Research News

Fisk/Vanderbilt program receives $3.7 million to increase minority Ph.D.s in the physical sciences

A unique collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt universities that is poised to become the nation’s top source of Ph.D.s in physics and astronomy awarded to underrepresented minorities has received a major boost from three federal grants totaling $3.7 million.

The Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D Bridge program was established in 2004. In just five years the program has attracted 31 underrepresented minority students, 60 percent of whom are women, and has become the nation’s top producer of blacks earning master’s degrees in physics. One of the new grants will be used to strengthen the astronomy/astrophysics infrastructure at Fisk, a historically black university, as well as increase recruitment and retention of underrepresented students. The second grant will fund the expansion of the program to a second historically black institution, Delaware State University, and expand the program from its current focus on astronomy and astrophysics to include materials science. The third grant will provide generous fellowships to support the students participating in the program.

“We are pleased to receive this federal support for Fisk, Vanderbilt and Delaware State students which reflects the quality of our existing programs,” said Fisk President Hazel R. O’Leary. “With this funding we will expand our existing successful collaboration between Fisk and Vanderbilt in astronomy and astrophysics to increase opportunity and build on our consistent reputation for producing both women scientists and scientists of color for over a century.”

Each year for the past seven years, U.S. universities have awarded an average of 333 master’s degrees in physics, astronomy and astrophysics to women and underrepresented ethnic minorities and 25 Ph.D.s in astronomy and astrophysics. That averages out to one woman or minority Ph.D. degree every two years for the 53 institutions that grant these degrees. For underrepresented ethnic minorities alone, the average is one Ph.D. every 10 years. Since 2006 Fisk University has awarded about a third of the nation’s African American master’s in physics. Such small numbers mean that a single program, like the Bridge Program, can have a significant impact.

“Our vision is to enhance the scope and impact of our Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program by expanding it to include all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” said Arnold Burger, professor of physics at Fisk. “This reinforces Fisk as a pipeline to advanced degrees for extremely talented students.”

“Through this partnership, more students will have the opportunity to develop valuable, marketable skills at the interface of astronomy, materials science and high-performance computing,” added Keivan Stassun, associate professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt and adjunct professor of physics at Fisk who is one of the program’s architects. “The result will be enhanced research capability at both Fisk and Vanderbilt, as well as a cadre of highly skilled astrophysics Ph.D. students who will significantly enhance the diversity and quality of the nation’s astronomy and astrophysics workforce.”

The largest grant, totaling $1.8 million, is directed to Fisk to support the Graduate Opportunities for Fisk Astronomy and Astrophysics Research (GO-FAAR) project. The funds will be used to strengthen Fisk’s research infrastructure in astronomy and astrophysics. It will also be used to increase recruitment, retention and degree attainment by underrepresented students. Funding for the project comes from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in Astronomy & Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE) program.

The second NSF grant of $1.2 million will fund the expansion of the Bridge Program to include Delaware State University. Students from all three institutions will collaborate in graduate research and instruction and receive full funding support. This grant comes from NSF’s Innovation through Institutional Integration project, which supports initiatives that enable faculty, administrators and others in institutions to think and act strategically about the creative integration of NSF-funded awards. The grant enables the Bridge program to expand into the field of materials science, which also suffers from extremely low minority representation.

In addition to these grants, the program has received $784,000 from the Department of Education’s Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program. This grant will provide attractive fellowships ($30,000 per year plus tuition) for graduate students in science disciplines deemed essential to the nation’s economic competitiveness. It will support six to seven new graduate students per year, who will be evenly apportioned among those entering the Bridge program and those entering directly into the Vanderbilt Ph.D. program.

“This significant investment by the federal government is a dramatic recognition of the success of the joint Fisk/Vanderbilt program,” said Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty. “The complementary strengths of Fisk’s master degree and Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. programs have combined in a remarkable fashion that provides minority students with the support, encouragement and the skills that they need to succeed in the physical sciences.”

Contact: David F. Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS

Fisk University Contact: Ken West, (615) 329-8767