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by Thomas K. Grose

Treat Them With Respect

How an engineering school expanded its ranks of minority graduate students.


“We create an atmosphere where students feel valued for what they are doing and where they don’t feel isolated.” —Douglass Henderson Back in 1999, when the number of minority engineering graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison fell, alarmingly, almost to zero, the College of Engineering found just the person to turn things around. Not only had Douglass Henderson earned his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the school in 1987; he would prove to be “the consummate mentor at all levels,” as a colleague put it recently.

Henderson, who had joined the college faculty in 1989 after working as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, readily accepted the new challenge. He hoped, in the process, to expand the number of minority engineering faculty. The upshot was the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS), developed in collaboration with the UW-Madison Graduate School and Rice University. A dozen years later, GERS boasts more than 50 students, 90 percent of them Ph.D. candidates, and has helped graduate 80, including 33 with doctorates. Eight of those students are now in faculty positions, seven are postdocs, six work at national labs, and the rest are in industry. In late January, GERS’s success drew a White House accolade when Henderson received one of 15 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. It was, Engineering Dean Paul Peercy told the college website, “fitting recognition” of Henderson’s time, energy, and dedication.

GERS relies on a peer-based support network that helps provide a welcoming atmosphere for minority graduate students. Explains Henderson: “We recruit top students and treat them with respect. We create an atmosphere where students feel valued for what they are doing and where they don’t feel isolated.”

In the program’s first year, it counted no more than a dozen minority students, most of them working toward a master’s degree. During the early days, Henderson and Kelly Burton, the program’s coordinator, handled most of the mentoring themselves because there were so few students. “He was always someone you could ask for help,” Ronke Mojoyinola Olabisi, a GERS student at the time, says of Henderson. Now a postdoc in bioengineering at Rice University, Olabisi says GERS “helped me learn the value of networking.” As their ranks grew beyond 20, “students started mentoring themselves. They watched out for one another,” Henderson says.

Key to GERS’s success, according to Henderson, has been a willingness among his colleagues to accept and address the problem of low participation of minorities. “GERS is a collaborative effort,” he says, and without support from faculty, deans, and students, “it wouldn’t work.” Wisconsin viewed GERS as a pilot program, and because it has done well, it has been expanded to six other schools and colleges across campus. Henderson chairs a governance committee that oversees all seven programs.

In 2001, Henderson was appointed as the COE’s assistant dean of diversity, and later became an associate dean. In 2004, he helped obtain National Science Foundation funding to set up a mentor-based program similar to GERS for undergraduates. The Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation, a consortium of 22 state colleges and universities, works to increase the number of minority students who receive bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects. “We want to help keep them in the field,” he says.

Henderson gave up his associate dean’s post in 2005 to direct GERS and resume research. His focus areas include magnetic and inertial fusion-energy reactor systems and the transmutation of nuclear waste. He’s a co-inventor of a patented method to speed up the placement of radioactive seeds in the treatment of prostate cancer. While a professor of engineering physics, he also has advised Ph.D. candidates in medical physics. This mentor won’t quit.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 



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