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UCLA joins alliance to increase diversity among postdocs, faculty nationwide

UCLA and three other top-tier West Coast universities have formed an alliance to work together to increase the number of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and engineering going into the ranks of postdoctoral students and faculty at the country’s best research universities and national labs.   
 
The California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate includes UCLA, the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University and UC Berkeley, which will lead the alliance. The new program to increase the number of minority Ph.D. students and faculty members in these targeted STEM fields is supported by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
 
Together, the four universities produce almost 10 percent of the nation’s underrepresented minority Ph.D.s in the science and engineering fields that the alliance is targeting. With UC Berkeley and Stanford in the north, and Caltech and UCLA in the south, the four institutions span the nation’s most populous and ethnically diverse state, are each other’s closest peer institutions and are similarly ranked.
 
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The alliance is focusing on increasing the number of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students and faculty in targeted fields who go to top universities and the national labs.
The alliance is creating a cross-institutional community of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members in the targeted fields. It will offer faculty training to better recognize and help these students thrive and advance as well as conduct research that will include annual surveys of Ph.D. students about what factors impact their attitudes, experiences and preparation for the future.
 
Graduate students of color “are highly influenced by whether their department has a critical mass of people that are similar to themselves,” said Carlos Grijalva, associate dean of the Graduate Division at UCLA and a professor of behavioral neuroscience. “I also tell my students, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’”
 
A Hispanic-American who was the first in his family to attend college, Grijalva has been hailed at UCLA as a mentor and resource for underrepresented minority students. He has traveled the country to foster relationships with historically black schools and to recruit a more diverse graduate-student population. In 2012, he was selected the faculty winner of the Academic Senate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award.
 
Individually, UCLA and its alliance institutions have explicit policies and commitments to increase diversity as well as model programs to recruit, retain and advance underrepresented minority students. But statistics in this area for all four institutions reflect a disturbing national trend.
 
In 2011, the year for which the most current data were available for the four institutions, of the 845 new Ph.D. students in the targeted STEM fields who began their doctoral programs, 81 of them were from underrepresented minority groups. Of the 753 doctoral degrees awarded in these fields, 59 of them went to underrepresented minority students. Of the 1,050 postdocs in these targeted disciplines, 58 were from underrepresented minority groups.
 
In tackling this nationwide problem, said Mark Leddy, the NSF’s program director, the alliance “draws on the strength of the institutions involved and is developing a model for moving the needle in this area.”
 
The alliance plans to nurture social-professional networks of Ph.D. students, faculty and research scientists. Students will be funded to travel to other alliance institutions to visit, give talks or meet researchers or a potential mentor to increase the likelihood that they will land a prestigious postdoctoral or faculty position.
 
Planned activities include an annual retreat — the first one will be April 4-5 at Stanford — where students will work on their skills in networking, communication and project management, among others. It also will be a gathering place for schools and national labs seeking postdoctoral fellows and new faculty looking to hire students.
 
Also in the works is a competition for funding for alliance postdoctoral positions and an online searchable database of alliance participants and their research interests to help the four schools, national labs and other institutions identify and recruit future postdoctoral scholars and faculty.
 
“The California Alliance institutions already are providing remarkable opportunities for graduate students,” said Mark Richards, executive dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science and dean of mathematical and physical sciences. “The issue is that we have to do something above and beyond what’s standard in graduate education to give all students a sense of belonging.”
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