Supporting tomorrow’s role models: how the Leadership Alliance is encouraging students from underrepresented groups

  • If the balance of underrepresented groups in American academic institutions and the research workforce is to be effectively addressed, it is imperative that young people have role models. For over 25 years, The Leadership Alliance, a consortium of over 30 institutions, has provided support in the shape of encouragement, mentorship and training. This effort has directly resulted in the achievement of over 450 PhDs/MD-PhDs by Alliance alumni. So how are they tipping the scales and, in Executive Director Dr Medeva Ghee’s words, populating a ‘workforce reflective of the diverse fabric of our society’?

    Despite making up almost 40% of the United States population (a proportion which is on the rise), underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities receive a much smaller proportion of university degrees, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) (around 20% of undergraduate degrees and less than 8% of doctorates). In addition, women remain hugely underrepresented in STEM subjects across the world. Despite these challenges, students and researchers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds make massively valuable contributions; fresh perspectives and diverse experiences are a positive force for research and necessary for tackling challenging problems. Indeed, the United States needs a competitive research workforce that explicitly understands the complex societal needs of its diverse population if it is to remain a key player on the global, political and economic stage.

    Justin Holmer, Associate Professor of Mathematics (left), and Mamikon Gulian, undergraduate (right).

    To address this critical need, broader and more reliable pathways must be opened for students and researchers from underrepresented groups to enter and stay in the research workforce. A positive trend for historically underrepresented groups in academia in the United States is gaining momentum, with the number of degrees overall for this demographic slowly increasing over the last 20 years. More recently, academics have focused on what actions institutions can take to break down barriers preventing students from underrepresented groups from realising their potential. Critically, it is necessary to overturn stereotypes and prejudices, provide continuous social support and to address identity development. It is through these processes that organisations like The Leadership Alliance have been promoting inclusion and diversity in the STEM disciplines as well as the humanities and social sciences for over 25 years.

    Student Chloe Edmonds in the library.

    It is necessary to overturn stereotypes and prejudices, provide continuous social support and to address identity development Quote_brain

    Forward together
    The Leadership Alliance is a national consortium of more than 35 institutions (including prominent Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), PhD granting institutions and private industry) headed by Executive Director Dr Medeva Ghee, who maintains that the solution to underrepresentation is not fundamentally a difficult one: talent should be promoted for talent’s sake. What is needed is persistence and presence throughout a young person’s career, with support provided at critical transition points along the academic pathway. One Leadership Alliance alumna, Scharri Walker PhD, now Chair of the Biology Department at Tougaloo College, which is also her alma mater, noted that when she was most struggling with her PhD studies, the Alliance provided an internship and mentors that inspired her to continue: ‘they were the living, breathing examples of who I wanted to become’.

    David Stout, PhD, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow.

    Kevin Trinh, undergraduate at Bowdoin College, Earth Sciences lab.

    The Leadership Alliance has developed a number of programmes designed to bring together and motivate students. The Summer Research Early Identification Program (SR-EIP), established in 1993, brings undergraduate students from all (not just science) subject fields together for intense research experiences at some of the United States’ top institutions; 50% of these students have never participated in a summer research event before. Believing that the future of research relies upon connecting with young scholars as early as possible, the Alliance launched the First Year Research Experience (FYRE) programme for first year students from Alliance MSIs. To increase opportunities for students in the humanities and social sciences, the Leadership Alliance started the Leadership Alliance Mellon Initiative in 2009. In 1995, the first Leadership Alliance National Symposium (LANS) was held, bringing SR-EIP participants, Doctoral Scholars (SR-EIP alumni who have obtained a PhD or MD-PhD degree), faculty mentors and administrators together to celebrate the summer research of the undergraduates, who make either oral or poster presentations, many for the first time. The LANS also provides activities designed to improve postgraduate skills and inform career decisions, as well as showcasing work of emerging scholars and alumni who act as role models for the undergraduates. The Leadership Alliance’s most recent project is the SYnergistic Network to Enhance Research that Grows Innovation (SYNERGI). This multi-institutional network aims to extend the Alliance’s programme throughout the academic year, hosting regional conferences to advise faculty and teachers, workshops for students to prepare for academic and research development, and making online and in-person mentoring available at all times, with an especial focus on professional development for graduate students.

    The solution to misrepresentation is not fundamentally a difficult one: talent should be promoted for talent’s sake Quote_brain

    Perhaps the most significant part of the whole programme process is the fact that alumni become part of the mentorship cycle, consolidating the pathway for new students. Undergraduates are advised by graduates, graduates are mentored by doctoral candidates who become role models for the entire student body and who are supported themselves by the Alliance’s professional and academic guides. The Leadership Alliance works by the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.

    Valentina Alvarado, undergraduate at University of Puerto Rico, Biological Sciences lab.

    Degrees of success
    So what impact has the Alliance had? The Leadership Alliance celebrated more than 450 Doctoral Scholar alumni with PhD/MD-PhD degrees in 2017, of whom 60% are women in STEM. Its success is perhaps most attributable to its measured and consistent approach to inspiring students to pursue research careers and then connecting them with the means to do so. There has been a steadily increasing demand from students to take part in the programmes. In post-programme surveys, up to 75% of participants consistently say that the summer programme has strengthened their ‘commitment to pursue a research career’, suggesting that the activities are effective in building confidence and instilling enthusiasm. The most successful workshops at the LANS (as judged by the surveys) are those on the graduate school application process and graduate school experience, implying that career development is high on the list of priorities for the attendees and that the Alliance has succeeded in its endeavour to inspire. This is evidenced by 37% enrollment into PhD programmes. Doctoral Scholar alumni are diversifying the research workforce with 54% having already obtained faculty positions at colleges and universities across the US and poised to mentor the next generation. The Leadership Alliance membership institutions have also benefitted; they recruit nearly a quarter of the Doctoral Scholars for faculty positions. As important, alumni are populating leadership positions in industry, public and private sectors, fulfilling the Alliance’s promise of developing underrepresented students into outstanding leaders and role models.

    Micah Holness, undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana, Cognitive Science lab.

    The Leadership Alliance has long recognised the need for the ‘best and the brightest’ young people of the United States to reach their potential in research and academia, regardless of whether they form part of an ethnic, racial or gender minority. Despite the scale of the problem, the Leadership Alliance has identified a straightforward mission: give more undergraduates the opportunity to link their academic curiosity with research experience, provide support along the whole of their career pathway and let them become the role models who positively shape the lives of the generations behind them. These are changes, Dr Ghee suggests, that we can believe in and depend on.

  • Academia and research institutions have a reputation for being traditional and stuck in their ways. With regards to underrepresented groups do you think attitudes are changing/have changed?
    Attitudes are changing. Over the years, we have developed and sustained strategic partnerships between Minority-Serving Institutions and PhD granting institutions that have contributed to this change. This has resulted in a heightened awareness of institutional cultures and values that have provided opportunities for students from underrepresented groups to be exposed to competitive training environments and have resulted in the sharing of best practices among faculty and administrators from diverse institutional types that inform discussions on institutional transformation. These collaborative efforts speak to the power of the partnership.

    The Leadership Alliance has just celebrated its 25th birthday; where would you like to see the organisation at its 50th birthday?
    I would like to see the Leadership Alliance reach its goal of achieving equity and equality in academia and the broader research workforce, that is to say, the workforce is truly representative of the national population of underrepresented groups. There is also the capacity for the Alliance to expand its partnership and provide opportunities for students to conduct research internationally. I see the Alliance as a model for diversity on the global stage.

    The Leadership Alliance has clearly helped so many individuals, but is there a particular ‘success story’ you would like to briefly mention?
    I recently attended a job talk of a Leadership Alliance alumnus, who participated in the summer programme in 1999, interviewing for a faculty position at an Alliance institution. As I sat in the lecture, I was beaming with pride as I considered how the Alliance community cultivated and nurtured his talent throughout the years to produce a scholar who is transforming the academy by way of his scholarship and cultural background.

  • Research Objectives
    The Leadership Alliance is a partnership of institutions that aims to develop students from underrepresented groups into the leaders and role models of tomorrow.

    Leadership Alliance Member Institutions
    Members of the Leadership Alliance include thirty-five of the nation’s leading research and teaching academic institutions and one associate member from industry:
    • Brooklyn College
    • Brown University
    • Chaminade University of Honolulu
    • Claflin University
    • Columbia University
    • Cornell University
    • Dartmouth College
    • Dillard University
    • Harvard University
    • Heritage University
    • Howard University
    • Hunter College
    • Johns Hopkins University
    • Montana State University
    • Morehouse College
    • Morgan State University
    • New York University
    • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
    • Princeton University
    • Spelman College
    • Stanford University
    • Tougaloo College
    • Tufts University
    • University of Chicago
    • University of Colorado Boulder
    • University of Maryland, Baltimore County
    • University of Miami
    • University of Pennsylvania
    • University of Puerto Rico
    • University of South Florida
    • University of Virginia
    • Vanderbilt University
    • Washington University in St. Louis
    • Xavier University of Louisiana
    • Yale University
    • [Associate Member] Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research

    Funding for Alliance programmes is provided through institutional resources and membership fees, grant awards from federal agencies and private foundations, private gifts and conference fees. The Leadership Alliance programmes are currently supported by grants from the following:

    • The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
    • The National Institute of General Medical Sciences
    • The Titus Foundation
    • National Institutes of Health
    • National Science Foundation

    In the past, Alliance programmes have also been supported by:

    • The National Science Foundation
    • The Council for Undergraduate Research

    The Leadership Alliance collaborates with several organisations including:
    UNCF/ Mellon; Keystone Symposia; American Physiological Society; American Society of Microbiology

    Dr Medeva Ghee is the Executive Director of the Leadership Alliance and a faculty member in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University. As Director of the Leadership Alliance, she is responsible for leading the 36-member consortium dedicated to increasing the participation of underrepresented students in competitive graduate and doctoral training programmes and ultimately developing leaders and role models in academia, the public and private sectors.

    The Leadership Alliance
    133 Waterman St.
    RI 02912

    T: +1 401 863 1474

  • Supporting tomorrow’s role models: how the Leadership Alliance is encouraging students from underrepresented groups


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