Published: Aug. 23, 2022 By

The National Science Foundation has awarded $1 million for an LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate program at CU Boulder. The program will provide support for tuition, insurance and a stipend for two years to 12 incoming PhD candidates who are underrepresented minority students. It will also create a close-knit cohort model with faculty and staff support and valuable research connections and workshops. 

Terri Wright, program director and the assistant dean for access, inclusion, and student programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, said the goal of the initiative is to improve the PhD experience and retention during the first two years when students are most likely to struggle and leave for other opportunities. 

"It’s important that our fellows form a strong community, develop a solid foundation in their coursework, and receive financial support and mentoring, both peer-to-peer and faculty-to-student mentoring. Having this cohort during the first two years of their graduate studies will help them be successful academically, supporting their persistence to a PhD," Wright said.

The CU Boulder Bridge to the Doctorate program will be available for PhD candidates entering in fall 2023 in computer science, chemical and biological engineering, or physics.

Students applying must be participating in an NSF Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program at their undergraduate institution, or have participated in such a program in the past.

Ken Anderson, chair of the Department of Computer Science, said the program will help CU Boulder build on the important work started by the IDEA Plan and actively advance its goal to cultivate success for a diverse graduate student body with new financial resources and programming.

"The Bridge to the Doctorate program provides funds to recruit students who benefited from being actively involved in an LSAMP program during their undergraduate years to now set themselves up for success with the expanded knowledge, skills, and opportunities that come from earning a PhD,” Anderson said. 

LSAMP programs are designed to increase the participation of Black, Hispanic/Latin/x, Native American, Alaska Native, and Pacific Islander community members in STEM higher education initiatives by preparing them for doctoral study or professional careers. 

Though the number of PhDs earned by these historically underrepresented student populations has increased since the NSF began tracking numbers in the 1970s, they still account for a very small proportion of total PhDs earned. In 1975, their numbers combined accounted for less than 2% of doctorates. In 2020, that number was still only 9.9%.

For many students from these communities, there are compounding factors that prevent them from achieving PhDs, Wright said. Many had to work and study during the pursuit of undergraduate education, limiting their ability to take internships and research assistantships. There are also often institutional pressures, particularly in predominantly white institutions that can deplete student confidence and lead to isolation or frustration.  

To combat these structural issues, a goal of the bridge program is to ensure students have a community with similar lived experiences to nurture and support their strengths and to provide allies in the staff and faculty who are committed to the students' success so that they can focus on their educational goals at a tier-1 research institution. 

Robert Davis, dean emeritus of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, professor and Tisone endowed chair in chemical and biological engineering, said each student will select a faculty research advisor based on the student’s interests. The advisor will provide mentorship and guidance to the student, including regular one-to-one and small-group meetings. Each student will also be paired with a more senior student in the advisor’s group, who will help train the student in laboratory or computational techniques specific to their project. 

"My hope is for the fellows to have an exceptional experience, both academically and socially, to come to CU Boulder and identify with the work that's being done here,” Wright said. “I want our fellows to bring their unique perspectives to the community and hone their skills, making valuable contributions to their programs of study and to the overall community." 

NSF Bridge to the Doctorate grants are awarded through a competitive process. CU Boulder’s application was developed through the concerted effort of a cross-disciplinary team.

Along with Wright, Anderson and Davis, the grant proposal was supported by Sonia DeLuca Fernández, senior vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion; Noah Finkelstein, vice chair and professor of physics and Ernie Chavez, director of the CO-WY LSAMP Alliance. 

 PhD conferral statistics sourced from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.