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Award-winning UMass Amherst mentor to lead new minority faculty support project

NIH funds a pilot mentoring network for minority faculty women in STEM at 20 institutions

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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IMAGE: UMass Amherst professor Sandra Petersen, recently honored at the White House for mentoring minority graduate students in the sciences, has received a $50,000 NIH grant to lead a pilot mentoring... view more

Credit: UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Sandra Petersen, recently honored at the White House for mentoring minority graduate students in the sciences, has received a $50,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lead a pilot mentoring network for minority faculty women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at 20 Northeast institutions plus the Five Colleges.

Petersen, who received President Barack Obama's Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in June, is executive director and a mentor for the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP), a 15-institution alliance focused on increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups who earn doctoral degrees in STEM subjects. She is also a professor in veterinary and animal sciences at UMass Amherst.

She says of the new NIH faculty mentoring project, "Being part of this is going to be really exciting. It's not complicated, but it is full of possibilities. It will set up a mutual mentoring network and be very much focused on problem-solving. We're hoping that it might turn out to be a national model and that it will meet the need of retaining minority women in STEM."

Over the next two years, Petersen, with research associate Barbara Pearson serving as project coordinator, and independent consultant Mary Moriarty, will help to form five groups of underrepresented minority faculty women doing research and teaching in biomedical and bio-behavioral disciplines at the 20 participating institutions. They will use a conference service for regular online discussions and problem-solving sessions.

As Petersen explains, minority women, particularly those in their early research and teaching careers, are "running into some of the same problems as when they were in graduate school; isolation, marginalization, crises in self-confidence and not having a network that helps them succeed."

They plan to use the book, "Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists," as one of the program's core texts, which Pearson introduced at UMass for similar groups.

Petersen says, "As women of color, these scientists often get left out of informal networks that help other groups. Almost every institution is trying to recruit them, but haven't made the necessary efforts to retain them, and there is not a lot in the literature to show us what works."

Petersen adds, "They need more opportunities for networking and supporting each other. I haven't been so excited about a project like this for a long time. Even though it's small, it seems like something that might actually be helpful and make a difference."

NIH says it initiated the National Research Mentoring Network because it recognizes "a unique and compelling need to promote diversity in the NIH-funded biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences (collectively termed biomedical) research workforce. The NIH expects efforts that diversify the workforce to lead to the recruitment of the most talented researchers from all groups, improve the quality of the training environment, balance and broaden the perspective in setting research priorities, improve the ability to recruit subjects from diverse backgrounds into clinical research protocols, and improve the nation's capacity to address and eliminate health disparities."

The 20 participating institutions are the 15 NEAGEP members, plus Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Hampshire colleges and Rensselaer Polytechnic University in Troy, N.Y. NEAGEP members in addition to UMass Amherst are Boston College, MIT, Pennsylvania State University, the universities of Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire, Rutgers University, Bennett College in North Carolina, Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York, Jackson State University in Mississippi, Lincoln University in Oxford, Penn. and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

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