$1M HHMI Grant to Help Brandeis Build on Its STEM Successes

BENCH DEPTH: Biologist Melissa Kosinski-Collins (second from right) with Science Posse students.
Mike Lovett
BENCH DEPTH: Biologist Melissa Kosinski-Collins (second from right) with Science Posse students.

Brandeis has been awarded a $1 million five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to increase institutional capacity for fostering the success of students from all backgrounds in science.

The funding propels the university into the front ranks of educational institutions working to diversify the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The grant will provide resources and support to undergraduates, particularly students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students and military veterans.

Over time, many of the HHMI-funded initiatives will be available to all Brandeis undergraduates in an effort to boost the overall retention of students in STEM fields. Nationally, only 48 percent of undergraduates who start out studying a STEM field graduate with a STEM major.

“We are among the handful of schools that are taking important and innovative steps to enhance student success in STEM,” says Irving Epstein, the Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry, who wrote the winning grant proposal along with Kim Godsoe, associate provost for academic affairs, and Melissa Kosinski-Collins, professor of biology.

The grant is part of HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence initiative. Brandeis is one of 33 institutions of higher education to receive an Inclusive Excellence award this year.

“This initiative is about encouraging colleges and universities to change the way they do business — to become institutions with a significantly greater capacity for inclusion of all students, especially those from nontraditional backgrounds,” says Erin O’Shea, HHMI’s president.

Brandeis will use some of the funding to build on the success of its Science Posse program, started 12 years ago to attract and retain talented, underrepresented students in college-level science. Science Posse originated at Brandeis as a joint effort by the university; HHMI; and the New York-based Posse Foundation, created by Deborah Bial ’87. Hailed as a success, the program has been adopted by 11 other colleges.

“If you look at some of the most esteemed professionals — professors, doctors and researchers — they come from families who are overwhelmingly white, college-educated and middle- or upper-middle-class,” says Godsoe. “We are missing a whole segment of the population with a huge amount of talent.”

In addition, some of the HHMI grant will support the Galaxy program, an initiative in which 60 students, many from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, will be mentored by faculty, postdocs and graduate students, and offered additional instruction.

Students in the Galaxy program will divide into small clusters and participate in additional weekly classes linked to the introductory biology, chemistry or physics lecture courses they take. “This approach is intended to counter the anonymity of big lecture classes,” says Kosinski-Collins. “We’re taking that large, anonymous experience and making it more tangible, so they feel more engaged.”

Epstein and his colleagues believe the grant will help change the “sink or swim” culture in science education that favors students who have benefited from excellent high-school preparation. Some students who arrive less academically prepared or want to pursue nonacademic careers in the health sciences or industry can become discouraged and switch majors.

To counter this trend, the Galaxy program and a newly designed faculty workshop/discussion group will help faculty give students the support they need to reach their potential, even when they come from different academic starting points and learn at different rates.

Students will discuss the challenges they face in STEM, such as imposter syndrome, where they might doubt their talent and worry about being exposed as frauds. They will read about stereotype threat, where the assumptions of others can negatively affect their self-identity and performance. “It’s talking about it, making students aware that this can happen,” says Kosinski-Collins. “There’s no reason these students should feel that they’re not as smart and capable as everyone around them.”

Dan Perlman, professor of biology and environmental studies, and Derron Wallace, assistant professor of education and sociology, will also be involved in administering the grant.