MS PHD'S: Inspiring Minorities in the Earth Sciences


The American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco each December is the place to network, meet potential collaborators, catch up with friends and competitors, and immerse oneself in the latest research from some of the world's greatest earth and planetary science minds. For the uninitiated, it's an overwhelming experience: five jam-packed days of non-stop technical and poster sessions, more than 11,000 scientists from 57 countries, all recorded in an abstracts volume that last year weighed more than seven pounds.

For the 28 students participating in the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science ( MS PHD'S) program, the San Francisco meeting was an invitation to enter an exciting new world.

The purpose of MS PHD'S is to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in earth-system sciences. The program -- the vision of Ashanti Johnson Pyrtle, assistant professor at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science -- is divided into three phases:

  • In Phase I, the participants -- including minority undergraduate and graduate minority scientists from across the nation -- attend the AGU meeting.

  • In Phase II, they attend a conference in their field of interest.

  • In Phase III, participants work with professionals at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Once they've completed the three phases, participants are eligible for scholarships and have access to a network of professional mentors and other contacts that can provide ongoing guidance. Pyrtle says that the MS PHD'S experience will prepare participants to achieve their scientific goals and become mentors themselves.

In addition to the real, personal connections that MS PHD'S helps its participants forge, the program also connects them with earth scientists, educators, and administrators through a listserv and a Web site.

The Birth of MS PHD'S

Pyrtle and several colleagues, including Brandon Jones, Deidre Gibson, and Claudia Benitez-Nelson, wanted to create a network of scientists who were committed to mentoring and to providing opportunities for underrepresented minority students interested in pursuing earth system science-related careers. "There's a tremendous need, but we can't possibly meet it as individuals," Pyrtle says. With support from friends and colleagues -- and financial support from NASA -- Pyrtle launched MS PHD's as a pilot project in 2003.

The 2003 pilot project brought 23 students to the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study at NAS in Washington, D.C., where they were paired with mentors and took part in a variety of brown-bag seminars. Everyone involved in the pilot program agreed it was a resounding success and should continue.

"The experience made me feel like I was part of a family and opened my eyes to the opportunities available to minorities," explains Dana Brown, a Georgia State University geology Master's student. "It helped me to come out of my shell. I didn't feel inferior, and I now know that people enjoy answering your questions no matter how simple they are," she adds.

The success of the pilot program helped Pyrtle secure funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Office of Earth Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the more ambitious three-phase program described above. Twenty-eight students, ranging from freshmen to doctoral candidates, were selected, paired with minority scientist mentors -- who commit to support them throughout their career -- and non-minority professional society mentors from the AGU, and were invited to attend last December's AGU meeting.

Partnering with Professional Organizations

Pyrtle chose the AGU meeting for Phase I because of its breadth; no other international earth science meeting brings together such a diversity of scientific interests. From AGU's perspective, too, the fit was ideal. "We were really happy to participate," says Jill Karsten, manager of AGU's Education and Career Services. "Ashanti's program came along at the right time. It completely dove-tailed with a high priority item in our diversity plan, and it gave us a mechanism for implementing it quickly."

Karsten allowed the MS PHD'S community to use the Educators' and Students' Lounge at the meeting, a highly visible venue that generated lots of feedback. "Everybody was saying, 'It was so exciting to see this very diverse, very engaged community of students.'" Karsten says. "It really drove home the fact that you previously went to an AGU meeting, and there wasn't a lot of color. It made us feel like we've made some progress here in ways that we weren't sure we would."

MS PHD'S students and their mentors also made progress. Ismael Nieves, a University of Connecticut doctoral candidate in environmental engineering, applied to the program hoping to expand his scientific horizons beyond his current focus on microbial fuel cells. "I learned so much," he says. "I loved how the MS PHD'S program sets you up with a mentor from the program and another mentor from the conference." Conversations with his mentors covered everything from the latest research in groundwater modeling to tips on grad school and personal matters.

Georgia State's Dana Brown wanted to polish skills she learned during the 2003 pilot year, but she wasn't prepared for the size of the AGU meeting. "Even though my advisor told me it was huge, it was still overwhelming," she says. "What made the difference was that we were all overwhelmed together." Watching other MS PHD'S scholars in action inspired Brown. "It made me realize that I can give presentations after all. If they can do it, so can I."

Brandon Jones was a student participant in 2003 while completing doctoral research in marine biology at the University of Delaware. Now with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Center for Environmental Research in Washington, D.C., he became a mentor for MS PHD'S students at the AGU meeting. "I believe it's mandatory that students, especially underrepresented students, have solid mentoring as they progress through their early science careers," says Jones. "It's important for them to be in constant contact with people who look like them and have been where they are going."

With Phase 1 behind them, the MS PHD'S students are now preparing for Phase 2: attendance at another scientific meeting, this one tied more tightly to their scientific interest.

"Ismael's interests aligned with the Joint Oceanographic Institution, so he's one of the five students we're sending to Shanghai, China, in May," says Pyrtle. Brown, along with five others, attended the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography Aquatic Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 2004. The rest of the students will travel to 2005 and 2006 meetings hosted by the American Meteorological Society, American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, Estuarine Research Federation, The Oceanography Society, and the Digital Library of Earth System Education.

Endings and Beginnings

The current program ends later this year at NAS, where the students will participate in various discussions, visit government agencies, and network with other professionals.

Yet Pyrtle was recently awarded funding to extend the program for another 5 years, allowing three groups of 25 students to participate in the coming years. Applications will be accepted this summer, and students will be selected early enough to encourage them to submit abstracts to the fall AGU meeting. As word spreads about the program, more professional societies are signing up as partners, expanding the number of meetings available for Phase 2.

Finding mentors among her MS PHD'S alumni shouldn't be a problem for Pyrtle. Nieves speaks for many when he says: "I can only hope that in the future I serve as an inspiration, just as my mentors and Dr. Pyrtle have done for me, and that others may have the same kind of opportunity I had with this program. This program has inspired me to make a difference."

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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