HHMI awards Brandeis professor $1 million to draw minorities into science

Ambitious plan to boost minority representation in science and medicine

Waltham, MA Brandeis chemistry professor Irving Epstein has been awarded $1 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to spearhead a novel program aimed at drawing more minority students into science and medicine. The $1 million award one of 20 nationwide designed to energize scientific education at the undergraduate level--comes at a time when the dearth of minorities in the scientific workforce is becoming a national crisis, threatening the nation's continued success in science.

If Epstein's ambitious plan works at Brandeis, it could become a model for other research universities struggling to increase minority representation in science and medicine. In the past decade leading science organizations have reported that the continued success of science in the U.S. is threatened by the fact that while white males make up over two-thirds of the scientific workforce, they represent just over one-third of the population, a figure that is expected to shrink to one-fourth by 2050.

HHMI, one of the world's leading philanthropies, selected the 20 professors from a pool of 150 scientists from 100 invited research universities. "The scientists whom we have selected are true pioneers--not only in their research, but in their creative approaches and dedication to teaching," said Thomas R. Cech, HHMI president. Epstein was chosen for his bold plan to recruit and retain disadvantaged students in undergraduate science and medicine.

"Anyone who teaches an introductory science course at one of this country's elite universities is familiar with the sea of white faces he or she confronts, and the tendency of that ocean to whiten even more as the semester progresses and as one moves up the ladder of courses," Epstein says. "Vast sums have been spent by government agencies, private foundations and educational institutions in an attempt to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science and medicine, but the list of success stories is dauntingly small."

Epstein's strategy to succeed where others have failed is to design a program specifically for students in science and medicine that is based on the university's highly successful Posse Foundation program, now in its eighth year at Brandeis. The Posse Foundation helps "posses" of inner city students with academic and leadership potential to succeed at college by providing intensive pre-college training and long-lasting support once the students are on campus.

The Posse program brings ten full scholarship students to Brandeis every year, although only one or two go on in science or medicine. To increase the number of Posse students in science and medicine, Epstein proposes expanding the Posse's network of teacher contacts to reach more science students; retooling the selection criteria to better identify science aptitude among students; and strengthening pre-college academic skills training in science, even adding a two-week science "boot camp" just before college starts.

"I want to recreate the sense of curiosity and wonder that first lures students into science," says Epstein. Now, he'll get the financial support to develop a program that does just that.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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