A National Science Foundation report in 2015 found that only 40 percent of African Americans pursuing doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) were completing their degrees.

“Improving diversity within higher education is essential to the recruitment and education of a vibrant, inclusive STEM workforce,” said Brenda Brand, an associate professor of science education in the Virginia Tech School of Education. “Yet to increase the numbers of historically underrepresented faculty in STEM, we must focus not just on recruitment but on retention as well.”

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the School of Education a $1.9 million grant to help bridge that gap.

Brand serves as principal investigator of the initiative, which is administered by the foundation’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a network of universities dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented minorities obtaining graduate degrees in STEM.

“As the nation grapples with relatively low numbers of underrepresented STEM faculty members,” Brand said, “universities and colleges struggle to recruit, retain, and promote underrepresented STEM faculty who can serve as role models and academic leaders for underrepresented students.”

The principal goal of the Virginia Tech initiative is to create a professional development and career preparation model for two major groups of people: African American and other historically underrepresented STEM doctoral candidates who have completed their doctoral coursework but not yet their dissertations, and instructors at historically black colleges and universities.

The Virginia Tech initiative — officially the “NSF AGEP Alliance Model for Advancing the Faculty Careers of Underrepresented Minority STEM Doctoral Candidates Who Are Instructors at Historically Black Universities,” but better known as HI Bridge to Academia — will aim to help members of both groups complete their doctoral degrees and advance into early-career faculty positions.

HI Bridge to Academia has two principal pathways. The first, the HI Bridge to Academia Fellowship Program, is a two-year commitment with dual components. The research component includes research seminars, biweekly faculty mentoring meetings, monthly check-ins with regional directors, and a summer research symposium to be held at Virginia Tech. The early-career faculty component includes professional development seminars designed to prepare participants for success in tenure-track faculty positions.

The second principal pathway, the HI Bridge to Academia Faculty Mentoring Program, is designed to enhance the skillsets and practices of faculty mentors more broadly by engaging them in sessions focused on effectively mentoring historically underrepresented doctoral students and early-career faculty members.

The initiative will also aim to produce research findings that can be applied nationally, Brand noted.

“Our research will focus on identifying and illuminating potential sociocultural and professional barriers to doctoral degree completion by examining institutional environments, student development and support relationships, and retention practices,” she said.

“We expect our research to provide useful insights into factors that influence the socialization of historically underrepresented doctoral students as they traverse the academy,” added Brandy Faulkner, a co-principal investigator of the initiative and the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. “In addition to supporting doctoral candidates in completing their STEM degrees, our program has a second-year professional development component that provides them with growth opportunities designed to strengthen their trajectories as early-career faculty members.”

Also on the AGEP alliance team at Virginia Tech is David Kniola, an assistant professor of practice in educational research and evaluation in the School of Education. Kniola also serves as the initiative’s senior research faculty member, as well as the research advisor to HI Bridge to Academia participants.

Additional HI Bridge to Academia co-principal investigators are scattered across four states: Jana Talley, an associate professor at Jackson State University in Mississippi; Grace Ndip, an associate professor at Virginia State University; Willie Rockward, chair of the Department of Physics at Morgan State University in Maryland; and Jeremy Ernst, associate chancellor for research at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and a former member of the Virginia Tech School of Education faculty.

“The work of this alliance team is both timely and consequential,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education. “It will accomplish more than the essential mission of transforming participants’ lives. It will also provide a valuable roadmap nationally for better understanding and addressing the challenges facing underrepresented populations as they enter STEM fields.”