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New NSF grant to build understanding of the experiences of STEM faculty from marginalized groups

December 21, 2023

What contributes to a diverse STEM faculty in higher education? Research has shown that despite efforts to diversify academic STEM faculty, women, persons from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and people from other socially marginalized groups remain a numerical minority in many disciplines. 
In the early phases of a faculty member’s career, structural and cultural barriers can impact their hiring, retention, and advancement. A research team from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, and Delta State University suggests that the absence of an inclusive climate in academic STEM provides a barrier to participation of marginalized scholars.   
The team was recently awarded an NSF Collaborative Research grant for the projectBroadening participation of marginalized scholars in STEM: The longitudinal influence of early-career climate experiences on professional pathways.” Leading the grant are researchers Kendra Spence Cheruvelil, dean of MSU’s Lyman Briggs College and professor of limnology in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, and Isis H. Settles from the University of Michigan, professor of psychology, Afroamerican and African studies and women and gender studies, and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  
This interdisciplinary research team includes co-principal investigators Erin Cech (University of Michigan), Kevin Elliott (MSU), Leslie D. Gonzales (University of Arizona, formerly MSU), Guizhen Ma (Delta State University) and Georgina M. Montgomery (MSU). The research team takes a long-term view of the academic career and applies the “Person-Environment Fit Theory” from organizational psychology to examine an academic’s experiences of climate. This approach characterizes one’s career experiences in three contexts: research team, department, and academic field. 
The 2.5 million-dollar, five-year grant builds on the work of a former collaborative, multi-institutional grant: CLIMBS-UP (2020-2023). With CLIMBS-UP, the researchers surveyed over 3,500 early-career faculty from the fields of biology, economics, physics, and psychology to study the relationships between their career outcomes and their own perceptions of the climate in their research teams, departments, and academic fields. This survey was run in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new grant will include a follow-up survey for all former survey participants and in-depth interviews with a subset of faculty to better understand how their climate and pandemic experiences relate to their career choices and outcomes over time.    
collage of the researchers behind this new NSF grant, along with the logos of the universities where they workResearcher Leslie Gonzales writes, “Combining large-scale survey work and in-depth interviews, our team will be poised to systematically investigate how academics—broadly defined to include graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty members—experience distinct but overlapping and all-important professional contexts (e.g., the department, the discipline). More specifically, the qualitative component of the work will allow us to generate nuanced pictures of academics’ career experiences in ways that attend to the intersection of biographic and professional identity markers, including race, gender, sexuality, disciplinary location, appointment type, and rank in relation to academics’ career trajectories. This rich and textured data set will allow us to form insights about diversity and inclusion in the academy following the COVID-19 disruption.” 
Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are at the heart of the Lyman Briggs College mission, vision, and 2032 Strategic Plan. Lyman Briggs faculty have expertise in many different academic fields and are encouraged to work together to integrate across disciplinary boundaries. This environment fostered creative collaborations between Cheruvelil, Elliott, and Montgomery, leading to this grant work and other scholarship.
MSU Principal Investigator Cheruvelil writes, “Our research to understand the ways that climate and the pandemic, which disproportionately negatively affected scholars in marginalized groups, affect career pathways and outcomes is both of academic and practical interest to me because our work can inform policies, practices, and cultures in higher education.” 
The potential outcome of changing STEM fields to be more inclusive and more representative of society as a whole was compelling to the researchers. U of M Principal Investigator Settles states it best: “The ultimate goal of our project is to transform academic science so that early career scholars, especially those from marginalized groups, see it as a place where they can be supported and valued and reach their full potential.”