Well kept secrets: who knows why. Pt1

I’m having the experience of finding some very well kept secrets. Or perhaps they’re not such well-kept secrets as under-promoted activities. I’ll start where I am—at Arizona State University (ASU). A few weeks ago I came to visit ASU and the mentoring-outreach programs of Carlos Castillo Chavez. For many, or at least those in mathematics and applied mathematics, Carlos Castillo Chavez is no secret. He is recipient of the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Mentoring (PAESMEM). He is a highly published, respected and sought after scholar. And since that’s no secret, then perhaps it’s the slightly less well known is the undergraduate development program that Carlos initiated in 1996 at Cornell University and has maintained and grown to its current prowess at ASU. This is the Mathematical, Theoretical Biology Institute. Over 700 students have come through the summer research program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Association. That over 80% of the participants in this development program have been women, Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans is also a little kept secret (i.e. well known in some circles).

Carlos’ institute, directed by Drs. Erika Camacho and Steve Wirkus , is recognized for being the most significant single contributor to increasing the number of Ph.D.'s awarded to underrepresented minorities in mathematics. In other words, if in one year underrepresented minorities received 10 Ph.D.'s in mathematics and the next year 16 were received (an increased of 6), 2-3 of those 6 new Ph.D.'s were alumni of MTBI.

A common characteristic of programs that develop a significant number of underrepresented minorities (URM) who go on to complete Ph.D.'s in STEM is that they are led by strong, charismatic and exceptional researchers. The leader’s strengths have been a critical factor in establishing the programs. They inform not just the structure but also the program's culture. Many admire and simultaneously dismiss their success by saying: “we can’t replicate Carlos.” Or “If only we could clone Richard.” These admissions of the heroic and admirable efforts led by such people as Carlos Castillo Chavez or Richard Tapia, do too little to recognize the concrete steps that these individuals have taken to build their undergraduate and graduate programs. They build them with support from colleagues, with shrewd political awareness, great luck and relentless insistence on inclusion.

So, now what’s the secret? The secret is that the majority of underrepresented minorities and women coming through MTBI, going on to graduate school, and establishing significant careers in industry were at the time of their selection and participation not the traditional top ten URM student. What is the “top ten”? Top ten would be the students with:  4.0 to 4.5 GPA, AP courses, existing research experience, potentially pre-existing publications and coming from such top ranked schools Harvard, Stanford, UCxx, Purdue, etc. Top ten are typically the students that faculty look at during application review and say to themselves, I’m not sure I could have done that at that age.

So, the secret: It is possible to create collaborative learning environments (programs) in which students who have not shown exceptional abilities become great researchers. This environment (complex relationship of faculty, graduates students and participants) relates to them as capable of being great researchers. They are given the training in technical concepts and applications that great researchers use; and they work side by side with students and faculty ahead of them in the field. They come to appreciate the research process and the deep commitment that they themselves, their peers and mentors. In 8 weeks, the participants of MTBI have developed research projects that are submitted as abstracts to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Their projects have been through rigorous development and critique by a committee of faculty, and are near completion as potential journal paper submissions.

Why is this a secret? Many researchers looking to engage the next generation scientist, mathematician or engineer in their field, make the assumption that they need to attract the already accomplished student. They also assume that it is not possible to have everyone learn if members of the group are at different skill and experience levels. Yet, here, at MTBI the groups are intentionally heterogeneous and intentionally not working with the already accomplished, but rather those who achieve modest to excellent grades or accomplishments in the face challenging circumstances.  The MTBI groups are designed to work across skill levels, maximizing their ability to be curious, to be inspired and undeterred by the impossible. Here, similar to the process of the All Stars Project, everyone grows. The young people develop as researchers. The faculty, the graduate students develop their expertise in research and mentoring, and make use of their rich experience to support the development of the group. And fortunately for all of us, our scientific and mathematical fields develop too. 

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