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UWM awarded $1 million grant for more diversity in STEM

Posted at 6:36 PM, Dec 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-08 19:36:32-05

MILWAUKEE — In a field that is dominated by white men, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee is receiving a near $1 million award from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to change that.

“Our North Star is racial equity and inclusion,” Janel Hines, Senior Director of Grant Programs and Strategic Initiatives with The Greater Milwaukee Foundation said. “Creating opportunity for early-career faculty and doctoral students aligns perfectly with that.”

The grant, totaling $980,000, comes with a commitment to more diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; more commonly known as STEM. Over the next five years, UWM will hire a new faculty member, specifically in neurosciences.

“You can move the needle on this,” Scott Gronert, Dean of the College of Letters & Science at UWM said. “If you create the right welcoming environments, students will come to you. That’s part of this grant.”

According to Scientific America, African Americans and Hispanics make up just 11 percent of the Science and Engineering fields, despite representing 30 percent of America’s total workforce. Adding one faculty member obviously won’t make a dent in those statistics but the hope is, in the years to come, it will have a greater impact.

“It’s important we diversify all these fields and lift up those contributing,” Hines said. “So when we see them, we see ourselves and create opportunity and make it better for all of us.”

It’s something UWM is striving to change. Right now, the entire faculty is overwhelmingly white at 69.6 percent. African American and Hispanic faculty members account for less than 10 percent of the total faculty, at 4.1 percent and 4.8 percent respectively.

Improving on those numbers is crucial to making the progress The Greater Milwaukee Foundation hopes to see in equity and inclusion.

“I think people go into fields where they see people that either look like them or they are aware of,” Hines said. “A lot of this is brand new. I have to give UWM credit, they’re being very intentional. They’re taking a year to actually go out and do targeted recruitment to find people of color to fill these positions.”

Gronert acknowledges the importance of representation. By improving the diversity in faculty, the hope is they’ll attract a more diverse group of students as well. From there, having a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds will encourage more progress with more people at the table.

But it starts with the leader of the lab.

“We know that some of the most powerful people in a student’s life are instructors,” Gronert said. “Often, one instructor makes a difference.”

Gronert says when he finished graduate school in Chemistry, fewer than 10 percent of his classmates were women. He says now, it’s not uncommon to see more women than men in some labs.

This step, he says, can be the pivotal moment in the next generation saying the same thing about racial diversity in labs.

“Within racial diversity, it’s been slower,” Gronert said. “We’re trying to open some doors on that. When we recruit faculty and scientists who have the same resume over and over again, we get one set of really good ideas coming out. But, when we bring people who have gone through different experiences, they bring new ideas, new ways of thinking. It allows us to collaborate in ways we may not have in the past.”

Gronert says whoever they decide to hire will run a lab of four to five students every year for the next five years. It's an impact both Gronert and Hines hope will have an impact for generations to come.

“We want to attract very strong, doctoral students, working with faculty members in this area,” Gronert said. “Also, we want very strong doctoral students from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

"If we are able to diversify those individuals, faculty, doctors, doctoral students, and begin to build trust and recognize individuals that look like us are in these fields making differences, we can turn around a lot of historical issues we've had in our community,” Hines said. “It’s so simple. We have to start somewhere. This partnership with UWM is just that. It’s a start. We’re seeding something that will grow and develop and have a huge impact.”

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