Chan Zuckerberg Initiative launches effort to increase diversity of STEM students

In an effort to increase the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in science, engineering and mathematics, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is partnering with UC Berkeley and UC San Diego to expand a successful program that has operated for 30 years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

black student working in lab

Alexis Waller, a Meyerhoff Scholars Program affiliate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, working with postdoc Pengfei Ding. UC Berkeley and UC San Diego hope to replicate the success of that program. (Photo Courtesy of Meyerhoff Scholars Program, UMBC)

At a press conference today at UCSD, CZI co-founder and co-CEO Priscilla Chan announced a gift of $6.9 million over five years to bring the mentoring program, called the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, from UMBC, where it originated in 1988, to two UC campuses that graduate high numbers of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students each year.

The Meyerhoff program is recognized as one of the most effective models in the country to help inspire, recruit and retain underrepresented students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields. Program participants have earned 300 Ph.D. degrees, 130 M.D. degrees, 54 M.D./Ph.D. degrees and 253 master’s degrees. Two graduates of the Meyerhoff program, Robyn Jasper and Rockford “Rocky” Sison, are currently pursuing graduate studies at Berkeley in plant and microbial biology and mathematics, respectively.

The UMBC graduates more African-American students who go on to earn dual M.D.-Ph.D. degrees than any other college in the United States — a credit to the Meyerhoff program model. The current U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, is a former Meyerhoff scholar.

“The key to accelerating discoveries in science or the next tech breakthrough will be dependent on our ability to bring fresh perspectives to STEM fields,” said Priscilla Chan, co-founder and co-CEO of CZI. “California’s openness to new ways of thinking is what has made this state an innovation engine for the world, and the University of California has played a crucial role in that as one of the largest and most diverse public research universities in the country. With these new grants, we hope to help bring even more diversity of perspective and experience to our state — and to Silicon Valley.”

Companies in Silicon Valley hire more Berkeley alumni from Berkeley than any other school in the country, and more of Berkeley’s undergraduates go on to obtain doctorates in STEM fields than any other U.S. university.

“The STEM Scholars Program at Berkeley goes hand in hand with our commitment to a more diverse and inclusive culture across our campus, and thanks to the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we are charting a clear path forward in the STEM fields,” said Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “This program will enable Berkeley’s continued success as an engine of social mobility and a source for the next generation of top talent to such industries as Silicon Valley.”

Cultivating students passionate about science

Tech companies in California and nationwide have been sharply criticized for their low numbers of women and minority employees. African-American and Latinx workers continue to be underrepresented in STEM jobs nationally, representing about 9% and 7%, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center. In addition, the median earnings of African-American and Latinx workers in STEM occupations are less than those of white and Asian workers.

Priscilla Chan

Priscilla Chan at UC San Diego, where she announced a new initiative to increase the number of STEM undergraduate and graduate students there and at UC Berkeley. Berkeley graduate student Robyn Jasper is at right, while fellow Berkeley doctoral student Rocky Sison is visible over the podium. Both are former Meyerhoff scholars from UMBC. (Photo courtesy of UCSD)

While Berkeley’s current freshman engineering class is 30% female, the new program will help improve those numbers and the numbers for minorities, and thus the pipeline into the tech industry. The new initiative at Berkeley — to be known as the STEM Scholars Program — is projected to serve in the range of 100 to 120 students in the next five years, with the goal of cultivating a cohort of extremely talented students who are passionate about science and pursuing a STEM career.

“This is about producing a fraternity and sorority of super-talented underrepresented kids who can go into this program and stay in the STEM field,” said Michael Botchan, dean of biological sciences for Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science.

The CZI grants allow the San Diego and Berkeley campuses to apply many of the models successfully used at UMBC, including outreach to high achieving underrepresented high school students, research experiences, team learning, peer counseling, advising, preparation in the summer before matriculation and engagement with students’ families.

“I am excited to see a program like Meyerhoff come to the UC system, because it was a catalyst for my future,” said Jasper, who is in her second year of graduate studies in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and also works with Girls Who Code. “It was instrumental in how I view my potential to succeed, and I think it will inform the community on what is necessary to change the pipeline and bring more underrepresented minorities to these universities where they belong.”

Berkeley grad student Rocky Sison

Rocky Sison, a UC Berkeley grad student in mathematics, talking about his experience as a Meyerhoff scholar at UMBC. Priscilla Chan of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is at right. (Photo courtesy of UCSD)

Throughout the grants’ five-year duration, San Diego and Berkeley will provide rigorous quantitative and qualitative data to measure success, including specific metrics of retention, graduation and professional outcomes, and also by continuing dialogue with students. By creating a more welcoming environment for underrepresented groups, this program aims to improve education in STEM fields for all. A long-term goal of these grants is to foster lasting improvement on the two UC campuses in ways that can be shared with other UCs and interested colleges.

“Over three decades, UMBC has developed highly effective strategies to support student success and increase diversity in STEM fields,” said Michael Summers, Robert E. Meyerhoff Chair for Excellence in Research and Mentoring and Distinguished University Professor at UMBC. “It is truly thrilling to think about the national and global impact the Meyerhoff Scholars Program will have through partnerships like this. UC Berkeley and UC San Diego are among the top U.S. producers of undergraduates who go on to earn STEM graduate degrees, and by working together, we can help shape the future of our national Ph.D. pipeline, with inclusive excellence as a core shared value of our work.”