Consortium announces program for astronomy, physics students

Stefanie Botelho's picture
Thursday, September 4, 2014

Southern California students who excel in astronomy and physics but are traditionally underrepresented in those fields will soon get a big boost toward earning doctorates at University of California research campuses, thanks to a new mentoring and scholarship program.

Cal-Bridge is a consortium of eight California State University schools, five UC campuses and eight community colleges working to increase the number of underrepresented, often lower-income students who complete bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in astronomy, physics or closely related fields. Hispanics and women are among the targeted students.

The National Science Foundation has awarded the group $600,000 for financial support and intensive joint mentoring of Cal-Bridge Scholars by community college, Cal State and UC faculty during the last two years of undergraduate education and first year of graduate school.

According to the Astronomy & Astrophysics Decadal Survey of the National Academy of Sciences, Hispanic, African American and Native American students account for 27 percent of the U.S. population but make up less than 4 percent of those earning physics and astronomy Ph.D.s.

Alexander Rudolph, a Cal Poly Pomona professor of physics and astronomy who has led the development of Cal-Bridge, said minorities are “so badly underrepresented in physics [that] it’s shameful.”

“We’re not doing a good enough job,” he said. “I think that, as a society, creating equal opportunity for all people is an important principle.”

Rudolph said he knows of many undergraduates at Cal Poly Pomona and other local CSUs who are capable of pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy but for whom barriers exist.

“These students often are not aware of the opportunities to continue their education, and the Cal-Bridge program is designed to provide the mentoring and financial resources they need to help them complete their dreams of becoming professional astronomers,” he said.

UC Irvine astrophysicist Tammy Smecker-Hane, who is co-leading Cal-Bridge, said that many faculty members know there are far too few deserving women, minorities and low-income students of every background earning advanced degrees in astronomy and physics, but they often feel powerless to do anything. And the phenomenon is not due to a lack of interest on the part of bright young minds, she added.

“This is a wonderful program designed to address the challenges,” Smecker-Hane said of Cal-Bridge. “In California, we have many students who come from families that cannot afford to have them attend a UC. It’s the best bang for your buck, but it’s a lot of bucks for many people. Even if students are brilliant, their families still have to pay for room and board, still have to pay for transportation. Cal-Bridge makes transitioning to graduate school possible financially.”

Equally valuable, she said, will be faculty mentoring and hands-on seminars on time management, laboratory research, how to apply to graduate schools and other skills.

Smecker-Hane vividly recalls a first-generation Hispanic American student she mentored a few summers ago. They were conducting research at UC Irvine’s observatory, and she noted how great it was to see the stars as part of your work. The teen responded that at home in the Bakersfield area, he saw the stars regularly at his overnight job, bringing dairy cattle in to be milked. He’d always wondered why the astral bodies are different colors.

The student learned the answer at UCI and showed tremendous promise in his work. He had thought he would join the Army to get a college education and was excited to hear about the wide range of scholarships available to him.

Cal-Bridge will focus on undergraduates at Cal State or community college campuses whose professors similarly recognize their potential.

“We’re counting on all of our CSU and community college counterparts to let us know about those bright kids who really stand out in these subjects,” Smecker-Hane said.

As a model, Cal-Bridge organizers looked to the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which links students from Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville, Tenn., with Ph.D. advisers and faculty at nearby Vanderbilt University.

Cal-Bridge will do the same, connecting CSU undergraduates with faculty advisers in graduate-level physics and astronomy programs. The students will receive mentoring and encouragement while being exposed to graduate research opportunities.

The first cohort will be selected this fall. For more information, visit http://physics.csupomona.edu/academic-programs/astronomy-program/research/calbridge-overview.

About Cal Poly Pomona: CPP is a polytechnic university within the California State University system that enrolls more than 19,000 undergraduate students. Located in the urban setting of eastern Los Angeles County, the campus provides access to higher education for students from traditionally underrepresented groups. In fall 2011, 69 percent of its students identified themselves as non-white; and Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and Caucasian students represented 33 percent, 25 percent and 24 percent of all those enrolled, respectively. In the 2010 U.S. News & World Report ranking of Western universities, CPP came in fourth among the best public institutions for campus diversity and was tied for eighth-best public institution in the region. As one of only two polytechnic universities in the state, Cal Poly Pomona is known for academic excellence, hands-on learning and affordable tuition. Education takes place both within and beyond the classroom, and students tackle real-world challenges, giving them an advantage as career-ready graduates.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education and is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Currently under the leadership of interim Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.