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A GEM of a Program

In 2004, the Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) initiative honored the National Graduate Degrees for Minorities for Engineering and Science (GEM) Consortium as a graduate degree milestone program for supporting and developing minority M.S. and Ph.D. recipients. More than 80% of GEM Fellows in engineering (87% percent at the M.S. level) and 66% in science complete their degrees. According to GEM's director of marketing Leigh Hayden, those figures rival the 60% to 70% (depending on discipline) national graduation rate, irrespective of race, in engineering and the sciences. The GEM Fellows I spoke with -- Reginald Rogers, Jr., Ciro Lopez, Franklin Alexander Carrero-Martinez, and Zakiah Robinson -- felt having the fellowship provided them with "peace of mind."

The GEM Consortium -- a collaboration of 93 member universities and 48 corporations -- provides funding, a support network, mentoring, and professional development to underrepresented minority graduate students. Founded in 1976 and headquartered at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, the Consortium originally offered fellowships exclusively for master's degrees in engineering, but in 1990 GEM added awards for doctoral candidates in engineering and science. GEM is currently developing a fellowship for master's level students in science, according to Hayden.

Recruiting Minority Science and Engineering Talent

Hispanic, Native American, and African-American students with undergraduate degrees in engineering or science (all must be U.S. citizens) are eligible for the highly competitive GEM fellowships. There are currently 450 fellows.

A minimum 2.8 grade point average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale is required for the master's in engineering fellowship, but in 2004, 60 of the 90 award recipients (out of 350 applicants) had a 3.3 GPA or higher. For the Ph.D. fellowships, a minimum 3.0 GPA is required, but most award recipients have GPAs above 3.5. Eleven science doctorates out of 123 and 22 engineering doctorates out of 148 were selected in 2004.


The 12 to 15 member selection committee emphasizes coursework, work experience, lab experience, and letters of recommendation; the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not considered, Hayden says. She stresses, "While numbers are important, I believe what the student's going to be able to contribute to their graduate experience, the campus community, as well as what they're going to contribute to society after completing their graduate program are very important in considering who receives a fellowship."

As if to illustrate her point, three of the four GEM Fellows I spoke with all had prior research experience. Instead of going directly into graduate school, they worked in the pharmaceutical industry. "I think what the selection committee really looks for is a student who is going to be successful completing a rigorous graduate program in a technical discipline," Hayden says. "So, they're really looking at the whole student."

More Funding Means More Options

A GEM Fellowship means "not having to worry about finances," according to Robinson, a first year chemistry doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Not fretting about finances allows GEM Fellows to concentrate on classes and research.

That's the way it worked for Lopez, too. The GEM Fellowship supported him, his wife, and his children while he did his Ph.D. work. He finished his degree in chemistry in December 2004 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rogers, an engineering doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, also benefited financially by not adding to the debt he accrued while doing his master's in chemical engineering at Northeastern University. He completed the degree in 2004.


This financing also provides GEM Fellows with more options than the typical graduate student. "With tuition paid for and a monthly stipend guaranteed," Robinson explains, "having the fellowship allows me to dictate my own schedule, based on my workload."

Freedom from funding concerns meant Rogers could choose whatever research project he was most interested in, without worrying about how much grant money was behind it.

Despite receiving a score of 630 out of 670 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, Carrero-Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico, did not feel confident enough in his English to teach. Having the GEM Fellowship allowed him to decline a teaching assistantship, unlike many of his colleagues. A seventh-year neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carrero-Martinez feels that the fellowship has provided him the opportunity to devote the extra time to classes and finding a thesis advisor.

"It can be quite overwhelming to teach, take all the required coursework, find a thesis mentor, and start from zero in a completely new culture," he says. With a "portable" fellowship, Carrero-Martinez was not pressured to choose a school based on whether it had funds for him.

A Strong Support Network

"One of the hallmarks of the GEM Fellowship is a support network that's going to enable students to be successful in a graduate school program," Hayden notes. When universities and companies apply for membership in the GEM Consortium, she explains, their commitment to student diversity in engineering and science are essential to their acceptance. Member universities have GEM representatives on campus.

GEM representatives help facilitate the graduate experience by linking the Consortium and the university to the fellows. They answer students' questions, distribute GEM publications (reports, books, etc.) for students and mentors, and provide students with networking opportunities. The specific agendas for GEM representatives, however, are determined via consensus between the respective university and the representative.


Workforce Development

According to the BEST report, students receiving a GEM fellowship have a smoother transition into graduate study and the science workforce. GEM's network of support has produced more than 2300 M.S. engineers and more than 140 Ph.D.s, 58% in engineering and nearly 42% in science according to Hayden.

Hayden points to a new effort to help GEM Fellows enter the science and engineering workforce. Last year's GEM presented the Future Faculty and Professional Symposium, the first in an annual conference series. At this 3-day event, which was open to non-GEM students, students met GEM alumni, networked with corporate and university members, and attended career strategy seminars.


Networking also can occur during summer internships, where fellows conduct research with GEM's corporate members. Robinson, who did an internship at Dow Chemical, still stays in contact with her mentor there. Unlike her previous internships, Robinson says, she wasn't left twiddling her thumbs at Dow; she did real research that advanced the company's goals. She studied motor failure by building models and testing them. Rogers also remains in touch with his corporate mentor, from his internship at DuPont. More than merely providing Rogers with research experience, his mentor helped him prepare for his Ph.D. program at Michigan. Lopez's internship experience at Pfizer Pharmaceutical introduced him to science career options outside of academia.

Now, Lopez is pursuing a career in science and public policy to ensure programs like GEM are around for future science graduate students. It's more proof that GEM's critical success -- among officials and educational experts -- hasn't come at the expense of commercial success. GEM's customers -- its fellows -- are just as enthusiastic as anyone about the merits of the program.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at