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New Alliance to Bolster Underrepresented Students in Graduate Programs in the Physical Sciences

COLLEGE PARK, MD – Five leading scientific societies, collectively representing nearly 300,000 members, have joined together to form the Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN) to eliminate participation disparities in physical science disciplines by women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities (UREM). IGEN is a five year, $10 million program, named as one of five national Alliances funded through the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program. Participating IGEN organizations include the American Physical Society (APS), American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Astronomical Society, and Materials Research Society.

Women and UREM students make up much smaller percentages of graduate student populations compared to undergraduate populations in the physical sciences. There are a variety of reasons for the decline in participation as students move to graduate studies, but an effort by the APS over the past six years, the APS Bridge Program, has demonstrated effective ways to eliminate the participation gap between undergraduate and graduate students in physics.

The societies that have banded together to form this Alliance are seeking to apply the lessons and methods learned through the APS Bridge Program to a spectrum of physical science disciplines including chemistry, geosciences, astronomy, and material science/engineering, as well as physics.

“When we started the APS Bridge Program six years ago, we had no idea how much community support would materialize,” says Theodore Hodapp, IGEN project lead and director of Project Development at the APS. “Propagating this throughout physical science disciplines, and simultaneously confronting how admissions and retention issues are addressed in graduate education was an obvious next step to both expand the impact of this strategy and sustain it for the long run.”

Key components of IGEN effort involve: improving mentoring of undergraduates; modifying graduate admissions practices; and recruiting large numbers of UREM students who would otherwise not enter graduate studies. For those students who are already in graduate programs, IGEN seeks to improve retention by helping them acquire multiple mentors, ensuring that students get monitoring and intervention early in their academic careers, and focusing attention on graduate student life. In addition, the Network will work to enhance professional development of students to optimize their transitions into the professional world.

“The APS Bridge Program far exceeded its original goals, thanks to the leadership of Ted Hodapp and the support of physics departments across the country,” says APS Chief Executive Officer Kate Kirby. “Having seen that the program can be successful in physics, we are confident that the approach can yield similar results across the spectrum of STEM fields, as represented by our partners in IGEN.”

IGEN efforts will also address a growing crisis in graduate programs: the precipitous drop in recent years of foreign applicants to graduate STEM schools. Leading research universities reported 20-25 percent decreases this year alone. Expanding the applicant pool to include greater numbers of women and UREM students will, therefore, simultaneously ensure a robust population of qualified STEM graduate students while erasing long-entrenched disparities in the sciences.

“Partnership and support from the American Physical Society Bridge Program has been critical to the creation and success of The Ohio State University MS-to-PhD Physics Bridge Program,” says Jon Pelz, Ohio State University (OSU) graduate chair and co-director of the OSU Physics Bridge Program. “Since our bridge program started in 2013, the OSU Physics graduate program has implemented more inclusive admissions practices, experienced a five-fold increase in program diversity, and significantly enhanced mentoring and academic support programs for all graduate students.”

The IGEN strategy will address the desire of institutions to enhance graduate recruitment and diversity, while challenging existing cultures that explicitly or inadvertently perpetuate bias and inequity. Through the Alliance, the participating organizations plan to change the prevailing culture while maintaining the strengths that U.S. graduate programs bring to the scientific community.

About APS
The American Physical Society is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents over 56,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, DC.