of the program. “Brad looked at my [undergraduate] transcript, saw that I hadn’t taken solid state physics, and suggested I sit in on those [undergraduate] classes I had missed,” Ojaruega recounts. Some students might have been too embarrassed to take a step back, he says, but he wasn’t. “And it helped a lot.”

“Michigan was hard as hell,” Ojaruega adds. “They didn’t babysit you. But they also were invested in your success.”

Another key member of his circle was Charles Sutton, who served as a recruiter for the program from 2001 to 2015. Sutton, who is Black, didn’t fit the stereotype of a departmental program staffer: “I had gold chains, an earring, and the whole bit,” he says. He was also an unlikely mentor: He was younger than many of the graduate students, having just earned a communications degree from UM, and he held down a weekend gig as a DJ.

But Clarke regarded Sutton’s outgoing personality, along with his experiences growing up in Mississippi and as a student at an overwhelmingly white university, as valuable assets. When Clarke hired Sutton, “he told me to just be myself, and not change,” Sutton says. For the next 14 years, Sutton became the “eyes and ears of the program,” as one UM professor told Posselt, serving as an intermediary to help students and faculty better understand one another.

Ojaruega had met Sutton at a recruitment fair and the two became good friends. “Sometimes I would pick him up at the library at 3 a.m.,” Sutton recalls. And after Ojaruega failed his qualifying exams, Sutton spoke up for his friend.

“I had heard that some faculty members wanted to let him go,” Sutton recalls, “so I went to professor Orr and told him, ‘I know how hard [Ojaruega] is working. And I can promise you he won’t let you down.’”

Sutton was right. Ojaruega passed his exams on the next try and sailed through the rest of his doctoral program, earning his degree in 2010. He has spent the past decade with the federal government and is now developing quantum sensor technology for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency within the Department of Defense.

The AP program is an interdepartmental program, not a free-standing department with its own assigned faculty. That arrangement is a boon to the type of interdisciplinary projects that Clarke encourages, with students free to choose an adviser from across the university. But it can backfire if those faculty members don’t share the AP program’s passion for putting students’ welfare first. 

That’s what happened to Bryan Ramson, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Howard. “I enjoyed being in the midst of high-achieving Black folks” and a predominantly Black faculty “committed to my success,” says Ramson, who is Black. That support evaporated, however, after he entered the AP program in 2011. Instead, Ramson says he went through “major culture shock” triggered by what he calls a “horrible” environment in the university’s traditional physics department.

“Some of the professors there are really old-guard, and very resistant to teaching” in ways that recognize different learning styles, Ramson says. “My professors were not interested in my success; their focus was on the research.”

Sutton was there to reassure him that better times lay ahead. “It was the AP program staff, and Chuck in particular, who convinced me to stay whenever I would think about leaving,” Ramson says. He did, earning his Ph.D. in 2017. He’s doing a postdoc at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), where he began working as a graduate student in 2013.

Kelly Nash, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA), battled that same “old-guard” culture—and lost. “It was traumatic for me from the very beginning,” says Nash, a Black physicist who entered the AP program in 2000 after graduating from Dillard. The Ann Arbor campus was in turmoil as a lawsuit questioning the university’s use of race as a factor in admissions wended its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to being bombarded by the divisive rhetoric, Nash was also subject to pervasive racist stereotyping.

“I remember taking a quantum mechanics class with three or four other Black students,” Nash recalls, “and our professor pulled us aside one day early in the semester. ‘I just wanted you to know that you’re all going to struggle in this class because you come from HBCUs,’ he said. He was basically saying that we didn’t belong. My science identity was constantly under assault.”

Failing her qualifying exams turned out to be the final straw for Nash. “There was a huge debate about what should happen to me,” she says. “I had never failed a course [at UM] and never been on academic probation. But I had to fight to [even] get my master’s degree.” She departed feeling “exhausted and demoralized.”

One year later she took another shot at graduate school and ended up at UTSA, which was starting a doctoral physics program. The fact that Latino students make up a majority of its undergraduate enrollment contributed to a welcoming environment that allowed her to thrive, she says.

“Being a new program, they may not have had preconceived notions about African American students,” she adds. And her productivity was undeniable. “By the time I graduated [in 2009], I had 13 papers,” she says. A few years later she returned as a faculty member, earning tenure in 2016 and becoming a full professor in 2020.

Undeterred—or perhaps driven—by their experiences at UM, both Ramson and Nash have spent years working to increase diversity in physics. Ramson co-directs Fermilab’s long-running Saturday morning physics program for Chicago-area students and is a member of Change-Now, a collective of young Black physicists who are pushing Fermilab, the Department of Energy’s leading high energy physics facility, to improve equity and social justice within the profession and in the community. Nash is involved in several programs to attract more women and people of color into science. For example, she has helped her university participate in a national program sponsored by the American Physical Society that finds spots for qualified students from underrepresented groups who have been passed over by other graduate physics programs.

UM’s AP program has continued to evolve. Cagliyan Kurdak, a Turkish-born physicist who joined the department in 1998 and became the program’s director in 2010, added a component for students who need to strengthen their academic background before diving into a doctoral program. Students from groups underrepresented in science receive 2 years of funding while they earn a master’s degree, and over the years two-thirds have transitioned into a doctoral program, where their 80% completion rate is more than 20 percentage points higher than the national average. But Kurdak and his team can’t rest on their laurels. “Creating conditions to support access and inclusion is not a one-time event, but an ongoing struggle,” Posselt wrote in her 2017 study.

Posselt flagged two recurring challenges. One is what she calls the “negative racial climate” for many students of color at UM, a predominantly white institution. Those whom Posselt interviewed also spoke about a “negative feedback loop, in which poor representation of women and students of color raises red flags for prospective students … and deters them from matriculating.”

Posselt says the UM AP program has replaced those red flags with a welcome sign through its “commitment to diversity.” Its interdisciplinary approach to science, flexible admissions criteria, and family atmosphere are baked into the AP program, agrees Sutton, who went to the White House as Clarke’s guest when, in 2010, Clarke received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

“They just care so much about people,” says Sutton, now a recruiter for Thermo Fisher Scientific in Atlanta, about his former colleagues. “And in the end, that is what has made them so successful. I hope the program lasts forever.”