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Advancing diversity in engineering research labs

NSF grant to fund study of factors that help underrepresented students

Cheryl Gomillion’s tissue engineering research lab at the University of Georgia easily stands out.

“Your group just looks different,” one colleague told her.

Her small team in the Riverbend Research Lab South building consists of eight students – three graduate and five undergrads from engineering as well as life sciences. Five are female. Two are African American. One is from Nigeria and another from China.

“My group is more diverse than some, a product, I believe, that has been based on intentional and unintentional recruitment of underrepresented students on my part,” said Gomillion, an assistant professor in UGA’s School of Chemicals, Materials and Biomedical Engineering. “Seeing the possibility for achieving student diversity in my own research lab sparked several questions for me related to why other groups, and larger programs, may struggle to accomplish the same.”

The National Science Foundation has awarded Gomillion a two-year, $342,000 grant to explore ways in which graduate engineering research labs have successfully developed diversity. The ultimate goal is to identify what factors help underrepresented students thrive in these environments so those lessons can be applied to creating a sustainable graduate engineering education model for diverse students.

“I’m not a formally trained engineering education researcher, but I’ve always had an interest in topics in that field. This grant will help establish a path for growing this area of my research,” Gomillion said. “Also, one of the benefits of UGA’s engineering program is that we have the Engineering Education Transformations Institute, which is especially supportive of faculty and will work with us to become engaged in education research.”

Diversifying the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce has been difficult, despite programs and strategies aimed at addressing the shortage of women and minorities in STEM fields. Increasing underrepresented populations in graduate engineering programs remains a challenge. According to an American Society of Engineering Education assessment, doctoral degrees awarded in 2017 to black/African American and Hispanic students were just 3.8 percent and 6.3, respectively.

However, there are “microcultures” among engineering lab research teams where traditionally underrepresented students are present in great numbers and thriving. These successful microcultures may exist in highly diverse research labs or minority-serving institutions with high student completion rates. Microculture is a term used to describe the social norms, behaviors and everyday practices that become shared between team members in a laboratory environment.

“Each lab group is flavored differently depending on the advisor, students and other factors,” Gomillion said. “Are there certain things about the group dynamic that can contribute to student success and in the case of a highly diverse group, does the variety of backgrounds play a role? If we can look at successful groups, are there lessons learned that we can apply to larger populations?”

The first part of a three-phase plan involves Gomillion learning essential qualitative research methods and analytical techniques from mentors, including EETI Directors Joachim Walther and Nicola Sochacka. Then, she will apply those techniques by conducting a pilot research study investigating exemplar cases of microcultures in engineering research labs where underrepresented students thrive. The final phase is to initiate future STEM research aimed at broadening participation of underrepresented students in graduate engineering programs.

“There are gaps in the past research in this area of determining factors for student success and cultural dynamics,” Gomillion said. “We’ll interview students, alumni and faculty to hear experiences in their own words and try to identify themes that might emerge and find lessons that can be applied more broadly or holistically with others.”

The experiences of her own lab students could potentially reveal best practices that can be adapted to recruitment, admissions and retention of underrepresented students – including gender and ethnic minorities, low-income students and first-generation college students.

Damion Dixon has been in Gomillion’s tissue engineering lab for nearly two years. A 24-year-old African American from Savannah with a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Southern University, Dixon wanted a lab group that could broaden his learning experience when he came to UGA for his doctorate in mechanics and materials engineering.

“When I came in, there was a good vibe, a social chemistry, where the students interacted a lot with each other,” said Dixon, who is now the senior member of Gomillion’s lab. “You’re in here more than you’re in class. I like having people you can confide in and keep you uplifted.” 

By Scott Micheax | Photo: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA (taken in 2016)

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