New initiative encourages more diversity in STEM fields

Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies have announced the launch of the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative devoted to addressing historic underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and preparing a new, more diverse generation of researchers and scholars to assume leadership roles in tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.

The $150 million effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies will be endowed to create additional pathways for students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to pursue and receive PhDs in STEM fields.

“STEM fields play an increasingly important role in developing innovative solutions to a wide range of pressing challenges, yet STEM PhD programs don’t reflect the broad diversity of our country. So creating more equitable opportunities for more students is critical to our country’s future in so many ways,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and 108th mayor of New York City.

“By supporting JHU’s world-class STEM program, and by partnering with historically Black and minority-serving schools that have a strong record of educating students who go on to get STEM PhDs, we will help increase diversity in industries that will pioneer advances we have not yet even imagined, and shape the lives of generations to come.”

Studies have shown that STEM PhD programs do not reflect the broad diversity of talent and perspectives that other fields of study have cultivated, nor have they effectively recruited scholars matriculating from diverse undergraduate institutions. National Science Foundation data show that in 2019, there were more than 30 fields of science – including multiple disciplines in biology, chemistry, physics, math, and engineering – in which fewer than five PhDs were awarded to Black or Latinx students in the United States. While Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and Latinx people 18 percent, in 2019 they received just three and seven percent, respectively, of new engineering, math, physical sciences and computer science PhDs, according to the NSF.

The deficits in STEM diversity extend beyond Black and Latinx students; the percentage of science or engineering PhDs awarded to Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students has been stagnant at about a third of their share of the population for a decade.

“Scientific discovery that continually advances human flourishing and creates a healthier, safer world must be fueled by the expertise and insights of people of differing perspectives and ideas. Yet, decades of data and our own experience show the persistent truth that PhD programs, particularly in the STEM fields, do not reflect the full spectrum of available talent,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. “We cannot hope to produce the best science nor ensure that our faculties are truly representative until we increase the diversity of our PhD programs. Through the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, Johns Hopkins now has the opportunity and imperative to invest ambitiously, think ambitiously, and act ambitiously to begin correcting the longstanding inequity in PhD education.”

Although Johns Hopkins has increased the diversity of its undergraduate student body in recent years, historically under-represented minorities make up 11 percent of students in Johns Hopkins’ STEM PhD programs, a slightly higher rate than the average of 9 percent  its private research university peers report to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System but still far from representative of the overall population. Through the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, the university will dramatically scale up its efforts to diversify its STEM PhD programs and graduate more diverse PhD recipients to help bring sorely needed new voices and backgrounds to STEM industries and workforces.

The PhD students recruited through this program will be known as the Vivien Thomas Scholars, in recognition of one of Johns Hopkins’ most celebrated figures. Thomas was a Black surgical laboratory supervisor who is best known for his work to develop a cardiac surgery technique to treat “blue baby syndrome” (Blalock-Taussig shunt) at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s – a life-saving advance for which he did not receive credit for decades. Thomas, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, an HBCU in Nashville, but was forced to drop out due to the Great Depression and was never able to enroll in medical school. Despite his lack of an advanced degree, Thomas spent his career as a pioneering research and surgical assistant. In 1976 Thomas was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins University and named instructor of surgery in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The initiative will provide permanent funding to add a sustained cohort of approximately 100 new slots for diverse PhD students in JHU’s more than 30 STEM programs, representing disciplines ranging from neuroscience to physics to engineering. The initiative will engage in active outreach to applicants matriculating from HBCU and MSI institutions – encompassing more than 450 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. More than a third of Black STEM PhD holders earned their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs, reflecting those institutions’ generations of leadership in supporting the talent of outstanding and diverse scholars. This gift will support up to six years of stipend, health insurance and travel funding, along with significant mentorship, research and professional development opportunities. Up to six years of tuition for each PhD student will be supported by the PhD programs, departments, or schools. Initial pathway programs will begin this summer, with the first cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars entering Johns Hopkins PhD programs in the fall of 2022.

More than $15 million in funding will be dedicated to strengthening pathways for talented undergraduates to pursue STEM PhDs at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. Those efforts will begin with direct funding of programs at an initial cohort of partner HBCUs and MSIs with an exceptional record of accomplishment in graduating students who advance to STEM PhD careers. Each Inaugural Partner will receive flexible funding, to be used at the institution’s strategic direction to continue to attract and prepare their undergraduate students for STEM graduate training and STEM careers. Inaugural partners will be critical in advising the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative as a whole, engaging additional MSIs, and identifying the optimal programming for scholars participating in the initiative.

The Inaugural Partner institutions are Howard University; Morehouse College; Morgan State University; Prairie View A&M; Spelman College; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“Spelman is eager to develop the partnership with Johns Hopkins, one of the world’s great research universities,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, PhD, president of Spelman College. “The goals of the Vivien Thomas Scholars initiative align completely with our own and that is to continue to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who earn PhDs in STEM fields. With Spelman graduating more black women who obtain doctorates in STEM than any other college or university in the country, per the National Science Foundation, we believe that our faculty have a great deal to contribute in terms of recognizing the assets that our students bring and, with effective pedagogical strategies, building effectively on their strengths.”

“I commend Mayor Bloomberg and President Daniels for making this commitment to diversity in STEM graduate education,” said Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We know that transformational philanthropy can produce more STEM researchers from underrepresented groups. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program, established with a visionary gift from Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff in 1988, has resulted in UMBC becoming the top U.S. producer of African American graduates going on to earn MD/PhD degrees, including STEM professionals and researchers around the country.”

The funding will also support the establishment of new and expanded undergraduate summer and post-baccalaureate experiences for talented, diverse undergraduates to build connections with Johns Hopkins faculty and students, and provide exposure to the university’s research and scholarship, building on the success of existing pathways programs at Hopkins. All summer pathways programming will be fully funded, including housing and stipends for participants.

“Over the past decade, and through the enduring support of Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropy, Johns Hopkins has been intentional about building one of the most diverse and academically talented undergraduate student bodies in the country,” Daniels said. “We must take a similarly expansive approach to moving the needle in PhD education. We need such diverse leadership in all spheres of endeavor, and especially in our universities where bold ideas take shape and are brought to bear on the world’s great challenges.  We are truly grateful for Mike Bloomberg’s vision and commitment in pushing us to new heights.”