VCU receives $1 million grant to increase minority Ph.D. STEM students

July 5, 2022

A new program at Virginia Commonwealth University is designed to increase the number of minority students who earn a Ph.D. in a STEM discipline.

The National Science Foundation awarded VCU a $1.08 million grant to fund the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Bridge to the Doctorate program. Named after the late congressman Louis Stokes, the national program is designed to give African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Native Pacific Islanders greater access to science, technology, engineering and math majors. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics are 17% of the workforce but only represent 8% of people in a STEM position. African Americans are 11% of the workforce but hold 9% of STEM jobs.

Mychal Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences; Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor and vice chair of education in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine; Gregory Triplett, Ph.D., senior associate dean for academic affairs and a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; and Mike Grotewiel, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate education at the School of Medicine and an associate professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, were the recipients of the grant. Smith will oversee the project.

“Our main focus of the grant is to make sure students move through a graduate STEM program and complete their Ph.D.,” Smith said.

Starting in the 2023-24 academic year, 12 minority, first-year Ph.D. students in STEM majors will receive funding that will cover tuition and include a stipend for two years. While students will be from different majors, they will have an opportunity to bond and help each other through the rigorous journey of earning a doctorate.

“Getting minority students into a STEM career, especially research, is very challenging even at VCU, which has a significant minority student population,” Smith said.

The grant does not establish procedures for awarding funds, so a committee has been created that will develop guidelines to select students if more than 12 apply. One stipulation, however, is that students must be involved in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation as an undergraduate. VCU is part of the Virginia-North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, and Smith is set to begin reaching out to academic advisors in schools to let them know about the opportunity for funding at VCU. He also hopes to attend several conferences to let students know about the opportunity.

To qualify, students must be accepted into a Ph.D. STEM program at VCU and then must apply for the Bridge to the Doctorate. Smith said he expects there will be plenty of interest.

Besides tuition, the grant is designed to get students into a lab doing research. Graduate students often become teaching assistants to earn money, but Smith said they will have the stipend and can focus on research.  

The first couple of years of a Ph.D. program often can be the most challenging. The funding is designed to guide them through the early years of a doctoral program when many students drop out.

Smith said students are not required to go into academia after completion of the Ph.D. Many will pursue careers in industry, especially engineering majors, but the goal is students doing hard-science research during their time in a doctoral program.

Smith is excited about implementing the grant. A large part of his work at VCU involves educating students about the benefits of a STEM career. He manages a similar program for undergrads at VCU and became interested in science through a program like the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.

He spends time in local elementary and middle schools talking with students about the joys of science. Smith earned his doctorate in biochemistry and worked in the lab where he did an internship.

“Service has always been a passion of mine,” Smith said. “I enjoy talking to students who might not have the opportunity to be around science. I bring science to them. That has been one of my goals in life.”

by: James Shea