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STEM doctors: building a bridge for diverse PhDs

People from diverse

are significantly
in the field of

If it’s just the same people talking all the time, new ideas are hard to come by.

The more diversity that you’re able to bring into a field, the field will be improved.

U-M offers a program
that gives

a free graduate education
in mathematics

I’m from a small town just outside of southwest Detroit. It’s called River Rouge. I was working in the library there, and I came across a book on mathematics at the higher level. That sparked something in me.

I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and my interest in STEM started really in second grade.

And then they were challenged even more in middle school and high school, and I’ve just grown ever since.

David and Anthony
are both alumni of the
Marjorie Lee Browne
Scholars Program

which seeks to
address barriers
for diverse students
interested in

University of Michigan
There are some inequities in access to quality mentoring, and we know that mentoring is so important. There could be implicit biases, there could be a lack of a sense of feeling welcome and wanted. We offer a wide range of different types of support, including career development and professional development, we pair each student up with a faculty mentor, we’re connecting them with each other, so that they have a community of support, and we fully fund these students for two academic years and two summers, to allow students to focus on finding their passion within the field without all the worries of financial burden. It’s designed to prepare students to continue on to the PhD.

David and Anthony
are now both
on their way to PhDs

and becoming researchers,
professors, and mentors

for the next generation
of math scholars

The MLB program opened up a lot of doors for me that I don’t think would have been there otherwise.

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. I do research at the intersection of mathematics and computer science, in particular approximation algorithms.

I’m a fifth-year PhD student at the University of Chicago.

My dissertation is basically focused on mathematical models that help shed light on policy interventions to reduce crime and improve schools, and that was impacted heavily by my mentors that I met through the Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Program.

have participated
in the program
so far

and additional
programs at U-M
support students
across academic fields

Our program is just one of several Bridge to the PhD programs across campus. These types of programs have the potential to help make sure that diverse voices are in the mathematical sciences at the highest levels.

The program makes the world a better place because diversity makes the world a better place.

Video Produced by Jarrett Begick, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Morgan Sherburne, Michigan News

David McMillon was a middle schooler in Saginaw when he dreamed of space travel and outer space.

Anthony Della Pella was working in his high school library when he found a book on theoretical math—and his direction in his educational life.

The route to a doctorate degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for students like McMillon, who is Black, and Della Pella, a first-generation college graduate who attended a small public school in River Rouge just outside of Detroit, isn’t always clear cut.

“The lack of representation we’re seeing today in many of the science, technology, engineering and math fields I don’t think is due to a lack of interest or aptitude or talent,” said Trachette Jackson, professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan. “There are some well-documented and well-researched biases, inequalities and barriers that students are facing that impact their ability and desire to persist in STEM.”

Funded by a 2010 National Science Foundation grant called Building Bridges,  the University of Michigan's Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Program has admitted 38 students since 2011.

Funded by a 2010 NSF “Building Bridges” grant, the program has admitted 38 students since 2011.

But a program Jackson leads called the Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Program is trying to change that. The U-M Department of Mathematics reimagined its master’s degree program as a stepping stone to the doctorate by providing a space where students can hone their abilities in math courses. The program, named for the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at U-M in 1949, also pairs faculty mentors with the students as well as providing a network of peer mentors.

“Some of the barriers that appear most often in the literature are the lack of a culturally supportive environment either on campus or within their own departments,” Jackson said. “Students often want to feel a sense of belonging, but sometimes feel unwelcome when they enter STEM education. Sometimes students experience implicit biases from peers, instructors or research advisers, and I think those kinds of things take a toll.

“Finally and crucially, the program provides funding for graduate students, which allows them to test the waters of graduate school without falling into debt—a barrier for students who may not have a financial safety net.”

The two-year Marjorie Lee Browne program admits four fully funded students per year. Thirty-eight students have completed the program since 2011.

The program is funded by a 2010 National Science Foundation grant called Building Bridges, a program that highlights mentoring and community building to enhance diversity in STEM fields. The grant aims to increase the number of students from historically underrepresented communities, including students of color and students of disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Other programs across the university include those in applied physics; business; classical studies; ecology and evolutionary biology; engineering; and molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Institutional barriers

Even after Della Pella found that theoretical math book in high school, he didn’t envision himself attending college—nor did he visualize what could happen after earning a four-year degree.

Trachette Jackson, Director of the University of Michigan Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Program

Program director Trachette Jackson

Della Pella’s home, River Rouge, is a small town southwest of Detroit plagued by the loss of skilled labor jobs so many industrial towns across the country have experienced. According to the U.S. Census, per capita income between 2015 and 2019 hovered around $15,000 while median household income was around $25,000. Nearly half its residents are in poverty.

Della Pella’s father died when Anthony was very young. His mother, who later remarried, raised him on a secretary’s salary.

“Theoretical math is really what made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is my future, doing proofs and stuff,'” Della Pella said. “It was interesting to see this whole new way of thinking unfold. I was immediately hooked. But I actually thought I could do this partially on my own—I was considering getting a regular job after high school.”

Della Pella ultimately enrolled at UM-Dearborn after learning more about its math program. But part of his hesitation came from a lack of representation. He is the first in his family to have earned a four-year degree, and says he didn’t encounter professionals, aside from his professors at UM-Dearborn, who had attended graduate school or planned a career after a doctoral program.

Another challenge came from being at a school with limited resources.

“At a very early age, your experience is vastly different if you’re in one of these underrepresented categories—you know, maybe you’re at a private school or in a classroom with only 10 other kids as opposed to 30,” Della Pella said. “Then, it’s like this snowball effect. By the time you get to high school, maybe you’re not in the advanced classes, and maybe that’s because your school doesn’t offer them.”

Maybe, he said, it takes you twice as long to have your questions answered because there are twice as many kids in the class.

“I think this definitely starts before college, and that puts a barrier up even to get an undergraduate degree,” Della Pella said.

McMillon says he was able to become involved in community programs in Saginaw that encouraged STEM participation for Black students. His experience in these programs and in elementary and middle school helped him thrive at the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, a small public high school.

I was originally going to pursue pure mathematics at a very small school in Texas, but I feel like my life took a much better trajectory. In the most positive way possible, the Marjorie Lee Brown program opened up a lot of doors for me that I don’t think would have been there otherwise.

Anthony Della Pella, first-generation college student from River Rouge

His family also supported his early education. McMillon’s mother is a professor who focuses on improving African American literacy and his father is a pastor. But McMillon describes systemic racism that results in financial barriers to higher education, lack of college readiness because of underfunded public school systems, and lack of access to social and support networks.

For example, while college-aged Black students represent about 16% of the U.S. population, they earn just a fraction of the degrees in the STEM fields. Black students earn less than 10% of computer science degrees, 4% of engineering, mathematics or statistics degrees, 8% of chemistry and biology degrees, 3% of physics degrees and 2% of earth sciences degrees, according to a recent survey by the American Physical Society. The survey used data from the U.S. Census and the National Center for Education Statistics.

But, like many new college students, McMillon found his early years at U-M difficult. His early classes overlapped with his high school classes, but soon he was in uncharted territory in classes with students who may have had a wider variety of offerings at their high schools. In a 400-level class, McMillon ran into a professor who was, if not a mentor, at least a straight talker.

A library book on theoretical math first sparked University of Michigan PhD candidate Anthony Della Pella's interest.

A library book on theoretical math first sparked Della Pella’s interest

“I was doing really badly in his class, and he basically told me that if you just completely aced the final exam, you might be able to pass the class,” McMillon said. “The professor said, in all my years, people don’t do that. Between that and a couple personal things that happened, I needed to succeed for other people’s sake.

“Everything changed almost overnight. I ended up passing that class, and got my first 4.0 in the following semester.”

Bridge to the Ph.D.

Still, McMillon said his GPA likely wasn’t high enough to get into many doctoral math programs. The Marjorie Lee Browne program offered him the space to transition from the undergraduate program to a doctoral program.

“It’s a huge jump, going from the undergraduate math degree to a math Ph.D., especially if you didn’t have certain kinds of exposure,” McMillon said.

The program’s commitment to fully funding its students also provides a safer space for students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Its funding is a rarity for STEM master’s programs, and the scholars don’t need to go into debt to earn their master’s degrees. For in-state students, between summer and academic year stipends, health care and tuition, the annual value is nearly $60,000. For out of state residents, the annual value is about $83,000

Saginaw native and former Marjorie Lee Browne Program scholar David McMillon is now a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago

Saginaw native McMillon, now a PhD candidate at U-Chicago

“When people have funding, the effort they put into studying is more productive,” McMillon said. “You can afford to live in an apartment that gives you peace of mind. It’s less likely to have a pest control problem, you’re more likely to eat good food. All those things seem small, but are just really big when you’re trying to get through something that requires your full attention.”

For Della Pella, the strength of the program was also in the community it provided. He was roommates in an apartment with a person two years above his cohort, and when that person graduated, Della Pella offered that spot to a person two years below him.

“My apartment has been the unofficial Marjorie Lee Browne House for the past five years,” Della Pella said, laughing. “I think the community aspect is ingrained in the program and it’s super beneficial.”

The Marjorie Lee Browne program’s sense of community is intentional. Each student is paired with a faculty member with whom the student conducts research, in addition to completing coursework. The students share an office area with the doctoral students, facilitating networking with students already in the Ph.D. program.

“Beyond just a single faculty member, there’s a whole team of people they know is on their side,” Jackson said. “We also pair them with other peer mentors, other graduate students, to help them navigate through our department and through the coursework. We also have resources to help with supplemental instruction for advanced courses.”

The value of diverse voices

It’s these kinds of institutional barriers—barriers to education because of systemic racial and class discrimination—McMillon is hoping to address with his work, barriers that were laced through his upbringing in Saginaw.

“Systemic racism is a real thing, and it’s a very misunderstood thing. It’s a very long-term result of the fact that a set of policies in the United States has oppressed certain groups for at least seven-eighths of its history,” McMillon said. “Of course, that’s going to have long-term persistent effects in terms of economics and neighborhood disadvantage. That’s going to spill over into schools.”

McMillon said he saw how systemic racism affected the lives of his uncles, which sparked his desire to apply mathematical modeling to systemic racism, specifically the school-to-prison pipeline. He approached Carl Simon, a co-founder of the U-M Center for Complex Systems, as well as Jeff Morenoff, a research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research, and a professor of sociology and public policy. Morenoff’s research focuses on prison recidivism, among other interests. McMillon was able to pursue this idea as a doctoral student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

“My dissertation illustrates how to use systems thinking to fight against systemic disadvantage,” McMillon said. “For example, mapping out the school-to-prison pipeline as a complex system might reveal unintended consequences of well-intended potential policy solutions. This kind of mathematical modeling would also be helpful to clarify a taxonomy of what systemic racism is, its role in generating inequality, and how to combat it effectively.”

McMillon was recently hired as an assistant professor of economics at Emory University, and also has a visiting scholar position at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.

"I had mentors step into my life at just the right times," says program director Trachette Jackson, explaining why the University of Michigan'sa Marjorie Lee Browne Program is so critical

“I had mentors step into my life at just the right times,” says Jackson

Through the master’s program, Della Pella was introduced to another facet of math: one that intersects with computer science. As a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the U-M Department of Mathematics, Della Pella studies what are called approximation algorithms. These are problems so difficult that even a super computer can’t solve them. Instead, computer scientists have to approximate the solution—but to be sure their approximation is correct, the math has to work.

“The problem I’m currently working on is called maximal set packing,” Della Pella said. “We can think of it as trying to optimally match people up with a selection of their choices with that caveat that supply is limited and people may have overlapping preferences. A good example of this is the ‘marriage problem’—given a set of suitors each with a list of potential spouses, what is the best way to assign suitors to spouses such that the most people are happy.”

This isn’t what he envisioned his work to be as an undergraduate.

“I was originally going to pursue pure mathematics at a very small school in Texas, but I feel like my life took a much better trajectory,” Della Pella said. “In the most positive way possible, the MLB program opened up a lot of doors for me that I don’t think would have been there otherwise.”

Keeping in touch

Jackson follows the successes of her students—whether they stay on to enroll in a U-M doctoral program, pursue a doctorate elsewhere or choose to enter the workforce after earning their master’s degree.

“Even if some students go off to other programs, we keep in touch with them. We stay connected to them so that perhaps we can recruit them back later as postdocs or maybe even into faculty positions,” Jackson said. “We could actually use programs like this to change the face of the professoriate, and to make sure diverse faces and voices are in the mathematical sciences at the highest levels at research universities and as leaders in industry.”

In addition to the Marjorie Lee Browne program, Jackson also helps lead the Michigan STEM Academies Scholars Program, or M-STEM. M-STEM provides a support system for students with high ability and potential in science who also are from historically underrepresented communities. The academy’s hope is to stem the disastrous drop-off in STEM disciplines that groups historically underrepresented in science seem to experience, Jackson said.

“One of the reasons this type of work is so important to me is that I had mentors step into my life at just the right times. At every critical transition, it seems like the right person was there to help guide me and keep me on the path to a Ph.D. in mathematics and to a career as a mathematical scientist,” Jackson said. “Without that, I could have easily deviated off that path.”

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