A method to develop scientists from underrepresented groups: Research Recruits


The United States needs to develop more scientists from underrepresented groups. This post describes an approach I’ve developed that has helped me do this more effectively.

The United States has always been, and remains, a nation of immigrants. For a variety of complex sociological reasons, our nation’s scientists are principally being drawn from one pool of historic immigrants. Now, the demographics of the country are changing more rapidly than the culture of our scientific community.

The subset of the US population from which scientists are drawn is proportionally shrinking. If our nation is going to remain (or regain) global prominence as a research powerhouse, then we need to recruit scientists from the entire population of the country. We need to make more Latino and African-American scientists, particularly women, from these groups.

The nation needs to overcome the sociocultural divisions that inhibit students from a variety of cultural backgrounds from becoming scientists.

A few generations ago, all women were excluded from most career paths, but these restrictions also applied to the men in my family because of their heritage. My Irish and Italian great grandparents living in Brooklyn were members an underrepresented ethnic and religious minority subjected to substantial discrimination (the movie Gangs of New York puts this history into context). A hundred years ago it would have been laughable that a fresh-off-the-boat McGlynn could become respected science professor in the US. Now, my ethnic background is such a part of the mainstream that I’m now considered to be a member of the privileged class.

It’s now, literally, my job to build that kind of progress for Latinos and African Americans, ethnic groups that have a longer history in the US than my own ancestors. I work in a university that gives me the opportunity of training many of these underrepresented students, and I create avenues of opportunity for those who aspire to become research scientists.

For nearly all of my students, the concept of going to graduate school to become a scientist isn’t even on their radar. Most students are oriented towards careers as technicians in the medical, biomedical or biotechnological fields. Some are broadly interested in environmental science but more about on-the-ground conservation work rather than become a research leader in the field.

Nobody new has come to me and said, “I want to go to graduate school and become a researcher.” If I were to introduce this concept to students, most would be neutral or opposed to the idea, meet resistance from their families, and would be more oriented towards finding a 9-5 job right after graduation or seeking vocational training.

Research is not an easy sell, even though I have some students who I intuitively know right off the bat that they would both excel at, and relish, a career in scientific research. How do I make this happen? There are many books and articles written about the general approach. This post describes one specific practice that can enhance recruitment efforts.

In general, researchers are created by the placement of promising students in an immersive and amazing research experience. They also are made with the provision of proximate models (e.g., not an old white married professor with a family) to show them how possible it is for them to pursue this route.

How do you get students into immersive experiences with the right role models? How I can I, at an underfunded state university with scant research activity on campus, make this happen?

One of the problems in recruiting students from underrepresented groups into scientific careers is that most of this underrepresented population goes to high school and college in environments where it sucks to do science. These urban high-need schools are so focused on raising test scores in English and math that science is merely an afterthought at best.

It’s no wonder that our underrepresented students don’t want to become scientists. They’ve never done genuine science in school, and at our university, our labs are shabby and poorly equipped, and there are no big active research labs on campus, so they don’t have any idea what it looks like to do research.

If I want to make research scientists out of my students, I’ve got to them the heck out of Dodge.

I’ve got to get them to a place where serious research happens all over the place, surrounded by a multiethnic group of students that are one step above them in experience and aspiration. There’s lots of fun tinkering in my lab, but nothing that can inspire someone to make the switch towards a life in science.

I’m not going to bring these students to local research universities like UCLA or Caltech, or to well-endowed undergraduate campuses with great undergraduate research programs like Occidental or Pomona. That could, and does, work, but I’ve got what I think is a better plan.

I’m writing this post right now on a plane. The six seats in front of me are occupied by students from my university, and when they started college they were not planning to become scientists. I’ll wager that a few years from now, about half of them will be published authors and enrolled in a great PhD program in biology. This plane is heading for Costa Rica, and they’ll be spending either 2.5 weeks, or 2.5 months, doing research on trophic ecology in a tropical rainforest. (Their work supported by the NSF International Research Experiences for Students program, also the Louis Stokes Alliance for Broadening Minority Participation administered by NSF.)

The rainforest itself isn’t what makes the students become scientists. Instead, it’s the research environment located at the edge of this massive fragment of forest, called La Selva Biological Station. There, my students interact with undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs  from all over the US, Latin America and Europe. They hang out with people who are supremely excited about research, and they also see the social and ethnic diversity of scientists that is rare at most US universities. Many of my students speak Spanish at home, and at La Selva, they’re able to talk with research students from Latin America who are also native Spanish speakers. They see Latinos excelling at research, and it is inspiring.

What my students see at La Selva is something that I could never just explain to them: they can have a genuine future as a research scientist. If they love the research (and only some do), then this experience makes the avenue to success perfectly clear and obvious.

They know that it’s my job to clear the path for them, for the next few years, by bring them to conferences, making them published authors, and helping give them the skills they need. (You’ll be able to meet a bunch of them if you go to the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting this summer, by the way.) They know it’s their job to deliver the goods as well, by being productive members of my research lab, primarily as the engines of data creation.

I don’t necessarily need to schlep these students to the rainforest to give them that kind of immersive research environment. I think active biological field stations are the best for this kind of experience, and there are lots of these within the US. Some universities are great for this as well, especially for those whose research orientation is focused on what happens in the lab. I bring these students to La Selva because that’s my biological home where I’ve worked for almost 20 years. I work there because my undergraduate advisor brought me there, and she remains a top mentor and model for my work with students.

Bringing the right students to the rainforest became really difficult since I came to a university filled with students from ethnicities underrepresented in the sciences (in California, you can’t call Latino a “minority” after all). When I worked at schools filled with relatively wealthy students with northern European ancestry, I had no problem finding students who wanted go down and work in the rainforest for a few weeks for a few months. They could pay for it themselves, and they enjoyed the experience, though not so many of them enjoyed it enough to become scientists.

I was surprised when I got to CSU Dominguez Hills. I posted signs up all over the (dilapidated) science building which read:


Who wouldn’t want to do that? It turns out, nearly everybody.

I thought I’d be overwhelmed with applications. I didn’t get enough credible applications to fill my slots. The few applicants I had were hardcore premeds who I knew (from past experience) would never be won over to research, and I didn’t want to waste NSF’s money (nor my time) that way.

I eventually filled the slots, mostly with the right students, but it took a serious recruitment effort. The most frustrating part of the experience is that there were students who I knew well, who I was confident would enjoy and succeed in the summer rainforest research experience, but I couldn’t convince them to apply. It turned out that nearly all of my best potential candidates were the ones that I couldn’t convince to come along.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Many of these students were closely tied to their families and had never been away from family for a week, much less two months. Also, though I could pay a full stipend, this amount couldn’t fully match the revenue they would be earning from summer employment. Third, many students were counting on taking summer school so that they could graduate in 5 or 6 years instead of 7 or 8 years (no, I’m not exaggerating. Welcome to the contemporary California State University).

I couldn’t pull a student away from home for a whole summer of paid research unless they were exceptionally untied at home and had a great degree of financial freedom, combined with an independence of vision or a particularly free spirit that would allow them to have an open mind to the future. There were students I wanted to take down for the whole summer, but I just couldn’t hook them.

So, what did I do? As the title of the post suggests, I created a new category of student researcher, which I called the “Research Recruit.”

Remember how I wrote that some of the students traveling with me joined me for just 2.5 weeks. They spend two weeks doing research at La Selva, and a few days on “cultural experiences” such as the beach, cloud forest, volcano expeditions, hot springs, museums and zip-lining before going back home. They don’t receive a stipend, but they do get all their travel expenses covered plus a little per diem. Nothing has to come out of their own pockets.

It’s not that hard to convince most students to leave for the rainforest for 2.5 weeks. They can take that much time off their jobs with enough advance warning, and even if they have overprotective family, they can escape and reassure them with video chats from abroad. Students can get someone to watch their pets for that long, if not the whole summer. While not many people apply as research recruits on their own initiative, when we seek out students who we think are a good fit and ask them to apply, then we get a large and high quality applicant pool.

The Research Recruits don’t run their own projects like the long-term students. They pitch in as research technicians on the projects run by the other students. They also are encouraged to tag along with other researchers on station, which gives them the chance to meet a variety of grad students from the U.S. and also gives them exposure to a variety of biological and research system. Exceptional ones might be invited to stay for the whole summer, if there is adequate funding and mentorship.

By hosting a short-term cohort of Research Recruits, I am able to give students a taste of field biology and a thrilling research community. We are able to entice a number of recruits to apply to, and plan for, a full summer of research abroad in the following summer. Some research recruits don’t return to the rainforest for a full summer, as they discovered that they are not field biologists, but they have emerged from the experience excited about research and some have wound up as researchers in other lab-oriented disciplines. Others have gone into careers in teaching, and their tangible research experience has enhanced their classroom teaching.

It is hard work to make a scientist out of a person whose background precludes scientific research as a genuine career option. It is a highly personalized process, and it takes building genuine personal relationships. It also takes multiple years. Not all of my “research recruits” become scientists, but some of them do. These students who wind up in grad school never would have committed to a full summer of research without having an initial taste of research. If I gave up on them because they were wary of a summer of dedicated research, then it’s likely that they never would have been turned onto scientific research as a career option.

Once our Recruits go home, then they can prepare for the next summer. They can talk to their families, arrange for someone to watch their dog, don’t mind quitting their job and get excited about the projects that they can do. The level of commitment required to leave home for the summer, for the purpose of an intangible and vague experience, is a high bar for underrepresented students. The Research Recruit experience lets students know what they would be doing for the whole summer, and gets talented students to be motivated to make the personal commitment.

Is an exceptional summer experience enough to turn a student into a lifelong scientist? It can be. The hard part is getting students to envision themselves taking part in an experience for one summer. If you bring Research Recruits into your program, you lessen the initial level of commitment and then you can identify those who will succeed in long-term experiences.

Underrepresented students are going to college at underrepresented universities, the campuses that are not actively participating in the research community. To diversify the sciences, you need to recruit students from these campuses. To do this, you’ve got to go through us – the faculty who work with these students on a day to day basis.

To bring students from these institutions into the fold, you can’t just offer amazing experiences and hope that the right students sign up. You’ve got to court them, and convince them that research is a viable avenue. You’ve got to build personal relationships.

You can’t just expect the best students to commit to full summer research experiences. Research ability and motivation may be independent from the ability to envision research as a career path. I wish every program that is trying to recruit students from ethnic minorities included a Research Recruit option, which would bring in not only more students, but also the best students who otherwise would not see research as an option in their future.

We have a high conversion rate from our Research Recruit program, and after doing this for four years, our challenge is that we have too many qualified students looking for full-summer slots. That’s not a bad position to be in, and it also helps us argue for greater levels funding for our programs.

If you don’t have enough talented students from underrepresented groups applying, consider inviting them for just two weeks. Build your research community from the ground up. There are so many amazing students from underrepresented groups at non-research universities that can be excellent scientists. Creating funded opportunities is only the start, you’ve got to court them. I humbly suggest that creating a short-term Research Recruit program is one successful tactic that is absent from most programs.

6 thoughts on “A method to develop scientists from underrepresented groups: Research Recruits

  1. Terry, great post, particularly resonant for those of us who live in the Los Angeles Unified School District (75% Latino). At the Loh Down on Science, we are running a May “Win $1,000 for your Public School” contest (where schools with the greatest number of participants answering our scientific Question of the Day mostly often will win). Completely organically, the school who has really run with this is a Title One Highland Park elementary (94% Latino, almost half English learners) with fantastic player names like “Abuelito T-Rex” and “Mr. Super Narwhal.” Ideally, we would take these great, enthusiastic, funny urban kids and funnel them. . . TO YOU!
    Check it out at lohdownonscience.org and thanks for the great work–we should keep talking.

  2. Amen! The more engagement, the earlier on, the better! Most of my students do come from LAUSD (or one of the smaller LAUSD-esque districts in South LA). Cheers!

  3. Hi Terry. I just discovered your blog a week or so ago and am loving the archives. I have a somewhat relevant question here.

    I’m a (woman) PhD student in computer science at a smallish AAU-member R1 with a student body that’s pretty heavily white and affluent. This university, to its credit, is aware of issues of race, class, and educational inequity, and has a couple of programs to try to address them. One is a program that admits a yearly cohort of 20 seriously academically disadvantaged students who show motivation and strength of character, and gives them a year of intensive advising and support and a set of cohort-specific classes designed to catch them up to where they can do elite-university classes, plus one “mainstream” class per semester. If they make it through the first year, they become regular undergrads. On average 85% end up graduating.

    I TAed for this program in the spring (and am hoping to do so again next spring). One of the students, a black woman, was an absolute standout, definitely the strongest student in the class. Both the prof and I told her that she was talented, and she’s planning to take more comp sci classes, so that’s good. Another, a Latina woman, was a “most improved” type – started out struggling and finished strong – who (like most of the students) had never done anything in comp sci before the class and is now very excited about comp sci and practices programming in her free time.

    I’d love to get either or both of these students involved in research, and both are interested in continuing in the field. Right now, having just finished what was essentially a remedial year, they don’t know enough about comp sci that they’d be able to help much, but I’m concerned that their enthusiasm will dim if I wait until they’ve gone through the big mainstream comp sci intro sequence. Should I try to convince them to go to a conference? Suggest short projects? Offer to teach them how to read research papers? Any thoughts on this? I’m only finishing up my first year in the PhD program myself, so it’s not like I have a well-developed research program that I can try to bring them in on.

  4. This sounds awesome!

    I think whatever is best is based on what you know of them and what their needs are. What do you think it’d take to keep them hooked and successful through the intro sequence? You could ask them what sounds most exciting to them.

    Do you think it’s too early for you to take on a couple mentees? In Ecol. and Evol Bio., it’s pretty normal for early grad students to work with undergrads, starting out as technicians but depending on the students, they could evolve to do their own projects well. I imagine how people do projects and allocate tasks for projects in your field is really different, though.

    Of course, don’t take on any responsibilities that would distract you from your dissertation. Working with these students should be mutually beneficial – they should deliver for you as much as you deliver for them. If there is a project that you can get them on, that articulates somehow to what you’re doing, that would be great, as long you are reasonably confident that it’s something that would work out for them. If there was a discipline-specific conference they could attend, this would be really great for them, especially if they get to see/meet the people whose work has influenced what they’re working on now. I don’t think that’s a priority, since they’re now only just first-year students.

    It sounds like they’ll be graduating about the same time as you, right? So, if you have a good relationship with them, you could have a 4-year menteeship. They could finish up being super-savvy and sophisticated. Arrange to meet with them briefly every week or two weeks, have something to talk about, and if their schedules permit, get them more involved in what’s best. Over time, I imagine opportunities would emerge.

    I’m writing this like I’m sounding all authoritative, but I don’t know more than I’m talking about more than most people, I’m just loud with my opinions, to take with as much salt as you wish🙂

  5. Thanks for the reply!

    In computer science, the most common analogue I can think of to “technician” work is programming gruntwork, and they don’t have enough programming background yet to do that at the level needed. However, my lab does do some robotics work, and that might have potential. One of the standard critiques of intro computer science classes is that they are often very dry and abstract and don’t show students what one can DO with all this information, so in order to keep students’ interest up, I would want them to see how the material they are learning can be applied.

    There is actually an annual conference specifically for women in computing, as well as one for diversity in computing, both of which have a lot of student-specific (and even undergrad-specific) programming. It’s already too late for them to apply for travel funding for this year’s incarnation of the former (which is a shame, as it is an absolutely wonderful experience), but they might be able to go to the latter.

    I’d be delighted to mentor them in general if they want it, but there’s no formal mentorship program at my university.

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