Columbia Engineering Is Partnering with Tuskegee University to Promote Diversity in STEM

Sloan Foundation grant will support the initiative’s initial focus on creating education and research opportunities in the fields of biomedical engineering and chemical engineering

Dec 17 2021 | By Holly Evarts
Columbia Engineering faculty visit Tuskegee University

Columbia Engineering faculty visit Tuskegee University

Over the past year, Columbia Engineering faculty have been working with colleagues at Tuskegee University (TU) on an informal basis. The collaborations developed from a longtime friendship between J. Thomas “Tommy” Vaughan Jr., professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Columbia, and Heshmat Aglan, TU’s interim provost and former dean of engineering. As university DEI efforts expanded in 2020, Vaughan and Aglan hosted a meeting for students and faculty from both universities. At this meeting, Chris Boyce, ​​assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia, and Mandar Kathe, assistant professor of chemical engineering at TU, met and began to collaborate on research and DEI projects. Since then, the group has held a monthly meeting between TU and Columbia Engineering faculty, which has generated multiple research collaborations, including applications for external grants.

Now, thanks to an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant, the Engineering School is officially partnering with Tuskegee to create education and research opportunities that promote diversity in STEM at the graduate school and faculty levels. The $250,000 grant supports an initiative of Columbia Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering, in partnership with Tuskegee’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, to facilitate faculty research collaborations and provide research and training opportunities for Tuskegee students, strengthening their pathway to PhD engineering studies at Columbia University.

“We seek to increase diversity in STEM, particularly at the PhD and faculty levels,” said Boyce. “Our goal is to address the issues that occur primarily from the start of undergraduate education to the start of PhD education by solidifying and building upon our developing partnership with Tuskegee. And we expect that, as we refine and improve this partnership, we will be able to broaden its outreach and inspire other institutions to do the same. We are very excited about the initiative’s potential for systemic change.”

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Tuskegee University, have long been a beacon for educating underrepresented-minority (URM) students in STEM. Through sustained efforts, Tuskegee and others continue to identify and educate talented URM engineers and scientists. Many HBCUs, however, do not have undergraduate programs in a full range of STEM programs, such as biomedical engineering. In addition, HBCUs often do not have as large a PhD student population in STEM as R1 universities, a designation for very high research activity. For example, the Tuskegee Chemical Engineering Department has a research-based master’s program, but not a PhD program.

We are creating a more sustainable pathway toward PhD STEM education for underrepresented minority students, while helping to diversify the research community at Columbia.

Chris Boyce
​​assistant professor of chemical engineering

Over the last 135 years, Tuskegee has been one of the country’s most outstanding institutions of higher learning with a focus on developing human resources primarily within the African-American community. Tuskegee is the only HBCU with four engineering programs (Aerospace Science, Chemical, Electrical, and Mechanical) that are nationally accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), the major accrediting body for the engineering sciences. With the Sloan funding, the group aims to ultimately form a biomedical engineering minor within Tuskegee’s College of Engineering.

Beyond drawing on the expertise of Columbia’s biomedical engineering department to establish a biomedical engineering program at Tuskegee, the group plans to create a seed grants program for research collaborations between faculty at Tuskegee and Columbia, including funding a co-advised Master’s student at Tuskegee and encouraging that student to apply to a PhD program at Columbia. In addition, the group expects to create a new position specifically for a Tuskegee alumnus to join Columbia’s Bridge-to-the-PhD program. They will also create and run design challenges for both Tuskegee and Columbia undergraduates, and will dedicate positions in the Columbia-Amazon Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program for Tuskegee students, who will also conduct co-advised research during the academic year at Tuskegee.

Along with Vaughan, who is also a principal investigator (PI) at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and director of the Columbia Magnetic Resonance (MR) Research Center, Algan, Boyce, and Kathe, the Tuskegee/Columbia organizing group includes Maria Calhoun, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tuskegee, Aaron Kyle, senior lecturer of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering and Kyle Mandli of APAM.

The project is receiving institutional support from Tuskegee and Columbia in the form of reduced overhead charges as well as zero-tuition courses. The work is also receiving support from the Amazon-SURE program in covering the stipends and housing costs for Tuskegee students in their summer research at Columbia Engineering.

Boyce added, “Based on the expanding partnership we’ve developed in the past year, we believe that broadening the collaboration in all the ways we’re planning will build upon the strengths and address the issues at both universities. We are creating a more sustainable pathway toward PhD STEM education for underrepresented minority students, while helping to diversify the research community at Columbia.”

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