Diversity Matters

Diversity MattersEnhancing diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has become a national priority as we strive to advance and innovate in these fields. A looming shortfall of American scientists and engineers, coupled with growing competition from other countries, has resulted in warnings from the National Academy of Sciences that we are in danger of losing our global pre-eminence in the STEM fields. At the same time, as a nation we have not taken full advantage of the potential and talent of American women and under-represented minorities (URM) in our society. With this trend in sharp focus, the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences has aggressively responded to the need to diversify our scientific workforce through several initiatives over the past 10 years.

Encouraging the Women Scientists of Tomorrow

Today, 65% of students in the Bayer School are women, attesting to the strongly supportive environment the faculty have created and promote for female students in the sciences. This gender diversity propagates across disciplines and is reflected in both the undergraduate and graduate student populations in the school.

The Bayer Scholars program, representing a partnership between Bayer Corporation and the Bayer School, targets women and URM students who intend to major in either chemistry or environmental chemistry. The program combines a strong mentoring component, under the capable leadership of Dr. Ellen Gawalt of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, with early immersion in undergraduate research at the University beginning in the freshman year. This early exposure to authentic research experiences is being increasingly recognized as a key factor in retaining women and URM students in the sciences through to completion of their degrees. Providing exposure to a corporate research and development environment, the first cohort of five female Bayer Scholars completed their first summer internship at Bayer MaterialScience during the summer of 2012 following their third year of study. As a result of their successful internship experiences, two of the Bayer Scholars have accepted offers of employment from Bayer Corporation upon the completion of their degree programs in May 2013. The Bayer Scholars program has thus already demonstrated the power and impact of a successful collaboration.

Dr. David Seybert, dean of the Bayer School and one of the architects of the Bayer Scholars program, was an invited member of a national panel in April 2012 in Washington DC that explored ways to overcome barriers to the creation of more diverse student populations in the STEM areas. During the panel discussion, Dean Seybert highlighted the fact that this type of university-corporate partnership will become increasingly important in our nation’s ability to promote and sustain a superior and diverse scientific workforce.

Sparking Interest in Science for High School Students

The Bayer School also hosts other programs to enhance student diversity and to encourage high school students who might be at risk for drifting away from the STEM disciplines. Project SEED is a national program sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) to promote summer scientific research experiences for economically disadvantaged high school students in university and corporate laboratories. The SEED program at Duquesne, led by Dr. Jennifer Aitken, has provided summer experiences for more than 30 high school students, resulting in two Chem Luminary Awards to Dr. Aitken and her collaborators in the local ACS section and at Washington and Jefferson College.

Encouraged by the growing culture of diversity within the Bayer School, a Ph.D. student from the Department of Biological Sciences has initiated a pilot program that brings African-American high school students to Duquesne University to participate in laboratory experiences. The program also provides mentoring for these students and encouragement to pursue STEM degrees when they enter college.

Encouraging Diversity Creates Reciprocal Benefits

While the programs outlined here provide unique opportunities for students, these same programs have exerted an equally enriching impact upon the faculty and the curriculum of the Bayer School. In fact, recent research indicates that exposure to increased diversity benefits all students and enhances their critical thinking skills.

The Bayer School is proud to host this growing continuum of diversity initiatives, and none of these activities are possible without the encouragement and generous support of the school’s benefactors. According to Dean Seybert, “Our alumni, friends and partners continue to help us provide these extraordinary opportunities that touch not only our current students, but that also enable us to reach out into the regional high school STEM communities.”  As Seybert notes, without this support for the faculty and students, the promise of creating and sustaining a more diverse and globally competitive scientific workforce would remain as a dream and a plan.