Winthrop Helps Women, Minorities Succeed In STEM Careers

By Anna Douglas
The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Thanks to a Winthrop University program seeking to create more diversity in the science and math fields, a faculty member in charge of one of the school’s research labs was himself in the minority this summer.

Four students — all young women participating in Winthrop’s STEM Scholars program — joined chemistry professor Nick Grossoehme in the lab last week as part of an effort to help more minority students progress to Ph.D programs.

Grossoehme mentors several students in the Winthrop STEM Scholars program. Winthrop is the only school in South Carolina and one of about 10 nationwide with a diversity STEM Scholars initiative.

Olivia Manley, a senior from Rock Hill, says the program has helped keep her motivated. Selected STEM students are assigned a dedicated faculty mentor, attend mandatory study hall periods, and join unique research opportunities. The students also get critical help in applying to and choosing graduate schools.

They’re really getting a big head start.

Ian Deas, recent STEM Scholar graduate

In a male-dominated field such as chemistry, the support network is a boost, Manley said. She’s one of 17 undergraduate students in the program doing summer research this year at Winthrop. Incoming STEM freshmen are part of a new “bridge” program to help them transition to college.

Manley’s research includes cloning the nur protein and studying how it binds with various metals or DNA. Her project builds on the work of other Winthrop STEM Scholars over the past several years.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Those industries — which offer top-paying jobs after college — are growing rapidly worldwide. But, recent studies show women and some racial minorities aren’t well-represented in those fields.

Winthrop started its STEM Scholars program in 2011 to help change that. The program also serves South Carolina students from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to go to college.

The school is already nationally-recognized for graduating high numbers of minority and low-income students, and Winthrop has a higher than average female student enrollment — mostly because of its history as an all-women’s college.

Still, officials say they noticed a low rate of minority students graduating from Winthrop and moving on to STEM-related Ph.D programs.

Before 2005, no black Winthrop graduate had ever gone on to pursue a Ph.D in the sciences. Now, the university is poised to graduate over the next few years dozens of minority students who join Ph.D programs. Already, the young STEM Scholars program is making strides.

In May, the first nine STEM Scholars students graduated. Most of them are going to graduate school and several will eventually earn Ph.D’s. Two recent graduates already have jobs at InChem Corp. and a current student is interning this summer at Physician Choice Laboratory Services — both Rock Hill companies.

Program helps retain S.C. natives
Manley, whose mother is Brazilian, says she plans to obtain her Ph.D after earning her Winthrop degree. She hopes to be a professor and help continue to diversify the STEM pipeline by mentoring women and racial minority students who are interested in science careers.

Compared to top research schools nationwide, Grossoehme said, Winthrop is doing a good job in recruiting diverse professors and students to its STEM majors.

The STEM Scholars program is particularly important for Winthrop, given its demographics. Nearly half of the school’s average freshman class fall into one or more of these categories: first-generation students, minority background, or low-income.

Winthrop alumni move on to biology, chemistry, biomedical & pharmacy graduate school programs

Some scholarship money is available but most participating students have financial aid from other sources, such as Winthrop scholarships and state lottery support. The program also funds summer research fellowships with national grant money, giving students paid work and practical experience.

Three recent STEM Scholars graduates — Ian Deas, Jabari Robinson, and Brianna Murray — all say they may have pursued colleges outside of South Carolina if the Winthrop program didn’t exist.

Murray is headed to the University of Florida to study biomedical science. She hopes to study infectious diseases and improve her research techniques — areas she already has experience in through STEM Scholars. She’d like to work for the federal Centers for Disease Control or another government office focused on disease prevention.

The STEM program, she said, likely gave her a leg up recently in applying to Ph.D programs.

At competitive graduate school interviews, other students vying for the same spot rarely recognized the name Winthrop, Murray said. But, after she told them about her lab experience, learning one-on-one from professors, and traveling to conferences to present her work, Murray says people realized the STEM Scholars program had put her ahead of her peers.

To build on the program’s recent success, Winthrop started a “bridge” program to help high school seniors build quick experience in STEM fields.

This summer, Winthrop hosted 10 incoming freshmen in the bridge program. One of those participants, Tanisha Moore from Goose Creek, said her classroom and lab experience on campus has been like “a whole new world” compared to high school.

Winthrop pairs the incoming freshmen with older STEM Scholars peers for the summer. The freshmen attend classes, “shadow” older students and faculty in labs, and live on campus for free for the summer.

“They’re really getting a big head start,” Deas, a recent graduate, said.

For minority students and women going into STEM careers, he said, it’s important they have mentors and role models that look like them or have similar backgrounds. Winthrop’s STEM Scholars, Deas said, is a “trailblazer” type program to improve diversity in science, math and technology fields.

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