A workshop on communicating science, a virtual reality game based on the television show “Survivor,” and a series of research presentations were all part of a summer institute focused on supporting doctoral students in the STEM fields.

The institute was the first major initiative of the National Science Foundation’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) grant at the Virginia Tech School of Education, whose principal goal to actualize a more diverse professoriate in STEM fields. The project provides ongoing professional development and career preparation activities to African Americans and other historically underrepresented STEM doctoral candidates who are instructors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Two of the project’s primary goals are to support participants’ completion of their doctoral degrees and successfully transition into early career faculty positions.

The alliance’s HBCU Instructors Bridge to Academia Project at the Virginia Tech School of Education, better known as HI Bridge to Academia, held its first institute for doctoral students earlier this year. The purpose of this institute was to provide doctoral fellows with professional development opportunities linked to graduation persistence. The institute marked the midpoint of the alliance’s first cohort year. Virginia Tech faculty mentors also participated in a daylong professional development session with Natasha Michel, a higher education and faculty development consultant.

Professional development is one of the core components of Virginia Tech’s AGEP program. In designing the institute for doctoral students, the Virginia Tech research team created an experience that was holistic, included significant participant engagement, centered opportunities to tap into a community of practice, and meaningfully connected the program activities to the participants’ lives and careers.

The institute began with a welcome session in which alliance research team members, fellows, faculty mentors, and advisory board members reflected on their graduate education successes and challenges. After a virtual gallery walk highlighting the HI Bridge program components as well as our fellows’ progress, participants enjoyed an evening achievement ceremony featuring the Honorable Clifford Hayes as keynote speaker. As a delegate in the Virginia General Assembly, Hayes has been a strong advocate for improved access to STEM education and serves on Virginia’s Joint Commission on Technology and Science.

The following two days, participants enjoyed workshops, presentations, and learning activities, including a workshop on networking and collaboration, a workshop on faculty curriculum vitae, applications, and interviewing, as well as a faculty panel discussion on navigating the first year as underrepresented faculty, and a practitioner discussion on maintaining health, well-being, and work-life balance.

Karen DePauw, former dean of the Virginia Tech Graduate School, led a Deans’ Roundtable to discuss removing barriers to graduate education. Along with graduate deans from Howard University, Virginia Union University, Jackson State University, and the University of Georgia, DePauw explored ways to support underrepresented doctoral students who are in the final years of their degree programs. During the institute, doctoral fellows enjoyed teambuilding and support activities such as a virtual reality game, “Survivor: HI Bridge Edition”; storytelling; and learning a community song.

“The fellows’ research presentations were one of the highlights of the summer institute in that they reflected their growth as scholars since the program began,” said Principal Investigator Brenda Brand, a professor of science education and elementary education/literacy in the School of Education and the principal investigator of Virginia Tech’s AGEP grant.

The fellows all presented their doctoral research to the audience and answered questions about their research agendas and trajectories. Lewis Lott, a Delaware State University student, presented “Carboxylate Surface Functionalized Nanodiamonds with Chitosan (CNDs-CS) for Drug Delivery,” for example, while Melissa Weir, a University of Northern Colorado student, presented “Academic Nurse Educator Attitudes Regarding Their Role Educating Ethnically and Racially Diverse Nursing Students: A Focused Ethnography.” The participants noted that the opportunity to showcase their work was both exciting and fulfilling.

To prepare for the symposium, participants attended a communicating science workshop presented by Patricia Raun, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science.

Doctoral fellows found value in the summer institute experience.

“I really appreciated the variety in the speakers as well as having an opportunity to be in breakout rooms to ask them questions,” said Erica Criss, a doctoral student in the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “I took a lot of notes, and the virtual gallery was amazing!”

Doctoral student Melissa Weir agreed. “This summer it was nice to get plugged back in,” she said. “The main thing I needed from this fellowship was the accountability, and the institute helped me achieve that.”

“The AGEP project at Virginia Tech is helping us understand what it takes to ensure faculty from underrepresented populations experience success in their doctoral programs and their transition to early career faculty positions,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the Virginia Tech School of Education. “This will not only inform STEM fields, but also our own doctoral, faculty development, and mentoring programs in the school. Dr. Brand and her team of researchers are helping us reimagine the future of STEM education and STEM fields.”

Written by Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies in the Virginia Tech Department of Political Science, and a co-principal investigator of the AGEP Alliance Project at the Virginia Tech School of Education.