More Than Just Numbers: Building Diversity and Equity in STEM
More than a dozen LSU programs aim to increase diversity in STEM education and some of the fastest-growing careers, and students say it’s working.
While a diverse workforce in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is known to drive innovation and higher profits, Louisiana and the rest of the nation still lag behind when it comes to recruiting and retaining Black and Latinx scientists and engineers. Women are also vastly underrepresented (except in healthcare), and meanwhile, STEM professions are the fastest growing and highest earning. This leaves a significant race and gender employment and pay gap.
LSU is trying to solve this problem, working toward equity and diversity all across campus by both educating students who are representative of the general population and by having that diversity reflected in their professors—especially in the College of Science, College of Engineering, and College of the Coast & Environment. Through more than a dozen different programs that often reach beyond campus borders into local communities and schools, all the way from kindergarten through college and into professional life, hundreds of minority students in Louisiana are connected with STEM resources and research each year on the LSU campus.
STEM-trained workers earn an additional 15-20% also in non-STEM occupations.
STEM employment has almost doubled in the last 30 years, from about 10 million to over 17 million. And whether STEM-educated students go on to hold some of those jobs or not, they tend to make more money than their peers; STEM-trained workers earn an additional 15-20% also in non-STEM occupations. This is yet another reason why equitable access to education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math must be a priority.
Of course, no one can speak to the impact of LSU’s diversity-in-STEM programs better than the students themselves. So, let’s meet some of them and hear what they have to say. (Note that the programs listed below are explicitly and actively geared to increase diversity in STEM; many other LSU programs, for all educational levels, also promote diversity among their students.)
Geaux Science Explorations, ENGage LSU, High School Summer Research Program, Recruiting into Engineering High Ability Engineers (REHAMS), LSU-Halliburton eXploration Camp Inspiring Tomorrow’s Engineers (XCITE), Upward Bound, and EnvironMentors
Brodrick Vincent had a star biology teacher as a student at Scotlandville High School in northern Baton Rouge, Ms. Frances. She connected him with LSU and the EnvironMentors program, where 15-30 research students in the LSU College of the Coast & Environment have been pairing up one-on-one or two-on-one with 10-20 high school students each year since 2010.
“I was not expecting the lasting relationships I developed with my mentors and program coordinators,” Vincent said. “Every Monday after school, our group would head to LSU where they provided us with a delicious meal before we went off to work with our mentors on in-depth scientific research projects. It was a great opportunity and contributed to my lasting love for scientific learning.”
After completing his undergraduate degree in biology at LSU, Vincent enrolled in the LSU kinesiology program. Last December, he graduated with a master’s degree.
“Learning about scientific techniques, procedures, and experimentation as a high schooler definitely helped me later on.”—Broderick Vincent, a former Scotlandville High School student and participant in the LSU EnvironMentors program who just graduated with a master’s degree in kinesiology from LSU
“Did you know that it was my EnvironMentors coordinators who nominated me for the Karen E. Domingue and Rhodia Scholarship, which I actually received!” he continued. “Learning about scientific techniques, procedures, and experimentation as a high schooler definitely helped me later on, and my best memory from high school was finding out that my EnvironMentors project was good enough to earn us a trip to Washington, D.C. to present our work. I was able to visit some historical sites I had never seen before, and won the photo contest and a digital camera because so many individuals enjoyed my water quality photos I had taken during one of my experiments.”
Vincent is now weighing his options for how to continue on with medical research, while joining the professional ranks in the largest STEM area—healthcare. EnvironMentors Director Malinda Sutor, meanwhile, is expanding the program this year to include additional area schools, such as Northwest High School. Through a partnership with BREC parks and recreation services, students will work on projects to help protect habitats and biodiversity in their own communities.
Other LSU opportunities geared toward elementary, middle, and high school are Geaux Science Explorations, which comprise Girls Day at the Museum for 4th-6th grade where students get a behind-the-scenes look at the LSU Museum of Natural Science’s specimen collections, chats with female LSU scientists, and hands on activities; Our Earth, Our Laboratory for 7th-8th grade where participants learn about earthquakes and how to build their own earthquake measuring devices (in the form of raspberry shakes); and STEM Story Time for K-3rd grade which is organized like a traditional story time, but where a scientist reads a science-based story and children do science experiments instead of arts and crafts (during COVID-19, the program has continued virtually with fully equipped “lab drawers” mailed to participants’ homes).
In the U.S., just 16% of college-educated workers who majored in engineering are women ... at LSU, it’s 23%, and the numbers are increasing.
There is also ENGage LSU (since 2017) for middle schoolers, which this year is welcoming students from seven different schools in East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes (Woodlawn, Istrouma, White Castle, Park Ridge, West St. John, Scotlandville, and Iberville STEM Academy, where Black students make up more than 80% of the student population) and involves 16 LSU faculty in an outreach day of engineering demonstrations and activities (happening virtually this year) that were developed in collaboration with the LSU Society of Peer Mentors to show the wide variety of possible engineering careers; the High School Summer Research Program is for high-achieving students with an interest in engineering—80% of this year’s cohort are women; Recruiting into Engineering High Ability Engineers (REHAMS) is a long-standing program that will engage 30 diverse high school students this coming summer (alumna Breanna Lee went on to get her bachelor’s in chemical engineering at LSU and became a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in 2019); LSU-Halliburton eXploration Camp Inspiring Tomorrow’s Engineers (XCITE) will soon welcome 30 female high school students (alumna LeKendra Fusilier went on to earn her bachelor’s in petroleum engineering at LSU and now works for Chevron); Upward Bound (since 2012) will engage 60 high school students, mostly from Tara and Woodlawn High School, in a free, six-week college prep initiative, which includes studying for the ACT and also covers testing fees, this summer.
Part of the reason the LSU College of Engineering is especially focused on recruiting female high school students into its programs is to raise the share of women in engineering professions, which has remained low and mostly stagnant over the past 30 years (12-14%, according to the American Community Survey). In the U.S., just 16% of college-educated workers who majored in engineering are women, and mechanical engineering and electrical engineering have some of the lowest shares of women of any engineering occupation. Meanwhile, at LSU, the percentage of women among engineering majors has increased over the past decade, from 17% in 2011 to 21% in 2016 to 23% this spring.
Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC), Scholarships for College of Science Majors (SOARS/S-STEM), SCI Lead, Louis Stokes STEM Pathways and Research Alliances (LS-LAMP), Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars, Big Sibling, Promoting Retention Ingenuity and Diversity in Engineering (PRIDE), Halliburton Scholars, and ExxonMobil Diversity Scholars
Although all races enter STEM majors, Black and Latinx students leave the major at nearly twice the rate of white students (around 40%) according to national data. Notably, they don’t leave other competitive majors, such as business, at nearly the same rate. Reasons for leaving often include feelings of exclusion and discrimination—even anticipated ones—as well as lack of encouragement and role models from an early age, and limited access to quality education.
Many of LSU’s diversity programs for undergraduate students try to target these challenges and needs head-on, with a significant emphasis on community-building and mentorship. Juniors and seniors connect with freshmen and sophomores, while faculty invite students into their labs for research projects and ongoing conversations about goals and ways to meet them.
“I've gained a family.”—Aaryana Jones, LSU MARC scholar
LSU Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholar Aaryana Jones, a junior from St. Francisville, Louisiana majoring in biology, started doing research last fall in the laboratory of faculty mentor Fatima Rivas, assistant professor in the LSU Department of Chemistry. Although new to research, Jones won a competitive poster award at the national 2020 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), last November. Her winning poster, in the cancer biology category, was titled “Abietane natural product derivatives as potential anticancer therapeutics.”
“MARC has been everything I expected and more,” Jones said. “I've gained the hands-on experience of working in a laboratory, the knowledge to present my research at conferences, and the knowledge of many post-graduate opportunities. Most importantly, I've gained a family.”
MARC scholars conduct 15 hours of research each week, supervised by mentors, and talk about their work on a weekly basis with other students and faculty in the MARC group, which recruits six rising juniors each year. Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded program is brand new and Jones is part of the very first cohort, MARC replaced another NIH program to help build the biomedical workforce, Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). The previous program had been ongoing at LSU since 2004 with a solid track record—more than half of the 105 undergraduate students in IMSD (53%) entered a master’s or doctoral program after graduation.
In a previous interview, MARC Program Director Graça Vicente remarked on how her team’s experience with IMSD set them up for success.
“We learned a lot over the years,” Vicente said. “Students have different barriers to learning, so it’s important to use a variety of methods to keep them engaged. We give them support to take the GRE, get them involved with research presentations, hands-on in the lab, invite speakers, have one-on-one and group meetings, form a group of mentors for each student, listen to each other, travel, and have meals together. Our program has been continuously evolving and we found a way to form a community of students, which really made a difference. We also work to convey the idea to the students that they really can make a big contribution to the scientific community.”
Jones’s plan is to go to medical school to be an orthopedic surgeon.
“But I've learned that being a doctor isn’t all your life has to be,” she said. “In addition to being a doctor, I plan to conduct research to come up with new techniques to try with patients.”
“We have put on several events, including the webinar we created last semester, Research Re-Do, for students who had not been able to present their research due to COVID-19 shutting down so many research events.”—Onesty Q. Culpepper, first-generation college student and member of SCI Lead
Another biological sciences student set to become an orthopedic surgeon—spine surgeon, to be exact—is senior Onesty Q. Culpepper. Originally from Shreveport, Culpepper is a first-generation college student. As a member of SCI Lead, a professional development and leadership program in the LSU College of Science led by Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, Culpepper has already held office in the Latin American Student Organization and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.
“I’ve had countless, wonderful experiences with SCI Lead,” Culpepper said. “We have put on several events, including the webinar we created last semester, Research Re-Do, for students who had not been able to present their research due to COVID-19 shutting down so many research events. I will miss this group when I graduate this May.”
Wilson-Kennedy also leads Scholarships for College of Science Majors (SOARS), funded through the National Science Foundation S-STEM program, which started last fall with a first cohort of 11 freshmen. The program provides mentorship and four years of support for minority students with financial need.
“Students who have work obligations and other kinds of responsibilities outside their studies can end up in a debilitating situation, and we don’t want our students to just survive the experience. We want them to thrive.”—Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the LSU College of Science
“You can imagine being in a rigorous academic program while also working long hours to cover living expenses for yourself and a family, how that easily becomes a cycle of never having enough time and energy to be successful—not because of a lack of talent and potential, but because of circumstance,” Wilson-Kennedy said in a recent interview. “Students who have work obligations and other kinds of responsibilities outside their studies can end up in a debilitating situation, and we don’t want our students to just survive the experience. We want them to thrive.”
Another LSU effort geared toward underrepresented undergraduate students is the Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education for first-generation college students and those with financial need and from historically underrepresented groups (Black, Latinx, Native American). Among the 398 students served so far, 84% have gone on to attain graduate degrees within 10 years of completing their bachelor’s degree, a remarkable number.
There are also several STEM diversity initiatives in the LSU College of Engineering: the newly-launched Big Sibling, which connects first-year students with “sisters and brothers” in upper levels; Promoting Retention Ingenuity and Diversity in Engineering (PRIDE), which is a new online summer bridge program for incoming freshmen who scored 25-30 in math on the ACT but might need an introduction to calculus (or refresher); Halliburton Scholars for female students majoring in subjects related to oil and gas; and ExxonMobil Diversity Scholars, a sustained partnership with ExxonMobil to help educate workers within their industry.
Finally, the Louis Stokes STEM Pathways and Research Alliances (LS-LAMP) program, which has served almost 447 scholars (including 236 Black women) since it began in 1995 in partnership with more than a dozen Louisiana universities and community colleges (led by Southern University and recently joined by LSU Shreveport), has produced numerous leaders in their fields. Program Coordinator Melissa Crawford was actually one of the first LS-LAMP scholars at LSU, earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2001. Another graduate of the program and also a former IMSD scholar, Treva Brown, earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from LSU in 2011 and went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of New Orleans (UNO) in 2017. Originally from North Baton Rouge, Brown still lives in Louisiana and works at the Naval Research Laboratory at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center. With a passion for microscopy, she helps the Navy gain a better understanding of organisms that cause corrosion on metal materials. Brown is a vocal proponent of mentorship and gave a series of talks in partnership with LSU last November, including “Say It Louder for the People in the Back: My Scientist Looks Like Me.”
“It is important for underrepresented groups in the STEM disciplines to see themselves in others who are trailblazing new and uncharted paths,” Brown said. “This gives them the hope, courage, and desire to do whatever it takes to achieve goals they may once have thought unattainable. This was definitely the case for me, and being able to see and interact with LSU pioneers such as Dr. Isiah Warner, Dr. Saundra McGuire, and my own undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Jayne Garno, allowed me to put my goals into focus no matter the obstacles.”
Bridge to Doctorate (LA-BRIDGE), Huel D. Perkins Fellowships, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Fellowships, and NSF Advance
The LSU Bridge to Doctorate program, also known as LA-BRIDGE, has been ongoing since 2005, engaging at least a dozen students each year with 42 having already received their Ph.D. degrees. This effort is led by Boyd Professor Isiah Warner, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, and Tyrslai Williams-Carter, Director of Strategic Initiatives, and includes fellows in at least 20 different disciplines, including animal science, civil engineering, chemistry, food science, geology, and oceanography. The majority of the fellows are Black women, who remain vastly underrepresented among STEM graduates on a national level; less than 3 percent.
The LSU Department of Chemistry is one of the leading producers of Black Ph.D.s in the nation, half of which are women.
At LSU, however, several departments and efforts are butting this trend. The LSU Department of Chemistry is one of the leading producers of Black Ph.D.s in the nation, half of which are women. Four LSU chemistry professors, including Warner in 1997, Watkins in 2004, McGuire in 2006, and Vicente in 2016, are all recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), an outstanding achievement for any institution. In 2019, Warner also received the Nature Award for Mentoring in Science, shared his secrets on how to be an effective mentor, and was celebrated by current and former mentees on campus, including then-GameChanger for Shell, Alicia “Lee” Williams, who is the current New Energies Technology Supply Chain Lead—still at Shell—as well as Houston Chapter President of the Shell Black Networking Group. While Warner grew up in Bunkie, Louisiana (population 4,000), Williams grew up in Sunset (population 3,000). She received her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from LSU in 2007.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Warner at LSU pushing me as an undergraduate at Xavier and then graduate student at LSU, I wouldn’t be where I am today—negotiating multimillion-dollar new technology deals, bringing a diverse set of people to the table, and collaborating and innovating with experts across the world.”—Alicia “Lee” Williams, New Energies Technology Supply Chain Lead and former GameChanger at Shell
“Many people make assumptions about me because of my accent, skin color, and bold personality, but I am not your average person,” said Williams, who was the driving force behind Warner’s Nature nomination. “I come from a highly educated family, where my dad graduated from Xavier and my mom from Dillard.”
Being set up for success did in some ways make it harder for Williams to realize her full potential. Everything “came easy”—until she met Warner. She remembers running into his LSU office one day to ask if she was in fact earning two Ph.D. degrees, because of the work she was being asked to do. Later, she realized his setting the bar higher was exactly what she needed in order to get to the next level, personally and professionally.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Warner at LSU pushing me as an undergraduate at Xavier and then graduate student at LSU, I wouldn’t be where I am today—negotiating multimillion-dollar new technology deals, bringing a diverse set of people to the table, and collaborating and innovating with experts across the world,” Williams said. “Thanks to Dr. Warner, I thrive in the unknown; I adapt to changing circumstances. I’m confident and comfortable in my role at Shell as we work toward a cleaner energy future.”
Other graduate and post-graduate diversity efforts at LSU include the Huel D. Perkins Fellowships, originally authorized through the LSU Board of Supervisors in 1995, which provides a living wage for up to four years of study; the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Fellowships, funded in part by the Louisiana Board of Regents, which is a long-standing program that funds students for three years and also provides a living wage. NSF Advance, finally, is a federally funded effort to increase gender equity in the LSU faculty ranks, led by Cynthia Peterson, dean of the LSU College of Science, in collaboration with Stacia Haynie, executive vice president and provost; Samuel J. Bentley, vice president of research and economic development; Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the LSU College of Science; and Niki Norton, assistant vice president of human resource management.
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development