Retention of Black students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has recently come into the spotlight through advocacy stemming from the Black Lives Matter Movement. Alarming statistics demonstrate that while 29% of white undergraduates who declare a STEM major ultimately change majors, nearly half (40%) of Black students with a declared STEM major end up switching the focus of their studies (1). This retention disparity continues beyond undergraduate studies and into graduate programs and postdoctoral positions. To combat this concerning trend, trainees are making efforts to increase participation and retention of Black students in STEM majors, intending to diversify the STEM workforce.
One example of these efforts is the Black Undergraduate Mentorship Program (BUMP) at Columbia University. BUMP seeks to address institutional inaccessibility and low trainee retention. This trainee-led organization was founded in August 2020 and capitalizes on key features for its success.
BUMP works toward four main goals:
1. Supporting Black Columbia students interested in STEM throughout their undergraduate careers with academic and professional mentorship and financial assistance to ameliorate barriers that limit their likelihood of pursuing careers in research and medicine.
2. Improving the retention of Black students in STEM.
3. Increasing the number of Black undergraduate students participating in research at Columbia University.
4. Improving understanding of racial justice and equity in the STEM community at Columbia University by increasing representation and visibility of early-career Black scientists.
I am a graduate student in Biology at Columbia University, unaffiliated with BUMP. However, I have seen the success of this program through the opportunities my BUMP undergraduate mentees would never have had without the program. My goal is to encourage other trainees and faculty members to consider how they can support and continue trainee-led efforts to lift and retain Black individuals in STEM.
BUMP started with a group of passionate individuals, including representatives from the trainee to faculty level, who wanted to make a difference in the lives of Black students. Although there were barriers to the formation of this organization, BUMP leaders persisted and succeeded in building a program with a legacy of positive support that will continue for years to come.
I caught up with the BUMP leadership and asked them some questions about their organization that may point you toward support resources to learn more about BUMP and support mentorship programs for Black and underrepresented minorities.
What are the expectations of a BUMP mentor/mentee?
- BUMP Research Mentors assist their mentees with entering the field of research at Columbia and beyond (e.g., applying for research opportunities), while BUMP Career Mentors give career-related and personal mentorship.
- The BUMP mentees and mentors are provided with a code of conduct and a mentee/mentor training guide.
- The BUMP Mentors participate annually in a virtual mentorship training session with an emphasis on addressing cultural bias led by Dr. Dana Crawford, founder of CBRT (Crawford Bias Reduction Theory & Training).
- Many Research Mentors become at-the-bench mentors for their mentees when research interests align, and those mentees acquire positions in their labs after an introduction with the PI.
What are some measures of success, and how do you know BUMP is making an impact?
- The BUMP Biology program provides funding of up to $2,500 per student per semester to directly support mentees engaged in research at Columbia University. The BUMP program provided $3,000 per student to offset rising summer housing costs this year. Many students, mentors, and PIs reported that without this funding, some BUMP mentees would not have been able to secure funded research positions.
- BUMP biology sends out entrance and exit surveys to its mentees and mentors to inquire about their experience in the program. Many mentors and mentees have reported increased research positions, lab placements, and career-related opportunities following participation in our mentorship and funding programs.
What was the hardest challenge to overcome in founding BUMP?
- According to BUMP Biology leaders, the biggest challenge was in defining and clearly communicating a purpose for the organization. Many undergraduate research programs initially believed BUMP was an exclusionary program for Black undergraduates. Since then, BUMP has clarified its purpose: BUMP exists to increase the participation of Black undergraduates in research, not sequester it.
What was something that worked well for BUMP in the beginning?
- Collaboration across Columbia—from trainees to faculty to administrators, most folks surveyed seemed excited about the founding of BUMP and many offered initial resources, such as mentor training guides, advisory meetings, funding applications, etc.
What advice would you give to others looking to start up an organization like BUMP at their own institution?
- Find a team that is passionate and committed to increasing the participation of Black undergraduates in research and set on making a difference in students’ lives!
- Make connections with faculty, departments, and student organizations that do this work and can lend support throughout the founding and leading of a new organization.
- Most importantly, stay true to your vision & intentions, especially when they involve serving underrepresented causes. The systemic nature of institutionalized racism will try time and time again to pull you away from this vision, but stay focused and stick together.
A big challenge for mentorship organizations is funding. How is BUMP funded?
- In November 2020, the BUMP Biology program was granted the $5,000 Provost’s Seed Grant for Addressing Racism at Columbia University. In September 2021, BUMP was awarded the Graduate Equity Initiative Grant from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to expand the BUMP Biology program and begin funding undergraduate research. This grant of $85,000 per year will support us for three years.
- Other means of funding have resulted from spur-of-the-moment collaborations. For example, one coordinator, Raffi Cohn, is a Simons Fellow and has successfully orchestrated a significant donation from the Simons Foundation to support the housing costs of mentees doing research this summer. BUMP Biology has also received support from the Zuckerman Institute.
What advice would you give to other organizations for securing funding?
- Use and make every connection available. Two BUMP Biology faculty advisors frequently collaborate with the Provost’s Office, which has resulted in a lot of early and continued institutional support for BUMP Biology at Columbia University.
- Learn from and collaborate with other existing programs. Many freely offer online resources that initially helped BUMP Biology guide its mentors while they assisted their mentees in applying for grants, grad school, jobs, etc. One favorite is Cientifico Latino.
What types of challenges do you see in the current landscape for Black and minority scientists?
- There is a lack of uniquely tailored mentorship and resources for Black and minority students.
- Many students come from low-income families and cannot pursue available research opportunities due to a lack of affordable housing and other necessities.
Advocating for increasing diversity requires further work on behalf of trainees, faculty, and institutions to support Black individuals in STEM and all other underrepresented groups. Creating opportunities that allow for a more equitable landscape and encouraging participation at the undergraduate level are essential in reaching our shared goal of a diverse and inclusive scientific community.
This article was written with the support from BUMP at Columbia University, which is supported by the following individuals: Riley Jones IV, JD, and Neci Whye, MS (BAC Alumni); Raisa Alam, BA (RCSS scholar); Yasmin H. Ramadan, MPhil, and Beka Stecky, MPhil (graduate students); Raphael Cohn, PhD (Postdoctoral Research Scientist and Adjunct Lecturer); Robert E. Pollack, PhD (Professor of Biological Sciences and former Dean of Columbia College); and Harmen J. Bussemaker (Chair of Biological Sciences).Other means of funding were the result of existing connections. For example, one coordinator, Raffi Cohn, is a Simons Fellow and put BUMP in touch with the Simons Foundation. The Simons Foundation was pleased to support the housing costs of mentees doing research this summer. BUMP Biology has also received support from the Zuckerman Institute
- C. Riegle-Crumb, B. King, Y. Irizarry, Does STEM stand out? Examining racial/ethnic gaps in persistence across postsecondary fields. Educ. Res. 48, 133–144 (2019).
About the Author:
Eavan Donovan is a third-year graduate student studying mitochondrial transport in neurons at Columbia University.