Science PhD Programs Build Bridges to Urban Minorities

LAGUARDIA Community College student Hector Valentin carefully measures a spectrograph of distilled water. With his lab partner, I-Ting Wu, he watches as a computer discerns minute contamination. His professor, Clara Wu, suggests they keep trying to get a pure sample.

What makes this lab scene unusual is that Hector is Puerto Rican and I-Ting is Chinese. They are part of an unusual program aimed at enticing urban minority students to pursue advanced degrees in science.

In a refurbished warehouse here, professors are "mentoring" students and taking a more hands-on approach in teaching their disciplines - using computers and calipers to work out real-world problems rather than theorizing from a chalkboard.

The quest to lure more minority students is understandable. In 1994, according to the National Research Council, 41,011 PhDs were awarded in the sciences. Only 256 went to Puerto Ricans and 1,270 to African-Americans.

Many minority science or com-puter students feel pressured to find jobs as quickly as they can. Relatively few can afford to go on and get advanced degrees.

The problem is long standing. "Forever," is the term used by Clifton Poodry, director of the minority opportunities and research division at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

One of the main reasons for this underrepresentation, says Dr. Poodry, is opportunity. "The quality of education, pre-kindergarten and through grade schools, is such that significant segments don't have the same advantages and opportunities as others do," he says.

But thanks to some relatively new federal programs, those numbers may gradually start to change.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) began a program called Urban Systemic Initiatives, which tries to reform how math and the sciences are taught. One of USI's goals is moving from "chalk and talk" to making classes more laboratory-like. "The new program is engaging in real life investigation and using technology to support children's learning," says Mildred Jones, executive director of the New York USI.

Although modestly funded at $16.8 million, it has already had a significant impact. In Chicago, the percentage of students scoring at or above the national norm in mathematics increased in Grades 3 to 9 and Grade 11. In Cincinnati, 68 percent of all schools involved in the program improved their mathematics test scores. And, after only one year in New York, Ms. Jones says a larger percentage of children are passing math and science courses.

The effort is starting to catch the attention of business as well. The Bayer Foundation, based in Pittsburgh, is a partner with the NSF in an effort to make science more accessible in 43 school districts in Allegheny County. It's not surprising that business is becoming involved. "It's not a minority issue, it's a work force issue," says John Ruffin, associate director for research on minority health at National Institutes of Health.

Poodry says the NIH spends about $60 million a year on programs, including research projects, designed to help minorities in the sciences. One of those programs, begun four years ago, is a $9 million effort called "Bridges to the Future." It was started after the NIH identified two transition points where they found minorities had trouble continuing their education in the sciences: moving from community colleges to four-year institutions and entering a doctorate program from a master's degree.

The program this year is helping 1,155 undergraduate and graduate minority students work toward advanced degrees. "We are trying to show the students there is something beyond the horizon if they are willing to work for it," says Americo Rivera, the program administrator in Bethesda, Md.

That's what happened to Tricia Daniel, a biology major at Barnard College, a part of Columbia University. From 1993 to '94, Ms. Daniel participated in the program at LaGuardia.

Daniel, who hails from Trinidad, says the experience of doing independent lab work with a professor gave her "an opportunity to see what PhDs do." Now, Daniel is hoping to get her doctorate or go on to medical school.

The 105 participating colleges in the NIH program have a wide scope to spend the $320,000 each is eligible to receive. The money can go toward setting up a mentoring program with a professor, developing new courses or even for tutoring. The whole aim, Dr. Rivera says, "is to touch that raw nerve that is necessary for people to go on."

That appears to be what's happening at LaGuardia, an 11,000-student college squeezed into some abandoned factory buildings. The NIH cites the LaGuardia program, one of 80 community colleges involved in Bridges, as an example of what it is trying to achieve.

THE LaGuardia administrator, chemistry professor Clara Wu, says that before the Bridges program started, only 25 percent of the minority students interested in the sciences went on to four-year colleges. In the past three years, 75 percent of the program participants have gone on to four-year schools that are acting as "bridges" for the students. Dr. Wu says she chooses the students who are not "A" students for the project. "I am aiming for the students with a lesser performance," she says.

One of the current students, Gloria Rojas, hopes to enroll at Hunter College this fall. Ms. Rojas, who is Colombian, credits the program with opening her eyes to the possibility of a biochemistry major. By working closely with her mentor, professor Joseph McPhee, she has learned how to use complex equipment. "When I first came here I wasn't allowed to touch it," she says. "Now everything is fine."

Student James Grantham, who wants to become a computer architect, says the mentoring part of the program has affected him the most. He says his mentor, professor Gene Yao, inspired him to become deeply involved in school. He recalls his mother had to push him to go to high school.

"Here I want to come all the time, I've only missed three days of school," says Mr. Grantham, who is involved in a project to build an integrated-circuit package tester.

Such faculty involvement can make a major difference, says Poodry, a native American. While he was an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo, one professor took an interest in him. "He prodded me with questions," recalls Poodry, a Seneca Indian. That, combined with his mother's support, prompted him to continue his science education. Now he's hoping others will do the same.

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