african american college students in computer room

A new program at Northwestern University in Chicago is helping to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who go on to pursue careers in science education.

The Academy for Future Science Faculty is a coaching program for biomedical doctoral students. The academy consists of individual and group coaching, which does not require the coaches to have research oversight or evaluation roles with the students, but is instead based on social science theories. The coaches, many of whom are minorities themselves, are also trained in diversity issues.

Researchers with the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern conducted a study to see if students who spent one year in the program are influenced to pursue a career in academia. The study titled, “Coaching to Augment Mentoring to Achieve Faculty Diversity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” looked to see if career coaching had a positive effect on students.

The researchers looked at 121 latter-stage biomedical doctoral students from various institutions and collected data through questionnaires, meeting recordings and interviews. The researchers found that career coaching can supplement traditional one-to-one research mentoring, provide new role models for underrepresented minority students and be an avenue to openly talk about race and gender.

“For women and students from racial and ethnic minority groups in particular, the program provided new role models and novel opportunities to have difficult conversations about diversity, difference and discrimination in science,” said Simon Williams, an author of the study, in a statement.

The researchers recorded some of the participants’ responses and noted that many minority students felt they benefited from the program. One Black male student responded saying, “I just feel re-dedicated to my purpose I guess by being here . … I was strong, but I’m even stronger because I’m equipped with tools to get things done.”

An African-American woman said the academy gave her a platform to openly express herself. “There’s stuff that I say here that I would never say if I was ever at my lab,” she said.

Williams, an assistant professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said he hopes the findings will help boost diversity in academia.  

“The ultimate goal is for more of those in the coaching group – and hopefully more underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups – to end up in faculty positions,” Williams said in a statement. “In the field of science, a more diverse workforce allows more complex, varied and diverse questions to be asked and ultimately leads to breakthroughs in research.”