I started this morning with tremendous news: a student of mine, who left my lab for a PhD program last year, let me know that his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was funded!
I had two other former students who put in applications. I downloaded the big list from NSF, and — alas — they did not have the same fortune. So, I was 33% happy.
I sorted the list to see if any other CSU Dominguez Hills students got an award. (NSF lists the baccalaureate institution of the awardees.) I emailed relevant campus people to share the new that our campus had a great year – two CSUDH students had success!
At this point, I have this list of all 2,000 GRFP award offers in an excel file. It’s hard to not fuss around a bit with these data.
As the largest state university network, I wondered how California State University students compared with other universities. Among all of the CSUs, there were 37 awards. Then I scrolled through my sorted list, and this was my reaction, which I shared on twitter:
Undergrads from all Cal State campuses had a combined total of 37 awards. Harvard undergrads had 37 awards.
According to Wikipedia, the undergraduate enrollment of the CSU campuses is 392,951. Whereas the undergraduate enrollment at Harvard is 6,700.
Considering that I spend so much of my professional life preparing my undergraduates for career in science, this makes me realize that I’m pushing up against a goddamn unmoveable object. The tremendous success I had this year — with one student getting a GRFP! — would simply be the notch on the belt of PIs who are working at institutions with so much more support at every level.
For new students at my university, what this number tells them is that the deck is stacked against them. This is, of course, obvious. These numbers don’t come as any surprise to me. The lack of surprise doesn’t mean that it should be accompanied by a lack of outrage.
I am sure that the NSF panels that decided the awardees did their job quite well, and I have no doubt that everybody who got an award deserves it. Getting one of these things is not easy, surely!
In the middle of my twitter angst, a colleague reminded me of this Joe Biden quote, that I shared with him while the faculty of his university were on strike:
Which leads me to the obvious thought:
While deserving people got graduate fellowships this year, many deserving people did not get fellowships.
Moreover, many deserving people didn’t apply for fellowships. Many deserving people didn’t even know that NSF has a graduate fellowship program. Many deserving people don’t have access to well-supported faculty members that can provide individualized research experiences.
If we want to diversify STEM, we’ve got to cultivate a broader foundation. If we want to diversity STEM, we can’t expect that the next generation of graduate students will come from the same elite undergraduate institutions.
NSF isn’t going to fix this problem by saying, “We just funded the best applicants and we can’t help it if most of them came from elite institutions!” I don’t know if that’s what they’re saying, but I can’t imagine how else they could rationalize that Harvard undergrads get the number of GRFPs as all of the California State University undergrads.
Graduate committees can’t just say “We would take prepared applicants if they existed!” They need to reach out to institutions like mine and build substantial bridges to genuinely recruit applicants — and build in support for the labs that are generating these applicants.
Undergraduate admissions committees can’t say “We’d have good students if only we could find them!” Yale clearly got caught in a rare moment of honesty with this magazine cover.
The United States has a grievous problem with diversity in STEM and we have a great need to broaden access to higher education to women and men from underrepresented groups. This movement cannot limit itself to recruiting the small proportion of ethnic minority students who attend elite institutions, but must truly broaden access to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
NSF Graduate Fellowships are definitely not a part of the solution. If the Graduate Research Fellowships aren’t a genuine part of the solution, than where the heck can we expect a solution to come from within the NSF?
Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.
I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.
Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.