Houston universities team up to boost minorities in academia

NSF grant to Rice, UH, Texas Southern will help future science, engineering professors

Style Magazine Newswire | 8/13/2019, 9:30 a.m.
Rice University, Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston (UH) have won a multimillion-dollar grant to help increase ...
Rice University, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston have won a National Science Foundation grant to help underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers in engineering and science. The principal investigators are, from left: Reginald DesRoches and Canek Phillips of Rice, Pradeep Sharma and Hanadi Rifai of the University of Houston, Yvette Pearson of Rice and Wei Wayne Li of Texas Southern University. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

HOUSTON – (Aug. 13, 2019) – Rice University, Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston (UH) have won a multimillion-dollar grant to help increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers in engineering and science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $2.66 million over five years is part of its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, which seeks to "advance knowledge about models to improve pathways to the professoriate and success" for historically underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

The award is specifically for those in data engineering and data science disciplines. It will fund a project to be called AGEP STRIDES (Strengthening Training and Resources for Inclusion in Data Engineering and Sciences).

"Even in this day and age, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in engineering faculty is nowhere near what it can be," said Hanadi Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean of research and facilities at UH's Cullen College of Engineering­­.

"I think you will see the picture changing," Rifai said. ­­­­­"You have to excite people and show them the opportunities available, but then also prepare them to take advantage of those opportunities."

The universities expect AGEP will enhance tech companies' bottom lines as newly minted academics develop the diverse workforce of the future.

"We can’t overstate how important and timely this project is," said the grant's principal investigator, Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice's Brown School of Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering. "We are at a unique time when the economy is dominated by companies in the computational and data science domain. At the same time, we know these industries remain among the least diverse."

DesRoches noted Rice's development of The Ion innovation and technology district gives Houston, one of the nation's most diverse cities, a unique conduit toward diversification in burgeoning high-tech fields. "Although the grant is focused on getting more underrepresented minority Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellows into academia, this will have a direct impact on diverse undergraduates pursuing degrees in the data engineering and data science fields," he said.

"This project award arrives at the right time, with the nation addressing a STEM achievement gap between underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM undergraduate and graduate students, and with our universities and colleges struggling to recruit, retain and promote URM STEM faculty," said Wei Wayne Li, a professor of computer science and director of the TSU-based NSF Center for Research on Complex Networks.

"We know diversity matters, so my collaborators and I are focusing on how to make academic ranks in engineering more diverse," said Pradeep Sharma, the M.D. Anderson professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department at UH. "The questions we are trying to answer are: How can we best support people from underrepresented groups to enter and thrive in academia? What tools and resources can we provide for them to make the most of their own potential and the opportunities out there?"