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Research plus. Meyerhoff scholars in the lab with Michael Summers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Research plus. Meyerhoff scholars in the lab with Michael Summers of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Tim Ford for UMBC

HHMI Hopes to Replicate Program to Produce More Minority Science Ph.D.s

Can a hugely successful program to increase the number of U.S. minority students earning advanced science and engineering degrees be exported from its home institution? The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) hopes to find out.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), has become the gold standard for providing a path into academic research for groups—African-Americans, Hispanics, and disadvantaged white students—now underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Other universities have eyed its enviable 20-year record—more than 900 graduates who have gone on to earn 423 advanced science degrees and 107 medical degrees—and wondered what it would take to replicate that success on their campuses.

HHMI announced today that it will spend $7.75 million over the next 5 years to support a partnership between UMBC and two major state institutions—the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the Pennsylvania State University, University Park. The HHMI funding will help faculty members and administrators at all three schools document what is essential for success and also create a road map for other universities to follow. Last year, both schools launched their own versions of the Meyerhoff program, which seeks out high-performing students who intend to pursue a Ph.D. in science or engineering.

“The data are shocking,” admits Mary Beth Williams, a chemistry professor and associate dean at Penn State. For example, she notes, the latest tally from the National Science Foundation shows that Penn State, one of the largest universities in the country, has moved into the top 40 schools for the number of African-American undergraduates who eventually earned science and engineering Ph.D.s. But what shocked Williams was that the school’s ranking was based on graduating only four black students a year for the past decade—out of a STEM class of roughly 3000. “Clearly, we have to do a better job,” she says.

Both schools had already turned for help to UMBC, which was looking to expand its successful model. Honed over the years, it includes scholarships, a summer bridge program for entering freshmen, hands-on research experiences, and close monitoring of their academic performance with peer counseling and timely career advice. “We try to create a situation in which it’s clear that we expect them to succeed, and we provide the resources to make that possible,” explains UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, who has been a driving force behind the program since a $500,000 grant from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff allowed UMBC to enroll its first class of 19 male African-American students in 1989 and created an endowment for the program.

A 1996 court ruling forced UMBC to broaden its eligibility requirements, and its current 4-year class of 300 students is 60% underrepresented minority, 22% Caucasian, and 18% Asian. But that mix has not changed the thrust of the program, which Hrabowski describes as promoting diversity in the sciences by taking “above-average students and making them extraordinary.”

Some have criticized that approach as elitist. But Hrabowski sees it differently. “What Meyerhoff has done is get us to think about our responsibility to students who say they want a STEM degree,” he says. “And what helps underrepresented minorities will also help the rest of our students.”

The project is the logical next step for the Meyerhoff program, says Michael Summers, a biochemistry professor and HHMI investigator who has been involved with the program since its inception. “There were quite a few places that were interested” in hosting a replication, he says. But after visited both universities in 2011 and meeting with top administrators and faculty, Summers was persuaded that both Penn State and UNC were prepared to make the necessary institutional commitment.

Both Williams and her counterpart at UNC, chemistry professor and vice chair of education Joe Templeton, asked themselves the same question in developing their joint proposal with UMBC to HHMI: Do you need Freeman Hrabowski to succeed? In addition to having different personnel, HHMI’s David Asai says the schools will also need to figure out how to adapt the Meyerhoff program to their own campuses. “There are a lot of components,” he notes, “and some may not be compatible to the culture of another institution.”

In fact, the two schools may end up taking slightly different paths to replication. “My goal is to clone it as much as possible,” Williams says. “It’s been successful for 25 years, so why mess with it? The more you change, the more you’re inviting failure.” Williams says she hopes the HHMI funding will help Penn State “transform our culture.”

Templeton says that UNC “is eager to reproduce aspects of the Meyerhoff program.” But he’s also quick to point out the differences between his institution and its partners. “We’re not in an urban setting, like Baltimore,” he notes. “We have a major medical center and law school, and we have our own rich traditions rooted in the Carolina soil, such as being the nation’s oldest public university with a strong history of diversity.”

Meyerhoff’s team-centered approach may also clash with aspects of UNC’s traditional view of its student body, he adds. “We expect our entering students to have the mental discipline to elect their own course of study,” he notes. “And highlighting one small group [there were 24 students in the first UNC class of chancellor’s scholars last summer] out of an entering class of 4000 is not the way we normally welcome our students.”

Summers will be working with both Williams and Templeton in the years ahead to help their staffs “absorb what we’ve learned.” And despite the obvious differences among the three schools, Summers is optimistic about their chances of succeeding—or even surpassing UMBC’s achievements. “They both have vastly more research resources than we do at UMBC,” he points out. “So once they really get going, they could outdo us soon.”