Universities boost minorities in academia

Rice University, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston have won a multimillion-dollar grant to help increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers in engineering and science.

The National Science Foundation grant for $2.66 million over five years is part of its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, which seeks to “advance knowledge about models to improve pathways to the professoriate and success” for historically underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines.

The award is specifically for those in data engineering and data science disciplines. It will fund a project to be called AGEP STRIDES (Strengthening Training and Resources for Inclusion in Data Engineering and Sciences). 

“Even in this day and age, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in engineering faculty is fairly small and nowhere near what it can be,” said Hanadi Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean of research and facilities at UH’s Cullen College of Engineering­­

“I think you will see the picture changing,” Rifai said. “You have to excite people about a career track and show them the opportunities available, but then also prepare them to take advantage of those opportunities. This project is a great path towards that goal.”

The universities expect AGEP will enhance tech companies’ bottom lines as newly minted academics develop the diverse workforce of the future.

“We can’t overstate how important and timely this project is,” said the grant’s principal investigator, Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering. 

“We are at a unique time when the economy is dominated by companies in the computational and data science domain. At the same time, we know these industries remain among the least diverse.”

“This project award arrives at the right time, with the nation addressing a STEM achievement gap between underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM undergraduate and graduate students, and with our universities and colleges struggling to recruit, retain and promote URM STEM faculty,” said Wei Wayne Li, a professor of computer science and director of the TSU-based NSF Center for Research on Complex Networks

“We are also going to provide future faculty members with affinity mentors who can advise them about their careers and also about life,” Rifai said. “Because there’s more to life than just the career and we want them to have all the support they need to succeed.”