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SIUE researchers experimenting with ways to better support minority grad students

SIUE researchers got about $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to study local water sheds and new ways to support minority and low-income students in STEM fields.
(Wikimedia Commons)
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SIUE researchers got about $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to study local watersheds and new ways to support minority and low-income students in STEM fields.

Researchers at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville are taking a new approach to supporting minority and low-income graduate students in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The university received about $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation for the six-year project, which focuses on researching sustainable watersheds. The plan is to tackle the issue from multiple departmental perspectives, seeking graduate students studying environmental science, civil engineering, biology or chemistry.

“It’s bringing in people from four departments in a location that’s perfect for this,” said Adriana Martinez, an associate professor at SIUE and one of the project's leaders. “We’re right by the Mississippi. We have a lot of issues regarding water, water quality, water rights.”

But more important to Martinez is the opportunity to support the graduate education of STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds, which she said was the primary goal of the funding.

Less than half of minority students pursuing master’s degrees in the fields she’s targeting complete their degrees in two years, the expected time period, Martinez said.

“That’s in part because our student population is largely working full time while they’re going to school, or they end up finding a job while they're working,” she said. “This grant aims to provide financial support so that students can completely concentrate on their graduate degree in one of the STEM disciplines.”

The funding provides for a tuition waiver and a $10,000 scholarship each year of a student’s two-year master’s program. Martinez said. She expects to graduate 45 students over the six-year project.

The funding also gives researchers at SIUE a chance to experiment with new ways in supporting their graduate students. The traditional methods some universities have used for students in science fields haven’t always worked, said co-project leader Carol Colaninno, a research associate professor at SIUE’s STEM center.

“A lot of people out of their master’s are like, ‘I never want to touch that science again,’” she said. “We’re really hoping to have students feeling supported as a human being, not just a robot scientist.”

Additional mentorship is one of the ways the leaders of this project intend to achieve this goal. Often, graduate students only have one adviser or mentor they interact with, but the project Martinez and Colaninno are pursuing formally links them with multiple people.

“The idea is that students have more than one person to go to,” Martinez said. “Oftentimes students might have issues, or want to talk to someone else besides their adviser about a particular issue or get a second opinion.”

Colaninno said she hopes this helps incoming graduate students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, feel welcomed at the university. It’s a successful model in helping undergraduate students, and she tweaked it to work for graduate students, she said.

Colaninno and Martinez both hope this project will prove successful and be more widely applied at SIUE and beyond to help minority and low-income students. For Martinez, it’s personal.

“I am a first-generation graduate student, and I had no idea what it was going to be like,” she said. “I want to provide that for these students to try and give them a leg up. And say, ‘It’s OK if you didn’t come from a background where these things are already known, but we can help you with that.’”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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